Barack Obama’s surge in Afghanistan worries Pakistan – when the US leaves, it will still have to deal with the Taliban
There is more to President Obama’s policy shift in central Asia than more boots in Afghanistan. For Pakistan it represents an escalation of US drone strikes in the tribal areas and continued pressure on its army to immediately engage the Taliban and al-Qaida despite the practical complexities of the task.
The fundamental problem for Pakistan is that Obama’s acceleration of the war against the Taliban has been calculated largely on the basis of domestic US political demands and not those of the region, let alone Pakistan. Already under intense pressure at home from the financial crisis and the unpopularity of the US presence in Afghanistan, Obama must deliver some semblance of victory before he bids for a second term as commander-in-chief in 2012.
The strange paradox of US policy for “AfPak”, however, is that the troop surge represents the storm before the calm. No matter what the rhetoric at West Point was, the message from the Obama administration is that the US will leave Afghanistan in the foreseeable future.
According to the veteran journalist Saleem Shahzad, Pakistan’s army has already approached key commanders in the pro-Afghan Taliban resistance to ensure that, in the event of a US withdrawal, Pakistan is viewed as a friendly Muslim nation. Not entirely coincidentally, last month the Afghan Taliban chief Mullah Omar rejected the latest call for peace talks from the president, Hamid Karzai. Well aware that time is on his side, Omar has consistently refused negotiations until all foreign armies have left Afghanistan.
For Pakistan, this makes disarming the Afghan Taliban within its borders even less appealing than it already was. For starters, Pakistan security forces have had to extensively rely on pro-Afghan Taliban commanders in North and South Waziristan to capture the main sanctuaries of the Hakeemullah Mehsud-led Pakistani Taliban.
Unlike its Afghan cousin, the Pakistan Taliban movement seeks to overthrow the Pakistan state. Because it is an existential threat to Pakistan, current operations are aimed at eliminating this branch of the Taliban.
Once the boosted US-led force engages the Taliban and its allies in Afghanistan it will be difficult for Pakistan to retain the sensitive ceasefires that enable access to strategic regions of the tribal areas and ensures that the Afghan Taliban do not join Mehsud’s insurgency in Pakistan. “Pakistan cannot fight on all fronts [at once],” explains Tariq Khan, inspector general of the Frontier Corp, the country’s key paramilitary outfit in the tribal areas.
Pakistan has been confronted with some sobering realities. Many of the Pakistan Taliban’s fighters and key commanders like Mehsud have fled their hideouts and are still at large. The violence has escalated; almost every one of Pakistan’s major cities has been rocked by devastating bombings that have claimed about 500 lives in two months, even though the Afghan Taliban has not been directly involved in the violence.
The terrifying truth is that in the absence of social and political solutions, no amount of police sleuthing or security checkpoints will ever prevent a committed foe with many thousands of young suicide bombers from transforming the suburbs of Pakistan into a warzone. If the Afghan Taliban were to join the fray it would be an even bigger massacre.
Despite this, Washington has continued to press Pakistan to escalate its ground offensives with apparent ignorance or reckless indifference to the consequences for Pakistan.
According to media reports, the CIA has decided to expand drone strikes deeper into the tribal areas and the province of Baluchistan – a larger and more restive and remote region of Pakistan than the tribal areas. Any such expansion will no doubt greatly destabilise Pakistan as the insurgents push deeper into the country to avoid being hit and intense hostility to the drone strikes reaches fever pitch.
When Pakistan recaptured the scenic Swat Valley from the Taliban between May and August, western capitals lauded its resolve to finally defeat extremism. As soon as that and other battles had been waged and won, however, Pakistan was publicly cajoled by Washington, and occasionally London, for not accelerating the war even further. For so many Pakistanis, whether members of the elite or not, it all feels like a giant game that Pakistan can never actually win.