Interviewer: Jayshree Bajoria, Staff Writer, Council on Foreign Relations December 14, 2009
President Barack Obama’s strategy approving a U.S. troop surge in Afghanistan called success there “inextricably linked to our partnership with Pakistan.” But the U.S.-Pakistan relationship is riddled with problems. U.S. officials are concerned about terrorist safe havens in Pakistan’s border areas, and there are reports that the United States may expand its covert airstrikes in the border region. In Pakistan, there are concerns about U.S. plans to withdraw from the region starting in 2011. Five independent Pakistani experts assess Obama’s strategy, explore the largely negative response in Pakistan, and discuss the military and political pitfalls of the plan.
For journalist and author Ahmed Rashid and Asia Society fellow Hassan Abbas, Obama’s plan fails to address the question of India, Pakistan’s biggest security concern. Former Pakistani ambassador to the United States Maleeha Lodhi warns that military escalation–particularly the expansion of aerial strikes in Pakistan—could inflame an already fragile security situation. Hasan-Askari Rizvi, a political analyst, and Shuja Nawaz, director of the South Asia Center at the Atlantic Council in Washington, cite concerns in Islamabad that there is no plan for Pakistan after U.S. forces quit Afghanistan.
Ahmed Rashid, Journalist and Author, Lahore
President Obama mentioned Pakistan at least twenty-five times in his speech but failed to offer any clue as to what the U.S. political strategy will be. A publicly stated political strategy that tries to persuade Pakistan’s military to deal with the Afghan Taliban on its soil is essential if the U.S. deadline of July 2011 for the start of its troop pullout from Afghanistan is to be met.
Instead, there have been a series of media leaks that relate to what military strategy the United States will pursue, such as expanding the drone missile attacks to Balochistan, where the Afghan Taliban leadership is based; extending CIA activities across Pakistan; and even the possibility of U.S. Special Forces being used inside Pakistan with or without permission of the government. Some of these actions could fuel anti-Western sentiments in Pakistan and endanger the elected civilian government.
These kinds of U.S. pressures may be in the cards, along with sweeteners, such as the promise of the $ 1.5 billion aid package a year for the next five years and $ 2 billion a year for the army. Still, all this does not constitute a political strategy or one that addresses at least some of Pakistan’s security concerns–of which the largest is India.
Pakistan is probably the only U.S. ally not to have endorsed the Obama plan. That is because the Pakistan military sees things differently: that the United States will abandon the region after 2011; [that] it is better to keep the Afghan Taliban as a reserve to recapture Kabul rather than allow a civil war to develop on Pakistan’s doorstep; and that the Indian presence must at all costs be eliminated from Afghanistan–all this while maintaining a modicum of a relationship with the United States.
The Pakistani army is wrong on several counts, not least that the Afghan Taliban will be unacceptable to most Afghans, including the Pashtun population from where they draw their major support, or to Afghanistan’s other neighbors, who in the event of the above scenario will gang up to support non-Pashtun warlords and plunge Afghanistan into a new civil war. As in the 1990s, Pakistan will be left isolated and accused of abetting Islamic extremism in the region.
The United States needs to articulate a political strategy that draws India and Pakistan in with its plans and, despite Indian objections, puts pressure on New Delhi to be more accommodating toward Pakistan, while at the same time the United States bolsters support for the elected government in Pakistan.
Hassan Abbas, Fellow, Asia Society; Senior Advisor, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard University
The outcome of the Obama administration’s stretched Afghanistan policy review process was anxiously awaited not only in the United States but in Islamabad. Pakistan was complaining for a while that the United States was not sharing its Afghanistan strategy and long-term plan with them. A series of recent visits from high-level U.S. officials to Islamabad were meant to dispel this impression and offer an expanded partnership. In response, Pakistan has cautiously welcomed the new plan, but in reality it is still trying to decipher it fully. Given how the senior U.S. officials of the State and Defense Departments are daily adding new meanings to Obama’s words through their “creative interpretations,” the Pakistani government cannot be blamed if it appears to be slow in understanding the real intent and scope of the new strategy.
