In the aftermath of 9/11 and many events thereafter, Pakistan took a deliberate decision to cooperate with Nato forces that were eventually deployed to Afghanistan. That decision was, and continues to be, heavily criticised by many in Pakistan. The view of the naysayers is that it is an outright mistake and that instead of instantly acceding to American demands, we could have negotiated a better deal considering our geopolitical value. However, the reality at that time – and which many of the critics don’t remember – is that Pakistan was seen as part of the problem since it was thought to be the primary supporter of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, which in turn had provided al Qaeda a safe haven.
That said, the reality from the point of view of the Americans, was that the US had no choice either. Though India had promptly offered its bases, they would not have been of any use. It was Pakistan’s support which was vital for Nato. Despite the agreement and our support, it would be fair to say that both Nato and America were always sceptical about our intentions and sincerity in the war on terror. Though correct to some extent, putting all the blame of failure on safe heavens in Fata was to not see the whole picture in proper perspective.
For seven years, Nato had been trying to control Afghanistan from Kabul, not realising that gone are the days when a central authority – such as the king – sitting in Kabul would be able to rule all of Afghanistan. The task before Nato was gigantic, yet for this only 60,000-odd troops were used. Kabul and some other major cities were taken over and this was seen as a major gain. The result was that the Taliban got breathing space, which they utilised to regroup and reorganise.
General David Petraeus was the commander on the ground at that time and he asked for additional troops in 2008. His request was turned down, in part because the-then Bush administration was concentrating on Iraq. However, this lack of focus on Afghanistan meant that Nato’s writ in Afghanistan was gradually reduced to only a few areas. This is not the way the war in Afghanistan should have been fought. America should have taken a closer look at the experience of Britain and the Soviet Union in the past.
Besides, little or no development activities were undertaken to make the life of Afghans better. An army which saw people dancing in front of their advancing tanks taking them as liberators, soon came to be seen as an occupation force. Frustrated by not seeing victory in the near future and cracks in its various alliances, America’s president made the fatal mistake of announcing a deadline for a withdrawal. That forced every stakeholder to secure its position in a post-Nato Afghanistan. The Taliban knew that it wouldn’t be long before they would again have a chance at regaining power. That is perhaps why this year has been so bloody, with the highest number of dead so far.
Looking for an exit strategy and failing to find an honourable way out, Nato and America have become desperate. America’s strategy, followed by the so-called surge in Iraq, has changed. The recent incursions by Nato helicopters inside Pakistan should not be seen as isolated, one-off incidents but quite possibly part of a plan to test Pakistan and its reaction. So far, the latter has been swift and widespread.
However, we must also realise that we are getting into a situation where we may again have to respond to America asking us whether we are with it or against it. And though the ground realties may have changed – or at least according to our perception — we have to avoid becoming another Cambodia. At the same time, Nato also has to reassess the causes of its failures, rather than putting all blame on Pakistan.
Published in the Express Tribune, October 8th, 2010.