NEW ORLEANS - If the recent news about the arrest of Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, Taliban military commander and Mullah Umar's deputy, indicates anything, it is that cooperation between Pakistan and the United States to hunt down terrorists is growing—and producing concrete results on the ground. Just before Mullah Baradar's arrest in Karachi in a joint US-Pakistani security operation, Pakistani Taliban leader Hakimullah Mehsud could not survive a US drone strike in the Waziristan region and reportedly died on his way to Karachi for medical treatment. His death would not have been possible without meaningful intelligence sharing by the two countries’ security agencies. The same goes for the killing of Hakimullah's predecessor, Baitullah Mehsud. However critical the drone factor may be in Pakistani public opinion, it does deliver goods on the ground, especially helping the country get rid of two of its Public Enemy Number Ones in a matter of months.
However, Mullah Baradar's arrest has greater significance, since what we are essentially seeing now is Obama Administration's AfPak strategy getting in full swing in the region. And, as it does, the counter-terrorism interests of Pakistan and the United States are more likely to converge rather than diverge. Critics may claim that Mullah Baradar's arrest from Karachi only reconfirms that high profile leaders of Afghan insurgency can move around the country with so much ease. That Hakimullah and Baitullah were killed by US forces, and not by Pakistani forces, is also a fact that can be cited to question Pakistan's commitment to fight terrorism. But, then, there are credible current indicators suggesting the case may be otherwise. Whether it is the AfPak strategy, or events such as the recent London Conference on Afghanistan occurring within its framework, Pakistan has come in the focus, as a country that can play a pivotal role in resolving the Afghan conflict—as no other regional player can match its connectivity with Afghanistan in terms of history, geography and ethnicity.
That is why the United States took Pakistani civilian and military leadership on broad, as the largest-ever military operation against Taliban began in Helmand on February 13. For some months from now, as the snow starts to melt on the Hinduksh mountains, we will see greater military action on both sides of the Pak-Afghan border. Yet the options of reconciliation and reintegration are in-built in the AfPak strategy, and the London Conference re-affirmed their potential significance in reversing the Taliban-led insurgency in future months. When the process of dialogue begins, only after the insurgents have been sufficiently crushed through military means and their hardcore leaders either killed or arrested, the pivotal role that Pakistan is expected to play for the purpose may be more visible. After all, almost all the targets specified in the London Conference and the Af-Pak strategy—particularly those intended to give Afghanistan's Pashtun majority its due share in security, governance and development, which is what the talk about reconciliation and re-integration with Taliban-led insurgents is all about—synchronize with Pakistani approach to resolving Afghan conflict.
War and Peace
The conclusions of the January 28 Conference in London give an impression as if reconciliation will supersede fighting in the international bid to win the war in Afghanistan. On February 13, however, the US-led coalition forces launched the biggest ever military offensive on the Taliban stronghold of Marjah in Helmand province. War and peace, it is clear, will be the two prongs of Obama Administration’s AfPak strategy, to be exercised simultaneously in the coming months. Offers of reconciliation and reintegration will be made to lure those insurgents who are not ideologically inspired from al-Qaeda, while military actions will intensify against al-Qaeda and its hardcore allies among Taliban and other insurgent forces in the war-torn country.
In fact, since its inception in March last year and throughout its evolution in the past nearly one year, the AfPak strategy has been grounded in the two mutually-reinforcing objectives of the short-term waging of war and the long-term realization of peace. Under this strategy, the choice of war or peace by international forces with the insurgents is predicated on the latter’s response. If Taliban and other insurgents are willing to renounce violence and join the political process, then a broad-based process of reconciliation with their leadership and re-integrating them in Afghan society will get I n vogue. Otherwise, the forces of insurgency will be confronted by a resolute exercise of force, through ongoing surge of US and NATO troops in Afghanistan.
The twin objectives of war and peace of the AfPak strategy are hardly at cross-purposes. Initiating a dialogue with insurgents does not mean forsaking military option against them altogether, and vice versa. This is so, because in this conflict involving extremism and terrorism, there are two sides, the state parties and the non-state actors. The former has legitimacy and the cover of morality, the latter does not. Naturally, therefore, the insurgents are morally and legally at a weaker footing, when it comes to waging war or pursuing peace. The same holds true in Afghanistan; and the situation cannot be any different in Pakistan’s case. That is why Pakistan’s counter-terrorism strategy should not be any different from the US-led international counter-insurgency effort in Afghanistan. The back of the hardcore insurgents, ones who are motivated by the terror ideology of al-Qaeda, has to be broken at all costs, if the long-term policy preference for reintegrating insurgents and reconciling their leaders has to succeed.
