Following US Vice-President Joseph Biden’s hard talk with Pakistan’s civilian and military leaders on January 13, both countries seem headed into another phase of tension and mutual apprehensions because of conflicting recipes for Afghanistan and Pakistan’s border regions. While Biden reassured his hosts against “foreign boots on the ground”, Pakistani leaders cautioned against any “new great game” in neighbouring Afghanistan.
Biden also promised that US troops would not “impose a war on Pakistan in the name of expanding counterterrorism efforts beyond Afghanistan” but reiterated Washington’s desire for a full-fledged military offensive in North Waziristan without any further delay. Pakistani leaders, on the other hand, advised “limited surgical strikes” instead of a full-fledged military operation in North Waziristan, as the Pakistan Army is overstretched because of its ongoing operations in almost all tribal regions.
Biden also highlighted the “real threat” that al Qaeda and the Taliban hiding in Fata pose to Pakistan and the US, and characterised a close US-Pakistan relationship as in “the vital self-interest of the United States of America”. Joe Biden’s talks in Islamabad coincided with Chairman US Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee Admiral Mike Mullen’s renewed pronouncements in Washington on Pakistan as ‘a terror haven’.
The entire discourse helps in understanding the mutually conflicting US-Pakistan position; for Washington, success in Afghanistan hinges on destroying the “al Qaeda safe havens in Pakistan”. And Biden made it clear in Kabul on January 12, when he spoke of the need for more pressure on the Taliban from Pakistan’s side of the border and warned of the “many hard days that lie ahead”. Pakistan disputes this and says fixing Afghanistan requires Afghan ingredients, without foreign dictation.
Pakistani senior ministry of foreign affairs and military officials insist that the Americans hold the key to any approach that the Afghans, led by President Hamid Karzai, might want to take on the issue of reconciliation because the road to success in Afghanistan lies through Afghanistan itself. The Afghan reconciliation process hinges largely on Afghan stakeholders and the allies will have to refocus on where the problem lies.
Pakistani leaders reportedly conveyed to the Americans, as well as the Afghan delegation, led by former president Burhanuddin Rabbani, that the need to fix Afghanistan through Afghan means is dictated by the experience of the past decade. Merely holding some sanctuaries in North Waziristan as the prime source of instability in Afghanistan probably doesn’t make sense. The problem today, for both Afghanistan and Pakistan, is much bigger. The spawning of al Qaeda-inspired Islamist groups and their unity in the anti-American narrative they share is the real problem, and this is not restricted to North Waziristan only. We, as Pakistanis, must worry about the fallout of any intensified counter-insurgency campaign in southern Afghanistan or Waziristan. Pakistani officials worry that if they launch a similar all-out campaign in North Waziristan in particular, it would spell more trouble for the country as a whole.
This worrying backdrop represents a big challenge on how to take the bull by the horn. In this context, we might ask: Where does the Afghan peace/reconciliation process stand right now? It probably stands in no-man’s land from where many roads lead out, but the US seems to hold the ticket to all those roads. The current and most preferred of the options is an all-out assault on Afghan insurgents to cripple them.
But will the insurgency in Afghanistan fade away if ‘terrorist havens in North Waziristan’ are eliminated? No one is sure, probably not until Nato and the Pakistan Army can apply equal and simultaneous pressure through the conventional hammer-and-anvil strategy. Without a simultaneous move on both sides, a military offensive will most likely not yield any lasting victory. Neither is the military option alone enough to take and neutralise ideologically networked militants operating on both sides of the Durand Line. Joe Biden probably also left the Pakistani leaders with a thought for a dispassionate cost-benefit analysis of its Cold War strategy that relied on non-state actors for too long and, in the process, created religiously-driven monsters for us all.
Published in The Express Tribune, January 14th, 2011.