Line of No Control

India should be wary of Washington's deceptive Afghan-Pak policy

Zorawar Daulet Singh Delhi, Hardnews

Washington's reassessment of its Afghan policy is unlikely to make India happy. At least, that's what initial signs suggest.

The popular view is: "Barack Obama is going to let the Pakistanis have it." This alludes to the surge strategy that could double US ground deployments by this summer. Given the ongoing insurrection in tribal areas moving deeper into Pakistan, US policies could accelerate the centrifugal pressures in Pakistan. This would make its current territorial integrity even more precarious. Yet, the Obama national security team seeks to avoid this. New Delhi should remain wary of any American moves toward conciliation in the Hindu Kush that might imply a tacit or open accommodation with the Taliban.

The American security establishment has recently made a number of public statements on Afghan-Pak (Af-Pak). The acronym clubs the theatre of Pashtun resistance and acknowledges the interconnectedness of the region. This provides a proximate trend of the intentions and priorities that would shape Obama's regional policy. Robert Gates, US Secretary of Defence, recently said in a congressional hearing, "Our primary goal is to prevent Afghanistan from being used as a base for terrorists and extremists to attack the United States and our allies... If we set ourselves the objective of creating some sort of Central Asian Valhalla over there, we will lose, because nobody in the world has that kind of time, patience and money."

This was the first public announcement of a scaling down of US goals. It was fuelled by a failed seven-year Afghan intervention and the likely budgetary pressures in times of a massive economic crisis. Vice-president Joe Biden's comment during the Munich Security Conference is another important indicator of Washington's outlook: " strategy for Afghanistan, in my humble opinion, can succeed without Pakistan." Similarly, John Kerry, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, noted in an op-ed: "The United States is not in Afghanistan to make it our 51st state, but to make sure it does not become an Al-Qaeda narco state and a terrorist beachhead capable of destabilising neighbouring Pakistan."

Obama in an interview with NBC News remarked, "What we can do is make sure that Afghanistan is not a safe haven for Al-Qaeda. What we can do is make sure that it is not destabilising neighbouring Pakistan." Shortly after Holbrooke's fact-finding mission to Islamabad, the Pakistan foreign minister said at a press conference that Holbrooke had agreed to review policy to counter terrorism in the region after consultation with Pakistan. Also, a joint US-Pakistani team would be set up for this.

Four interrelated themes emerge from the official commentary on Afghanistan. First, a narrowing of the strategic goals that would drive US military plans. In sum, counter-terrorism will trump nation-building goals. Second, recognition that the key to Afghanistan lie in Pakistan. Third, Afghanistan would be of little geopolitical utility to Washington if Pakistan goes down during the process of the former's stabilisation. Thus, security of Pakistan -- preempting a civil war or regime collapse -- is becoming a vital objective for Washington.

Fourth, US-Pakistan relations will transform from ‘transactional' engagement to one based on long-term multi-dimensional ties. Washington has learnt that engagement with Pakistan's insecure feudal-military elite will only persuade them to moderate their support to the Afghan Taliban and sponsorship of insurgent groups that provide leverage to Islamabad.

Several analysts have sought to distinguish between the Al-Qaeda and Taliban. There is an effort to revive the old argument of a ‘good' or ‘moderate' Taliban and a ‘bad' Taliban. American historian Stephen Tanner recently insisted that "the Taliban are no longer all hardcore fanatics. There are a lot of moderate elements. You have to bring the Taliban into the Afghan government, not to take it over but to at least participate." Daniel Markey, a former South Asia specialist for the State Department, recently noted, "The challenge has always been to exploit some cleavages between the top (Taliban) leadership, which we've ruled out of bounds in terms of reconciliation, and the layers one or two layers beneath them."

Former US national security advisor, Zbigniew Brzezinski, has also called for an accommodation of the Taliban: "I think we should try to make local accommodations with local Talibans. And if they promise to eliminate all Al-Qaeda presence, or to kill the local Al-Qaedas, we will disengage from that district."