Pakistan is facing a terrifying wave of terrorist attacks in its major cities targeting ordinary people as well as security personnel and their families. Widening political rifts and an assertive judiciary can change the country’s political landscape quite quickly. In this scenario, no one in Pakistani power corridors is expected to respond positively to ultimatums and tough demands. President Obama gauged this situation very well and gave a firm but friendly message to Pakistan, basically saying, “We need you, and success of our policy is dependent on your unflinching cooperation.” Long-term U.S. commitment to Pakistan is offered if this works out.
Pakistan, however, was also expecting a deal that includes guarantees that India’s security-related role in Afghanistan will be reduced. Unless there is some behind-the- scene understanding on this count, Pakistan may not be able to live up to Obama’s expectations. Ideally, India and Pakistan should join hands to stabilize Afghanistan, but someone needs to facilitate that kind of an arrangement. Obama has the stature, potential, and vision to play that role.
Any expanded CIA role in Pakistan (especially in terms of drone strikes in Balochistan and ground assaults in Federally Administered Tribal Areas/North West Frontier Province), as speculated in the media, will be disastrous for the U.S.-Pakistan relations besides creating further rifts between the civil and military leadership in the country.
Maleeha Lodhi, Former Pakistani Ambassador to the United States and Britain
President Barack Obama’s speech announced a military strategy to turn the tide in Afghanistan but no political plan. The absence–thus far–of a political approach to underpin the military effort makes the new strategy deeply flawed. Military escalation in Afghanistan and the expansion of aerial strikes in Pakistan is dangerous for Pakistan, which is already confronted with mounting security challenges, a consequence, not a cause, of the insurgency in Afghanistan.
There is no guarantee that dispatching more soldiers will be any more successful in defeating the Taliban than previous troop surges. The reliance on military means in Obama’s plan is accompanied by near silence on a political strategy. This assumes that a military solution can be successfully applied to Afghanistan, without addressing the political causes of the growing insurgency, especially Pashtun alienation.
Obama’s strategy poses two especially tough challenges for Islamabad. The first is that the public consensus against militancy forged with so much difficulty can unravel with the expansion of the war. This is especially so with the anticipated widening of the “covert war”‘ involving dronelaunched missile attacks in the country’s tribal areas and beyond. This will not just inflame opinion in Pakistan but also unite militants of different stripes, compounding a fragile security situation.
Second, Washington’s demands on Pakistan to play an active role in its hammer and anvil strategy will stretch the capability of Pakistan’s army, already engaged in operations in a number of tribal areas. Pushing Pakistan into multiple military engagements can undercut its own counter-militancy efforts and jeopardize recent gains.
Military escalation on its border (two additional U.S. brigades are being deployed in southern and one in eastern Afghanistan) is fraught with four more risks for Pakistan.
• It could produce a spillover of militants and al-Qaeda fighters into Pakistan and an arms flow across the border.
• It will enhance the vulnerability of U.S.-NATO ground supply routes through the country as supply needs will increase exponentially. Protecting these supply lines will overstretch Pakistani forces, at present engaged in quashing the Pakistani Taliban.
• The surge could also lead to an influx of more Afghan refugees, which can be especially destabilizing for Balochistan.
• It could also provoke a spike in violent reprisals in mainland Pakistan already being rocked by the bloody backlash from the military operations.
President Obama has described the partnership with Pakistan as being “inextricably linked” to success in Afghanistan. Unless this critical partner’s doubts and concerns about the new plan are allayed and Washington is prepared to modify its strategy accordingly, the relationship will only run into more problems.
Hasan-Askari Rizvi, Independent political and defense analyst, Pakistan
The government of Pakistan is favorably disposed toward the U.S. decision to increase its military presence in Afghanistan and its determination to fight terrorism. Pakistan’s civilian and military authorities are expected to accept the U.S. offer of an expanded strategic partnership.
