Can Holbrooke make a difference?
Weekly Pulse
Jan 30- Feb 5, 2009
The Obama Administration perceives Afghanistan and Pakistan’s tribal regions as a central front in the war against terrorism, as manifested by its decision to send additional 30,000 US troops to Afghanistan, for combat operations against Taliban-led insurgents in the country’s southern and eastern regions bordering Pakistan, which constitute the hub of growing insurgency against US and NATO troops.

“There is no answer in Afghanistan that does not confront the al-Qaeda and Taliban bases along the border [with Pakistan],” President Obama said last Thursday while introducing Richard Holbrooke as his special envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Holbrooke’s appointment itself indicates how much importance the new US administration attaches with the Taliban upsurge in southern and eastern Afghanistan and Pakistan’s tribal regions straddling across the 1,500 mile unrecognized border between the two countries.

Mr Holbrooke is best known for his extraordinary success in mediating the Dayton Peace Accords in Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1995 that put an end to Serbian ethnic-cleansing of Bosnian Muslims. He earned the nick-name of “Balkans Bulldozer” for his determined diplomacy that coerced recalcitrant Milosevic to negotiate peace deal with Bosnian Muslims whom he would have otherwise preferred to exterminate.

The question, thus, arises that if Obama Administration’s point man for Afghanistan and Pakistan is a peace-maker par excellence, then why it is opting for an intensified military campaign in Afghanistan?

Troops Surge

There are two reasons why President Obama wants to add 30,000 more troops to 33,000 US troops already deployed in Afghanistan and expects other NATO countries to add thousands more to their own over 40,000 troops in Afghanistan.

First, the Obama Administration believes that the principal reason why the security in Afghanistan has worsened in recent years is because of the diversion of the Afghan war to Iraq in 2003. Ironically, its second rationale for intensifying the military campaign is also related to Iraq, where the surge in US troops in 2007 onwards has succeeded in combating the insurgency.

Throughout the second term of the Bush Administration, a number of America’s NATO partners, such as Germany, France, Italy and Spain, remained unwilling to send additional troops to Afghanistan, or to remove respective caveats that prevent their already deployed troops in Afghanistan from engaging in combat against Taliban-led insurgents in the south and east of the country.

The Obama Administration will most likely raise this issue at the upcoming NATO summit in early April in Strasbourg and Kehl, which also marks the 60th anniversary of the Western alliance which has gone beyond Europe in the post-Cold War period to manage threats to international security from weapons of mass destruction and international terrorism.

Since President Obama has already taken drastic steps such as closing the Guantanamo Bay prison and putting an end to renditions, issues about which the Europeans were quite critical of Washington—and given that the Obama Administration is expected to go along with the European Union on global issues such as climate change—more NATO countries may finally agree not only to increase their troops level but also to fight with the Taliban and their militant allies alongside US, British and Canadian troops.

In 2009, therefore, the level of international troops will increase, perhaps up from over 70,000 now to well over 100,000, perhaps 130,000. If we add 60,000 to 70,000 Afghan National Army soldiers, the total figure may be around 200,000.

The question is, will this number be sufficient to defeat the Taliban and their Afghan extremist allies, primarily the forces of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and Jalaluddin Haqqani, who essentially wage a guerrilla fight with hit-and-run tactics. Their threat to international forces and the Afghan government is tactical rather than strategic, as they do not leave any address behind after each fight.

Insurgent Taliban

While this factor may explain why we, at least for now, we can rule out the possibility of Taliban-led insurgents posing a formidable threat to Afghanistan’s new political reality since 2001, but the very fact that their insurgency has claimed even more lives of US and NATO soldiers in 2008 than 2007 remains a cause of grave concern.

This means that from the US point of view—and, in fact, from the standpoint of all the international stakeholders interested in pacifying Afghanistan—exercising an Iraq-like surge of international troops is an extremely vital option. This is because neither Afghanistan nor Pakistan or the world can afford any further extension in the writ of Taliban in the restive borderlands. Taliban and their allies, including al-Qaeda, represent an obscurantist creed that negates everything we call civilization.

However, exercising the military option alone will not be sufficient in solving the regional security quagmire, in which Pakistan’s tribal and Frontier regions are as severely caught, or perhaps even more, as Afghanistan’s southern and eastern areas. In 2008, more innocent Pakistanis became a victim of roadside and suicide bombings perpetrated by Taliban and their local affiliates than their unfortunate counterparts in Afghanistan, a country at war.