When President Obama announced a major US troops’ surge, Pakistanis did express reservations on the likely fallout of intensified military operations in Afghanistan. The country’s Chief of Army Staff General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani may have reiterated such concern when he met US National Security Advisor James Jones and General Stanley McChrystal, the commander of International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan, the same day the Operation Mushtaraq in Marjah was launched. However, behind the scenes, Pakistani military leadership may be coordinating the regional war strategy with the top US security officials.
There is no doubt that the level of compatibility between Pakistan’s counter-terrorism interests and those of the United States and its allies in the region has significantly increased over time. The only area of friction in terms of the priorities of the two sides in tacking terrorism pertains to Pakistan’s traditional policy of showing no leniency towards those insurgents groups which commit terrorism inside the country and have soft corner for those who do not commit domestic terrorism but undertake or facilitate insurgency in Afghanistan or elsewhere.
Pakistan, for instance, has cut deals with two Taliban groups, one led by Mullah Nazir Ahmad in South Waziristan and another led by Hafiz Gul Bahadur in North Waziristan, both of which allegedly provide safe haven to the Afghan insurgent group of Jalaluddin Haqqani, a former Afghan Mujahideen leader, besides directly participating in Afghan insurgency. These deals have helped to isolate Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) in South Waziristan, thereby facilitating the army’s counter-insurgency campaign there. However, for its part, the United States expects Pakistan to go after these groups as well as Afghan Taliban hiding in tribal areas and Balochistan with as much interest as it has displayed in fighting al-Qaeda-linked TTP and its Uzbek warriors in South Waziristan and other tribal agencies and Tehrik-e-Nifaz-eShariat-e-Muhammadi (TNSM) in Swat. The American concerns about al-Qaeda leaders and other terrorist groups such as Lashkar-e-Taiba, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi and the country’s failure to bring them to task are aside.
All of these concerns were expressed by President Barack Obama in a letter delivered by National Security Advisor James Jones to President Asif Ali Zardari when he visited Pakistan in November 2009. In the letter, the US President warned Pakistan that its use of insurgent groups to pursue policy goals “cannot continue,” while calling for “closer collaboration against all extremist groups,” including al-Qaeda, the Afghan Taliban, the Haqqani network, Lashkar-e-Taiba, and TTP.” Simultaneously, however, to encourage the country for action against these groups, President Obama guaranteed Pakistan “an expanded strategic partnership,” including “an effort to help reduce tensions between Pakistan and India.”
Obviously, nothing could be said with certainty whether US-NATO troops’ surge would make the expected difference in the insurgency-ridden ground reality of Afghanistan, to pave the way for the eventual withdrawal of foreign troops. But, given the inherently evolutionary nature of the AfPak strategy, it can be argued that the targets of counter-insurgency—including the options of reconciling moderate insurgents, much faster security capacity building and enhanced civilian development in Afghanistan it has set in its original shape or reviewed form—can always be modified.
The fact that US-Pakistan relations in future may have a radically different, positivist context is amply clear from repeated assurances by President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton that United States’ relationship with the country is long-term and strategic in orientation as well as from concrete pledges of billions of dollars of US civilian and security assistance to the country, especially under the Kerry-Lugar-Berman Act. A grand transformation is, indeed, under way in Pakistan-US relationship—from the traditionally state-to-state towards people-to-people. If such a guarantee is there, then Pakistan’s civilian and military leadership can also be expected to start making no distinction between who conducts terrorism inside the country and who is involved in insurgency beyond the country’s frontiers.
If Washington is guaranteeing Pakistan a strategic partnership and is willing to co-opt moderate insurgents in Afghanistan’s political and security structure, then this will surely encourage Pakistani security establishment to re-think its “strategic depth” strategy. Co-opting moderate insurgents in Afghanistan, meaning the Pashtun majority, amid an intensified security campaign, will be an option that cannot be exercised successfully without Pakistan’s cooperation, because of the most crucial ground reality of the Durand Line: the Pashtun ethnicity straddling across this frontier, which is a major source of current insurgent trouble in the region, but can be a potential factor in overcoming the terrorist quagmire in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Being Afghanistan’s principal neighbour, Pakistan seeks an Afghan solution that credibly incorporates the security, political and economic grievances of its majority Pashtun population, simply because, without that, its own Pashtun population inhabiting tribal areas east of the Durand Line remains aggrieved. A military campaign that crushes terrorist-insurgents to the extent that moderate constituencies are created among the forces of insurgency—be they in Afghanistan or Pakistan—who are willing to renounce violence, dissociate their links with al-Qaeda and participate in the political process largely on the basis of the interests of the state parties does have a scope of success. However uncertain its outcome, it must be given a chance.
The commentary is based on the paper titled ‘Obama Administration’s Af-Pak Strategy and Pakistan’s Counter-Terrorism Response’ the author presented at the 51st Convention of the International Studies Association on February 18, in New Orleans, USA.
Access this commentary at weeklypulse.org