Anatol Lieven, a veteran South Asia specialist at the New America Foundation, called for a "legitimation of political forces representing the Taliban". Recently, he wrote, "In the long run, the aim should be a radically decentralised Afghanistan in which the Taliban can be permitted to take over much of the country in return for a guarantee - under threat of aerial bombardment - not to give shelter to terrorists... The war should continue in order to put pressure on the Taliban to compromise, and in order to harass and weaken Al-Qaeda." While recognising Al-Qaeda as an irreconcilable enemy, Fareed Zakaria wrote: "...were elements of the Taliban to abandon Al-Qaeda, we would not have a pressing national-security interest in waging war against them."

Quite clearly, the discourse is being shaped to absolve the Taliban as the US's principal adversary in Afghanistan. So, it should not be unacceptable for the US to engage with elements of the Taliban to create a new decentralised security arrangement in the country.

Recently, John Kerry called for a "new bottom-up strategy acknowledging Afghanistan's history of decentralised governance and recognising the capabilities of our NATO and Afghan allies". Military officials have also expressed an interest in the creation of local defence committees that rely on tribal leaders. Washington is acutely aware of the need to co-opt the Pashtun-dominated Taliban in a partnership role.

As per the surge strategy, there will be no hostile acts against Pakistan. But, there will be an effort to buy time and raise the costs for the Taliban to coerce it to come to the negotiating table. Then, the Taliban would emerge as a possible ‘partner' for the US in the region. All this, under supervision by strategically placed US deployment and under the constant threat of US air assaults. Already, there are reports that the US could end up spending up to $4 billion on massive construction of barracks, training areas, headquarters, warehouses and airfields for use by US forces. This "signals a long-term US military commitment" to Afghanistan.

The nexus between US-Pakistani intelligence in the American drone strikes has been publicly confirmed. Chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee Dianne Feinstein disclosed that Predator strikes in the FATA region were being conducted from an airbase inside Pakistan. "As I understand it, these are flown out of a Pakistani base," she said. A few days later, The Times of London suggested that Pakistan had been secretly cooperating in covert US operations by allowing the CIA to launch strikes from the Shamsi airfield, 50km from the Afghanistan border. This dispels the myth of US-Pakistani antagonism on Predator attacks, often contrived to stave off a public backlash within Pakistan.

It is worth distinguishing between Pashtun nationalists and the more radicalised Taliban who depend on certain Pashtun tribes for their support. They have historical linkages with the Pakistani security establishment. Since 1893, the border has always been perceived as artificial by the Pashtuns. And, Pashtuns in Pakistan are closely tied to the Pashtuns in eastern and southern Afghanistan. The Durand Line runs through the middle of the land of eastern Afghan Pashtun tribes. Pakistan's preferred Pashtuns are of Kandahari south-eastern origin called the ‘Taliban', who are fewer and had not suffered from division of their land. The Durranis were the most divided Pashtun tribe during the rule of the Ghilzai-dominated Taliban. Some openly opposed them. The Ghilzai Pashtuns have traditionally been opposed to the northern Durranis, and are more orthodox Sunni Muslims (Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar hails from the Ghilzai tribe).

Washington, in order to stabilise Afghanistan, appears unlikely to favour a genuine Pashtun nationalist movement. That would impact its ally, Pakistan's, territorial integrity adversely. It is more likely to support a Pashtun element that has some form of Pakistani and Sunni leverage as part of a grand reconciliation in Afghanistan. India, however, would favour a more autonomous Pashtun nationalist movement.

Which institution would be able to assist the US in managing the Taliban? The Taliban's benefactor, of course! According to a new book, The Inheritance by The New York Times correspondent David Sanger, Pakistani Army chief Ashfaq Parvez Kayani was heard referring to Jalaluddin Haqqani as a "strategic asset" in a transcript passed to Mike McConnell, the director of National Intelligence, in May 2008. The ISI, also under close US supervision, will keep an eye on the Taliban, restrain its leadership from resuming their medieval agenda and ensure that Al-Qaeda-like outfits do not receive a safe haven status under a new Afghan regime.