Gone are the days when Taliban were thriving in Pakistan’s western border regions alone. In the last two years, Talibanization has fully gripped the tourist region of Swat Valley, not that far from the capital Islamabad. Obviously, if the Obama Administration is opting for full-fledged military campaign in Afghanistan, it will surely expect Pakistan to intensify its own security operation in Waziristan and Swat regions.

Iraq’s Case

We can argue that trying the Iraqi option in Afghanistan and expecting Pakistan to follow suit in FATA and Swat carries enormous risk. For Iraq does not have the same tribally divisive and ethnically conflicting society whose tales of ferocious war and insatiable revenge date back to centuries. As for the regional source of Iraqi insurgency, it was largely Syria, as the post-Saddam political reality suited the Iranians, and Kuwait and Saudi Arabia were able to contain fedayeen infiltration into Iraq.

Thus, as far as intensifying the military campaign in Afghanistan is concerned, the principal security challenge facing the United States and its NATO allies will be how to subdue an even more dangerous enemy with troops that are 400, 000 short of the international military campaign at the height of the Iraq War.

Obviously, the intensification of the international war effort in Afghanistan in the coming months or a year will have its ripple effect in Pakistan’s FATA and the Frontier. Pakistan will, therefore, have no option but to intensify its own security operation. And this intensification may take place not just as reaction to enhanced international military activity in Afghanistan but also, and perhaps essentially, in response to the fast aggravating security threat that Pakistan’s own Taliban have started to pose to the state and society.

Already what the Taliban have done in Swat and elsewhere in the Frontier and FATA—burning girl schools, slaughtering innocent people in city squares, kidnappings for ransom—has enraged Pakistani people. Nobody likes this heinous process of Muslim-on-Muslim.

There is widespread belief that young suicide bombers are a part of deadly merchandise in which leading Taliban figures are implicated, and realization that there should be zero tolerance for those who violate the writ of the state and have no respect to its frontiers. The reason being that Pakistanis themselves have become a principal prey of these merchants of death, and, therefore, they aspire that concrete and urgent steps be taken before the forces of obscurantism grip the rest of the country.

Room to Maneuver

This brings me to the last point: whether Mr Holbrooke as a peace envoy can make a difference. Given his enormously positive contribution to the Muslim cause in the Balkans, Obama Administration’s special envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan may have enormous room to maneuver, as he begins his challenging diplomatic endeavor in the region lived by Muslim people who are extremely conscious of their Islamic identify and have strong attachment to Muslim causes such as Bosnia, Palestine and Kashmir.

So, right from beginning, Pakistani expectations from him will be to not only to help realize, beyond the intensified military campaign in the short run, a broader political solution to the problem of militancy and terrorism in Afghanistan and Pakistan’s tribal and Frontier areas, but also to force India for an amicable settlement of Kashmir.

The very reason Obama Administration has chosen him as its principal envoy for this region is that it wants to win the war in Afghanistan. The reason for intensifying the military campaign is because the five-year diversion in it, from Afghanistan to Iraq, has created a deadly situation that necessitates the use of force in Afghanistan at a much greater level than the one pursued by the Bush Administration.

The expectation is that the pressure from an intensified military effort by US and NATO forces in Afghanistan’s south and east and by their Pakistani counterparts in FATA and Swat will be so much that the respective Taliban-led and al-Qaeda-inspired insurgent and terrorist forces will eventually bow before it, and either surrender or come to the negotiating table largely on the terms of the international or state parties in the two cases. For now, Taliban and their militaristic allies, including Hekmatyar and Haqqani in the respective order, adhere to maximalist position, such as the withdrawal of all foreign troops from Afghanistan and rejection of the current constitutional and political reality of Afghanistan. In the place of foreign troops, they want the deployment of troops from Muslim countries. Obviously, neither the current rulers of Afghanistan nor their international partners in the country can agree to such position.

The Interlocutors

However, behind the scenes, as a senior Pakistani diplomat posted in Kabul until recently suggests, Taliban interlocutors are reaching out to their former foes such as Burhanuddin Rabbani, telling him that they can work with a new regime in the country not necessarily led by them but one that will incorporate Taliban into the Afghan National Army and Afghan National Police.

