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Pakistan: America’s Achilles’ heel in the Afghan war
Wednesday, 04 August 2010 16:27
by Ehsan Azari Stanizai Ph.D.

President Barack Obama’s counter-insurgency strategy (December 2009), ordering 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan, is reaching its climax as a decisive but silent offensive in Kandahar seems to gear up in the coming months.

The new strategy was planned to turn the tide against the Taliban to a point that they could be forced to enter into an acceptable negotiation. If successful, this offensive which reportedly involves 8,500 US, 3,000 Canadian and 12,000 local Afghan soldiers will allow the US forces to begin a withdrawal in July 2011. The new strategy is similar to the strategy of “clear, hold, build and transfer” which brought about a sea change against the Sunni-based insurgency in Iraq. President Obama and top officials in his administration are expecting the same result in Afghanistan. A recent eighty page declassified Pentagon report insists that,

“Of all the districts and cities in Afghanistan none is as important to the future of the Afghan government or the Taliban insurgency as Kandahar city”. The essential question is—would this offensive succeed? The bitter experience of the past nine years of the Afghan war bears evidence that even if the US and NATO forces manage to uproot the Taliban fighters from Kandahar, it will not bring an Iraq-like outcome for three obvious reasons. Firstly, the situation in Afghanistan is different from Iraq in many ways.

The Afghan insurgency is rooted deeply in warlike Pashtun tribes, the majority and the dominant ethnic group in the country, with a proverbial religious orthodoxy and xenophobia. Iraq, by contrast has a strong secular middle class. Secondly, the dysfunctional government of President Hamid Karzai in Kabul is so weak, corrupt and out of touch with its own people and is by no mean capable of producing viable governance for the people of Kandahar. The Talban is getting stronger primarily by a nationwide hatred of Mr Karzai’s government which is virtually run by warlords accused of massive human right abuses.

Finally, the Taliban and their leaders and al-Qaida enjoy perpetually safe havens and centres of command and control across Pakistan, especially North-Waziristan, Quetta and Karachi. Despite its denial, Pakistani military and its Inter-State Intelligence (ISI) is actively yet secretly providing protection to al-Qaida affiliated leaders of the Afghan Taliban. As Pakistani journalist Ahmad Rashid recently wrote that the Pakistani military believes that it is “more important to keep the Afghan Taliban is reserve as a proxy force for pursuing the army’s interests in Kabul.” This last factor unfolds Pakistan’s corrosive hidden strategic game which is failing America new policy like all other costly military and political efforts thus far in this war-ravaged country.

At the heart of this game lie Pakistani vital interests that appear to be on a collision course with Western core objectives in Afghanistan. Yet, this most uncomfortable truth is by far underrated and treated with kid gloves in Washington, perhaps for Pakistan’s apparently intimate collaboration with the US counter-insurgency activities. It is true that more than 75 percent of supplies for the US and NATO troops in Afghanistan pass through this country. Pakistan facilitates the right of the CIA to fly military drones freely in the tribal areas. It is also known that Pakistan has handed over hundreds of al-Qaida terrorists to the Americans.

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Pakistan is also a collaborator with the US covert intelligence operation within the country. Islamabad of course is the political capital of the country, but there is subplot to the Afghan story in the Pakistan’s garrison town, Rawalpindi, where the Pakistani military and the ISI have their headquarters. We can gain an insight into this hidden agenda in the statements of the ISI and military retired officers. They may be retired but they are more powerful when it comes to Pakistan’s policy towards Afghanistan. The former head of the ISI, General Hamid Gul, widely believed to be the founding father of the Taliban, is one of them.

In his statements and interviews, he defends the extremist militants and al-Qaida ideology as though he is a Taliban or al-Qaida ambassador. “The puppet Karzai must go,” Gul said on June 28, 2010 to the Spiegel, “The Western military must withdraw, Sharia must be implemented and a Shura with representatives from across the country led by Mullah Omar must be convened.”

In a more serious vein, Javed Hussain, a retired brigadier told The Los Angeles Times on December 2, 2009 that, “the Americans will leave in eighteen months and the Taliban won’t be defeated. If Pakistan has earned the hostility of the Afghan Taliban, it will be in trouble. This concern of Pakistan is genuine. We cannot afford to earn the wrath of the Taliban.” There are echoes of these retirees in the words of Taliban bomb makers: On May 30, 2010, the Times Online published an interview with Naimatullah, a Taliban bomb master who asked: “Why should we risk making explosives when we can just go across the border [Pakistan] and get them ready made?” He grew silent when pressed on whether Pakistan’s military or its intelligence agency supplied components. ‘I cannot say. It comes from Pakistan.

That is all,’ he said with a sly smile.” However, Official Pakistan always denies any liability. There is a deafening narrative in Pakistan about its suffering in war against Islamic militancy. It claims that Islamabad has deployed 1, 2 0000 troops in tribal areas and suffered thousands of casualties. This is true, but this war is waged primarily against those militant who are adamant to destroy Pakistani state, an issue which is largely becoming irrelevant to the war in Afghanistan. In an overhyped campaign, Pakistan asserts that its army has cleared entire Swat, Bajaur, Orakzai and South-Waziristan of Pakistani Taliban and al-Qaida.

But many relevant political observers believe that Pakistan only allowed these militants to infiltrate Afghanistan and North-Waziristan. Furthermore, Pakistan repeatedly denies that al-Qaida is still using this country as basis for transnational terrorist attacks. Recently failed terrorist attack on the New York’s Times Square by Pakistani terrorist Faisal Shahzad is further evidence of al-Qaida’s presence in the country which is still capable of plotting terrorist assault on the US. Likewise, in late May, suicide bombers stormed mosques of Pakistani Ahmadyya sect in Lahore that claimed eighty nine lives.

Pakistan is home to about four million members of this sect. Such violent events are reminders of the communal war that had been sparked in 1971 during the lead up to the formation of Bangladesh. Recent brazen attack on NATO convoy of oil tankers in the outskirts of Islamabad in which about 60 tankers were torched is another indicative of how al-Qaida affiliated terrorists are rooted throughout this country.

Many Western political analysts interpret Pakistan’s secrete behind this double-barrelled policy as part of Islamabad’s compulsive contest with Indian influence in Afghanistan. There is a historical reason that always is left out from the attention of the political observers. This also explains Pakistan’s topsy-turvy priorities in Afghanistan. Despite its denial, Pakistan is well aware that it has a disputed border with Afghanistan, which has never been recognised by the Pashtuns who are straddled on both sides of the Durand Line, which was drawn by the foreign minister of the British Indian Empire in 1893.

The Durand line represents a cut- throat business, which is like a volcano that could erupt at anytime once the straitjacket of Islamic militancy was taken from the Pashtuns. To counter nationalism and secularism within the Pashtun community on both sides of the dividing line, Pakistani military and spy agency have promoted during the past thirty years a violent kind of religious militancy. This straitjacket policy created a contagious ideology that now justifies and regenerates terrorism and suicide bombing against non-Muslims. The top brass within the Pakistani military and the ISI sees the Islamic militancy as a necessary evil, the greatest strategic asset, and way above anything else that in their view guarantees the existing of the country.

Given Pakistan’s deadly hidden and deadly game, the Obama administration surge policy which is drawn out largely by Pentagon’s generals will face a strategic failure. This is a policy which ignores the root cause of the insurgency in Afghanistan.
Dr Ehsan Azari Stanizi is an adjunct Fellow with Writing & Society Group, University of Western Sydney (UWS).
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