Analysis: Regional dynamics of the war on terror —Talat Masood

There are conflicting elements operating in Afghanistan. Pakistan is wary of India’s growing influence in the region and that adds another area of friction in US-Pakistan and Pakistan-India relations

During the Cold War, the United States had a grand strategy that was backed by policy doctrines, military and economic components and a value system meant to protect its vital interests. With good leadership, determination and willing partners, it succeeded in dismantling the Soviet Union.

But in the war on terror, which is primarily directed against radical Islamic insurgents, the US does not have a coherent strategy or a set of clear goals, and has diffuse support from demoralised allies.

This weakness stems from the nature of this conflict, as asymmetric warfare is different from both conventional warfare and the Cold War. The US, at least initially, was not prepared for it. Moreover, the US reacted impulsively after the catastrophic 9/11 attacks and directed its wrath against Afghanistan and Iraq without considering the consequences, and without an exit strategy.

In both these ventures, of Afghanistan and Iraq, the US military has failed to achieve its professed goals. Iraq is relatively calm, but that has come at a huge cost and the stability is tenuous. In Afghanistan, the US faces the resurgent Taliban with the Karzai regime tottering. The Taliban have also become powerful in Pakistan’s tribal belt.

US President-elect Barack Obama has ordered a review of policy on the war on terror, and General David Petraeus, the new CENTCOM chief, is seeking a new strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan. Both leaders recognise the obvious need for change as the current policy has failed to stabilise the region. Obama and Petraeus are both fully focused on Pakistan and consider it a key ally in the war on terror.

Meanwhile, there is a growing realisation, especially among NATO members, for the need to engage the Taliban. British Foreign Secretary David Miliband has mentioned it, and the British operational commander in Afghanistan went to the extent of saying that NATO was losing the war in Afghanistan.

Dialogue, however, is still far away. As of now, there is only ‘talk about talks’. The first signs of this process were visible when Saudi King Abdullah hosted a dinner for Karzai government nominees and Taliban leaders during the Hajj festival. This exploratory move was motivated by the Saudi monarch’s desire to draw the two sides away from confrontation and bring them to the negotiating table.

King Abdullah, apart from trying to help Afghanistan, is deeply concerned about Pakistan’s stability and realises that the two countries are closely interlinked. If Afghanistan slides into further chaos, it will have adverse fallout on Pakistan. The Saudis would also like to balance Iran’s influence in Afghanistan.

A shift in US policy seems to be emerging because Afghanistan is facing a full-blown insurgency and Taliban power is on the rise. Mullah Umar, however, refuses to engage in dialogue without a full withdrawal of coalition forces, a condition that would be unacceptable to Washington.

General Petraeus has indicated that he would promote dialogue with reconcilable elements, but the US would only initiate talks from a position of strength and only when the Taliban are willing to disown Al Qaeda. Eventually, the US will have to talk to the Taliban. But given that the latter is a fairly potent force at the moment, it is going to be a tough ask to get them to negotiate.

President-elect Obama has indicated he would reinforce the Afghanistan theatre with two additional brigades and General Petraeus has recommended an Iraq-like surge on this front. However, the Russian and British experience in Afghanistan suggests that an increase in troop strength does not necessarily make a significant difference in the outcome of the conflict.

Nonetheless, the Taliban, as they did in 2001, may be overestimating their strength and may play their cards badly. The US-led coalition is not going to abandon Afghanistan. Even in a worst-case scenario, they will maintain presence at least in Kabul and areas traditionally under the influence of the Northern Alliance.

Just as the US held on to Baghdad when they faced strong resistance from insurgents in Iraq, it could cling to several pockets in Afghanistan. The risk, however, is that with the enhanced power of the Taliban, there will be more militant havens in Afghanistan in the future. To counter these, the US in all likelihood would rely more on air power and air reconnaissance, and can still inflict a lot of damage to wear down militants.

The new US administration will have to review on priority its policy of frequent incursions into Pakistan’s territory. Missile strikes on Pakistani soil have to stop, otherwise mistrust and alienation between allies would grow and discredit the war on terror. The cost-benefit ratio for the US is also not in its favour as attacks are mostly hitting third- or fourth-tier leaders, and in the process are killing a large number of innocent civilians. This is a poor strategy.

If the Pakistan military and ISI pursue a selective approach towards the Taliban, the issue could be discussed and resolved. Pakistan Army’s tolerance of Haqqani and other militant groups is part of a historical legacy and also a question of priorities and capacity. There are limits to the number of fronts the army can open.

The US, Pakistan and Afghanistan are supposedly allies but are pushing their problems into each other’s laps. The US wants to fight an open-ended war in Afghanistan to ward off a potential threat to its mainland. The logic being that it is better to fight the war in Afghanistan than in the American homeland. And to minimise casualties in Afghanistan, the US uses airpower instead of deploying boots on the ground. For similar reasons, it is pushing the war into Pakistan’s territory and shifting focus to the tribal belt. This is not to deny that we have a serious growing autonomous insurgency problem of our own.

Pakistan is less concerned about the militants that are fighting in Afghanistan. Afghanistan, too, is keen to have the centre of gravity of regional radicalism shift to Pakistan. It should realise that the role of insurgents in Afghanistan is far greater than in FATA. The Taliban are in control of vast swathes of territory in southern Afghanistan and the Afghan state has minimal reach in most parts of the country. If the US was to withdraw, the Karzai government will fall quicker than Najibullah’s when the Soviets withdrew.

There are conflicting elements operating in Afghanistan. Pakistan is wary of India’s growing influence in the region and that adds another area of friction in US-Pakistan and Pakistan-India relations. The American and Indian media has deliberately projected an extensive role of the ISI in Afghanistan. This is an exaggerated and erroneous assessment that has contributed to the creation of a hostile impression about the agency. By projecting such agencies and the military in a bad light, the US pushes Pakistan on the defensive and demands that we ‘do more’.

All countries in the region need to review and reconcile their national interest and develop a common vision. Only then will they be able to effectively counter the growing menace of extremism. (Daily Times)

The writer is a retired Lieutenant General of the Pakistan Army. He can be reached at