Such demands may have a rational context, as the security and law enforcement institutions in the post-Taliban Afghanistan have been dominated by non-Pashtun, especially those affiliated with the Northern Alliance before and the United Front now. As for Taliban interlocutors, the names of Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef, former Taliban ambassador to Pakistan, and their foreign minister Mullah Amir Khan Muttaqi are often cited.

Zaeef and Muttaqi as well as representatives from Hekmatyar’s Hizb-e-Islami were present in the talks Saudi Arabia mediated last September between them and Afghan government envoys, including the brother of President Hamid Karzai. Even though the Taliban movement led by Taliban Emir-ul-Mo’mineen Mullah Umar did not officially sanction these talks, he has also never disowned Mullah Zaeef and Mullah Mutaqi, who both live in Kabul.

However, only the scope and nature of the intensified military operation in Afghanistan’s south and east and Pakistan’s FATA and the Frontier will tell us as to which way the wind blows in the region. However, such a course will certainly make way for a number of interesting opportunities for Mr Holbrooke to exploit in order to pave the way for a lasting solution to a problem that has aggravated beyond all limits at present.

Mr. Holbrook seems to understand what the real problem in the region is. He wrote in a column in The Washington Post last spring that in Afghanistan, “massive, officially sanctioned corruption and the drug trade are the most serious problems the country faces, and they offer the Taliban its only exploitable opportunity to gain support.”

In a recent article in the Foreign Affairs, he said the situation in “Afghanistan was far from hopeless. But as the war enters its eighth year, Americans should be told the truth: it will last a long time — longer than the United States’ longest war to date, the 14-year conflict (1961-75) in Vietnam. Success will require new policies with regard to four major problem areas: the tribal areas in Pakistan, the drug lords who dominate the Afghan system, the national police, and the incompetence and corruption of the Afghan government.

Holbrooke argued that all were immensely difficult challenges, but the toughest was the insurgent sanctuaries in the tribal areas of western Pakistan. He said “Afghanistan’s future couldn’t be secured by a counterinsurgency effort alone; it will also require regional agreements that give Afghanistan’s neighbours a stake in the settlement. That includes Iran—as well as China, India, and Russia. But the most important neighbour is, of course, Pakistan, which can destabilise Afghanistan at will —and has. Getting policy toward Islamabad right will be absolutely critical for the next administration — and very difficult. The continued deterioration of the tribal areas poses a threat not only to Afghanistan but also to Pakistan’s new secular democracy, and it presents the next president with an extraordinary challenge.”

Kashmiri Settlement

As President Obama has underscored several times that defeating Taliban is as much, or perhaps even more, in the interest of Pakistan than that of the whole region and the wider world. Simultaneously, however, he has repeatedly underlined the need for resolving Kashmir, as, in his opinion, the non-resolution of this old issue prevents Pakistan from fully focusing on its counter-terrorism campaign in the borderlands with Afghanistan.

Given that, a more challenging task for Mr Holbrooke will be to pressure India for Kashmiri settlement. As for Pakistan, it does not need to be pressed on this issue anymore, because during the four-year long peace process with India, Islamabad under President Musharraf has made all the possible peace overtures on Kashmir to the extent of compromising the country’s traditional stand of seeking a UN Security Council resolutions-based plebiscite solution. India has kept mum on the matter.

President Obama and his administration have quite a pragmatic agenda for the region. This means that as Mr Holbrooke assumes the most daunting task of his marvelous diplomatic career, he may not look for the ideal in a situation such as the one in tribal Afghan and Pakistani regions where stone-age attitudes cannot be transformed overnight into 21st century modernistic civilized behaviors. Pragmatism requires an art of the possible, which at least Mr Holbrooke is quite apt at.

Away from Ideal

In the short run, or even longer run, realizing a liberal democracy in restive and regressive regions like Afghanistan and Pakistan’s tribal belt is essentially a pipedream. However, this does not mean that a bit by bit process of eventually realizing such a larger goal should not begin now. The lasting change towards modernity will occur only when the people of this region are themselves willing to change.

What the United States and the international community can do in the meantime—and Mr Holbrooke can be instrumental for the purpose—is to offer credible democratic and developmental incentives to the governments of Afghanistan and Pakistan so that the lurking danger of Talibanization on their horizons can be tackled effectively by using as much “soft power” as “hard power.”

access column at Weekly