Indeed, Pakistan Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi reportedly conveyed to Holbrooke during his recent tour that, "there is a reconcilable (Taliban) element and we should not overlook their importance". A few days later, the NWFP provincial government negotiated an agreement approved by Islamabad in the Swat valley that proposed to restore traditional Sharia law in the district. In the words of a Pakistani journalist, "Two parallel justice systems are running in the same country." Soon after, Husain Haqqani, Pakistan's Ambassador to Washington, justified the settlement. "Our goal is clear. We are attempting to drive a wedge between the Al-Qaeda and militant Taliban on the one hand, and Swat's indigenous movement that seeks to restore traditional law in the district," he said.

Pakistani security analyst Ayesha Siddiqa summed up the Swat deal: "One of the reasons that the deal was negotiated is because it suits Islamabad, Washington and the Taliban to have a ceasefire. While the Taliban get de facto recognition, Pakistan, NATO and the US forces get some breathing space."

Such arrangements if extended across the frontiers would decelerate the Pashtun-backlash inside Pakistan and enable the Punjabi elite to restore some order. Washington, relieved from waging an endless war, can now resume its focus on strategic priorities in West Asia, including taming Iran's geopolitical ambitions.

This would be a big geopolitical setback. The US-Pakistan collaboration to restore stability on both sides of the Durand Line would mean a huge failure for Indian diplomacy. Islamabad having recovered some of its "strategic depth", or at the very least averted a loss of substantial territory on its western flank, would be emboldened to resume its asymmetric proxy war on its eastern flank. The feudal-military compact governing Pakistan would remain intact. And, Washington, having discovered a less costly strategy for Af-Pak, would be even less inclined to address India's security concerns. 

(MAP HERE) Pakistan's Explosive Ethnic Divide

Source: Shuja Nawaz, ‘Fata - A most dangerous place', Center for Strategic & International Studies, January 2009. (Note: Afghanistan once controlled much of what is today the Northwest Frontier Province and Baluchistan. Currently, of a total population of 42 million Pashtuns, there are about 27 million living in Pakistan and about 15 million in Afghanistan.)

India's foreign policy suggests New Delhi has not cultivated diverse diplomatic options as part of a hedging strategy for Afghanistan. Having placed all its options on the premise that Washington's Afghan intervention would continue to serve India's interests, New Delhi might be unprepared for the multiple futures that could shape the geopolitics of the Hindu Kush.

In retrospect, the congruence of Indo-US interests in the aftermath of 9/11 was more tactical than strategic. Washington never intended to take that military intervention to its logical conclusion, namely, redrawing the frontiers of Pakistan to permanently resolve the transnational contradictions. Instead of asking India to assuage Pakistani insecurities, the US ought to take a long-term view on the Pashtun question. Only an autonomous Pashtun entity, whether it emerges as part of a province of Afghanistan or as a sovereign state, can permanently resolve the contradictions in the Hindu Kush and snuff out extremist forces that were cultivated and infiltrated there by Pakistan.

Many analysts want American arbitration of the illegitimate and illogical Durand Line as a de jure border as a means to alleviate Pakistan's security dilemma. But forces on the ground make such a prospect remote. Until the US shows its willingness to pursue peace by adopting a sustainable template for addressing Pashtun grievances, with the attendant corollary of a truncated Pakistan, there can never be a strategic convergence with India on Af-Pak. Indeed, New Delhi must begin to contemplate an autonomous agenda for Afghanistan. It must coordinate its position with like-minded regional powers like Moscow and Tehran.

The writer is an international relations analyst based in New Delhi, and co-author of India-China Relations: The Border Issue and Beyond, Vivabooks 2009