The first year-end assessment of America’s hyphenated strategy for Pakistan and Afghanistan is finally out, with President Barack Obama and his top aides cautiously claiming “gains” in the fight against the Taliban and al Qaeda.
Nonetheless, he’s upbeat about the success of his strategy. The troop pullout will start as planned in July next year, albeit there’s no word about its scale. For this to happen, the Obama administration says, Pakistan will have to ‘do more’ to shut down Taliban sanctuaries on its side of the border. Ostensibly, he appreciated Pakistan’s counter-terror efforts but said his administration will continue to put pressure on Pakistani leadership to pursue the insurgents more aggressively. And to make this happen, Washington will use a combination of carrots and sticks. The message is unambiguous: If Pakistani troops are reluctant to move into North Waziristan to fight the Haqqani network blamed for fuelling the Afghan insurgency, the US will expand its drone operations to smoke out the insurgents.
A careful analysis of Obama’s speech shows that there were more references to Pakistan than Afghanistan, indicating that the problem lies in Pakistan. This is a skewed assessment, to say the least. It appears to have skirted the issue of rampant corruption in the deeply unpopular government of Afghan President Hamid Karzai. The fact of the matter is that the Karzai administration, which came to power as a result of a rigged election, does not represent the ethnic mix of the country. And even Afghan security forces, to which the coalition troops want to hand over security operations after 2014, have little representation of the majority Pashtuns. Moreover, increasing civilian casualties in coalition raids are also alienating the Afghans who are already disillusioned by the slow progress of the war.
Pakistan has 140,000 troops engaged in counter-insurgency operations and in plugging the porous Pakistan-Afghan border. Mind that the US has 100,000 troops in Afghanistan. So is it realistic to ask for ‘more’ from an already overstretched Pakistan army? No, certainly not.
In fact, the US and Nato forces are bogged down in Afghanistan after fighting an unwinnable war for nine years. And instead of conceding failure, they are putting the blame on Pakistan. It’s advisable for the Obama administration to reassess his strategy and work for a political solution. As his own former pointman for the region, the late Richard Holbrooke, said: a “military victory in Afghanistan is not possible”. And I’m sure top American commanders are also convinced of the futility of this war. But any political solution should be all-inclusive and reflective of the country’s demography. Any hasty withdrawal from Afghanistan or handing over responsibility of security to the Afghan National Army, dominated by Uzbeks, Tajiks, Hazaras or other minority ethnic groups, could spell disaster and plunge the country into another civil war.
Published in The Express Tribune, December 22nd, 2010.