However, a number of issues give rise to skepticism in Pakistan about the new U.S. policy on Afghanistan. Pakistan will be monitoring closely the U.S. efforts for building up governance capacity of the Kabul government and the enhancement of professional capacity of the Afghanistan National Army and the police. This also calls for overcoming sharp ethnic imbalance in the Afghan army, especially in the higher echelons. If this objective is not fully achieved, the post-U.S. Afghanistan will continue to face internal turmoil with negative fallout on the already troubled Pakistani tribal areas, which will in turn fuel instability in Afghanistan.
Pakistan’s concern pertains to the situation the day after the United States quits Afghanistan, perhaps the region. If Afghanistan’s internal situation remains perturbed, should Pakistan seek friends from among the competing players in and around Afghanistan?
Pakistan’s security authorities are perturbed by President Barack Obama’s assertion about the “safe-haven” for the al-Qaeda and its affiliated groups in Pakistan’s tribal areas and the terrorist “threats” to Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal.
Will the United States treat Afghanistan, Pakistan’s tribal areas, and parts of Balochistan adjacent to Afghanistan as a single war zone if Pakistan is unwilling or unable to satisfy the United States on the safe-haven issue and does not take action against the Taliban groups identified by the United States? These issues can become more serious if the Afghan Taliban slip into Pakistan’s tribal areas to save themselves from stepped-up U.S. military operations. Will the United States increase drone aircraft attacks or send its special forces into Pakistani tribal areas or both?
The United States needs to weigh the uncertain gains of unilateral military operations in Pakistani territory against its highly negative consequences for Pakistan’s domestic political context including civil-military relations. This is likely to swell anti-U.S sentiment and threaten its fragile democratic political order, which is already under pressure due to terrorist attacks in urban centers.
Shuja Nawaz, Director, South Asia Center, Atlantic Council
“After eighteen months, our troops will begin to come home.” With that crisp sentence in his West Point speech, President Barack Obama created a talking point for his opponents and managed to confound his allies halfway across the globe. These ten words are quite clear. The United States plans to start pulling out of Afghanistan in less than two years. That is all the Taliban wanted to know. That is all the Pakistanis understood. Will Afghanistan descend into turmoil again; as rivals among the Taliban alliance and even the regional warlords that helped reelect President Hamid Karzai battle for power in the wake of the U.S. pullout?
No amount of clarifications by the presidential team that followed helped dispel the notion that the United States was intent on leaving again and in short order. The best hope now is the war plan of the general in the field. General Stanley McChrystal and his surge will need to break the back of the insurgency in Helmand and Kandahar, dislocate the Taliban, and turn them away from potential refuge in Pakistan. Meanwhile across the border, the Pakistani forces will continue their internal battle against their homegrown Taliban insurgency, unready to open a new front against the Afghan Taliban. This reluctance will likely provoke private and public U.S. pressure for Pakistan to “do more” or else risk U.S. drone attacks into Balochistan and heightened strikes inside the Federally Administered Tribal Area. If this happens, the U.S.-Pakistan relationship may be heading for a train wreck.
Yet, there is hope that the surge will buy the allies time and space to deal with the Taliban from a position of strength with the language of war, a language that the Pashtuns understand. If the civilians then do their job and restore security and governance, with help from the Afghan forces and local tribal militias, then the president could eke out success and begin to “reintegrate” the non-ideological supporters of the Taliban in the territory cleared by the surge. Pakistan could play a key role in helping fracture the Afghan Taliban alliance by persuading the Haqqani group to join the government in Kabul or send surrogates instead. Gulbuddin Hekmatyar has already been reported willing to strike a deal with Karzai. That would isolate Mullah Omar and make it harder for him to go it alone against the allies.
Today, the allies need to build the willing support of Pakistan and other regional players to help Afghanistan stand on its own feet. If they do not complete the job they began in Afghanistan, the world will be left less safe than it was when they went into the region in 2001.