Afghan drawdown: Implications for Pakistan

US and Pakistan differ on which Taliban groups are critical to peace, making future of the peace process uncertain.

Simbal Khan June 24, 2011

US President Barack Obama on June 22 announced his plan to withdraw all of the 33,000 ‘surge’ troops in Afghanistan by September 2012. The plan seeking the drawdown of 10,000 troops by the end of this year and the remainder by September 2012 fell short of the slower withdrawal timetable demanded by US military commanders, which would have allowed two combat seasons, with the bulk of US forces still available.

Prior to his address, President Obama called President Asif Ali Zardari to intimate him of the details of the plan. One look at the text of his speech reveals the ominous way in which Pakistan figures in this plan for the next stage of this decade-long war. The plan marks a clear shift from a troop-heavy counter-insurgency strategy, which included large-scale military operations in the southern Taliban strongholds of Helmand and Kandahar. His speech frames the already apparent shift to a counter-terror framework, as the earlier objective of degrading the strength of the Taliban is replaced by the goal of ensuring that there is “no safe haven from which al Qaeda or its affiliates can launch attacks against our homeland, or our allies”.

This renewed focus on al Qaeda and its affiliates is likely to shift the momentum of war to eastern Afghanistan. Coming in the wake of downward spiraling Pakistan-US relations in the aftermath of the Osama bin Laden incident, this tactical shift in the US war plan in Afghanistan has some serious implications for Pakistan. Firstly, as Pakistan moves to limit US access to its military infrastructure — Shamsi Air Base etc. — and to reduce its intelligence and security presence inside Pakistan, the US is likely to enhance its troop presence and bases on the eastern Pakistan-Afghanistan border. We are likely to see an intensification of drone strikes in North and South Waziristan, and even an expansion of the strike coverage to Kurram and Mohmand agencies.

Secondly, this eastward shift in the battlefront also has implications for the fragile and reversible peace process. This essentially means that the operating strategy of talking and fighting at the same time is likely to continue. And the US will still continue to pick and choose those Taliban groups that it considers reconcilable. The peace process, for at least another year to come, is not likely to be as inclusive, as hoped by Pakistan. The al Qaeda affiliate that the US is likely to fight on the eastern Pakistan-Afghanistan border is the Haqqani network, which Pakistan hoped would be allowed to join the peace process.

During his recent visit to Islamabad, Frank Ruggiero, the US deputy special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, was asked by Pakistani officials to explain the ‘deliberate ambiguity’ and lack of clarity which shrouds the peace process. The preliminary contacts between US State Department officials and Mullah Omar’s deputy, Tayyab Agha, have also taken place outside the designated core group — Afghanistan, Pakistan and the US — constituted to undertake this very task. It is not clear how long the US will be able to keep Pakistan on board the peace process, as it moves to intensify its military campaign against those Taliban groups which Pakistan considers central to any lasting peace settlement.

Lastly, this counter-terror endeavour also ties in neatly with efforts to explain to an increasingly sceptical American public and a reluctant Congress, the necessity of signing a strategic partnership agreement with Afghanistan. In the president’s words, the US intends to: “Build a partnership with the Afghan people that endures — one that ensures that we will be able to continue targeting terrorists and supporting a sovereign Afghan government.” Such an agreement would oversee the basing of a residual US military presence of approximately 25,000 troops beyond 2014 and commit to long-term economic support to the Afghan state.

Published in The Express Tribune, June 25th, 2011.


Simbval Khan | 11 years ago | Reply Thank you for all your comments! To Naeem: the 700 word restriction does not allow for in depth analysis. will be writing another piece soon to out line the policy options for Pakistan in the next year at least. This Blackwell idea of division of Afghanistan along regional/ethnic lines has had more attention than it deserves. US Afghan strategy is dynamic and will change in response to changes on the ground as the US reduces its foot print. The next year is election year for Pres. Obama. His policy will be to show some modest tangibles like the promised troop draw down, some talks with some Taliban and and firm action against Al Qaeda. Things will change more radically come 2013-2014.
Naeem | 11 years ago | Reply This article is very cursorily; we need to take a deeper look at the situation; since it is extremely fraught for Pakistan.A holistic picture is likely to have the following contours: The fact that the US , like the erstwhile USSR, failed to win the war in Hindu Kush, does not mean that the former is going to totally upstake and scoot from the area. The US need, not only to control the enery riches of the Caspian littoral-Central Asia, but equally important ; to deny the same to its competitors like China. The bottomline is that if the US wants to retain its status as asuper-power - albeit a diminished one, then it cannot afford to leave this region. Period. Some analysts opine, that the US does not need he gas resources of Central Asia; the US may not need it for its own immediate consumption; but with the "peak oil" theory becoming a near-reality; it may eventually. And more importantly, the US wants to not only deny the gas to China; but also wants to control its flow/ assessibility to Europe. It wants to break Europe's gas-dependence on Russia. Germany has announced plans to abandon nuclear plants for generating energy, after the fiasco in Japan; both Germany and France are planning for bialateral energy accords with Russia. Now this has the seeds of diluting the American power in Europe and by implications,the US would be unable to use Nato as its battering ram. We should also not lose sight of the emerging paradigm of alliances emerging in the Central Asia, spearheaded by Russia and China through SCO. THe most worrisome aspect is the American plans to retain its physical presence in the region, to that end it is working on the following : Effect a division of Afghanistan; whereby the south and south-east is ceded to the Taliban, and the US retains its bases in the north of Afghanistan. US is attempting to severe Baluchistan from Pakistan, as a hedge against failure to divide Afghanistan. US is attempting to incite divisions in the Pak Army, because it is the only institution which is strong, organized and is thwarting the US plans; notwithstanding its earlier compliance. If the endgame results in a division of Afghanistan and Taliban holding sway in the south/ east of Af; then it does nt bode well for Pak's safety.
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