Imtiaz Gul: Expansion of war theatre

Monte Cristo War on Terror Screenshot

In an interview with The Washington Post, Kilcullen warned that if Pakistan went out of control, it would ‘dwarf’ all the crises in the world today. “Pakistan. Hands down. No doubt,” he said when asked to name the central front in the war against terror. This warning comes days before Richard Holbrooke, special envoy for the region, formally unveils his report to President Barack Obama and shares it with Nato members at the organisation’s summit in Brussels next month.

Also in Brussels, where he attended the Marshall Fund security conference recently, Holbrooke brought Pakistan into sharper focus by projecting it as the problem. “The heart of the problem for the West is in western Pakistan but there are not going to be US or Nato troops on the ground in Pakistan. There is a red line for the Government of Pakistan, and one which we must respect.”

Speaking to US papers and BBC on March 22 and 23, Holbrooke also alluded to some of the broad contours of the policy papers that he and Bruce Riedel, a former CIA official and currently the head of an Afghan-Pakistan Review Committee, have prepared for Obama. In the BBC interview, Holbrooke was more specific. “Quetta appears to be the headquarters for the leaders of the Taliban and some of the worst people in the world,” he said, including Baitullah Mehsud’s name in this categorisation. He said that more attacks were being planned on the West.

This way Holbrooke indicated clearly as to what awaits Pakistan in the months to come i.e. extension of the war theatre beyond Fata into Balochistan, tighter control of the Afghan-Pakistani border and linking aid to Pakistan’s willingness and actual performance against extremist forces. The special envoy hinted that the US-led coalition would not hold back if targets were found anywhere in Pakistan. It is worth recalling that the US intelligence establishment has for long been talking of the ‘Quetta Shura’ of the Taliban.

The new strategy, Holbrooke said, will attempt to involve all regional players, including Iran and China. The goals of Obama’s predecessor, President George W. Bush, “were less defined, like pluralism, prosperity or freedom,” said Afghanistan’s ambassador to the US, Said Jawad, to the Christian Science Monitor in Brussels, after being briefed on the general outlines of the plan. “Now they’re making the goals more concrete and the strategy more tactical: how long does it take, and what does it take, with more realistic expectations of all the different actors to deliver,” Jawad said.

President Obama is searching for a new strategy that will change the course of the Afghan conflict by taking the following steps: helping Afghanistan and Pakistan become self-sufficient in countering extremism; providing some hope that US military commitment there will eventually end; gradually shifting the burden for the country’s security away from the US and Nato; neutralising Al Qaeda wherever its leaders are — in Afghanistan or Pakistan; and providing accelerated economic assistance to both countries.

The promised 17,000 US troops for Afghanistan and the proposed $1.5bn Kerry-Lugar non-military assistance bill for Pakistan also underscore the new thinking which combines military muscle with money for achieving targets in both countries. Another important element of the new strategy revolves around a renewed and aggressive focus on greater investment in agriculture to wean Afghanistan away from poppy cultivation for opium production that finances the Taliban insurgency. Holbrooke also stressed the need to eliminate havens for extremists in the border region.

Is Pakistan in the eye of the storm? “You can’t succeed in Afghanistan if you don’t solve the problem of western Pakistan,” Holbrooke told the Marshall Fund security conference in Brussels. This assessment makes it abundantly clear that the new US AfPak strategy considers Pakistan as the key to the resolution of the Afghan conflict. “The draft plan suggests raising US non-military assistance to Pakistan, especially for job creation aimed at those drawn to militant action for money, while conditioning military help on measurable cooperation against extremists in the border province of Balochistan and Fata, where the Taliban have regrouped.”

According to CSM, the administration officials and diplomats also presented another recommendation to President Obama — “increase intelligence-sharing between Pakistan, the US and Afghanistan and boost surveillance, using US technology, of the porous border at ‘coordination centres’ such as the one opened at the crossing at Torkham in Pakistan”.

If these suggestions in the proposed US strategy are an indicator, the US is about to unleash a two-pronged strategy on Pakistan; based on the presumption that Al Qaeda has fanned out in the country and is using smaller hideouts in places like Quetta, Dera Ismail Khan, Kohat and Karachi. The CIA is gradually extending its drone attacks into areas where it finds traces of Al Qaeda. Come what may, we will eradicate them, is the message.

For the first time, the US seems focused on the need for Pakistan’s economic stability and political peace. American leaders, led by Vice President Joe Biden, have been talking of the need of additional and adequate funding for education and critical infrastructure development to employ millions of jobless youth, and prevent them from falling into the hands of militants and criminals.

In the months to come, the Pakistani leadership would have to walk a tightrope because of the problems arising from missile strikes on suspected Al Qaeda hideouts in various parts. They will be caught between the American carrot-and-stick policy on the one hand and an outraged political right on the other — a very difficult balancing act indeed that would require harmony among all tiers of the political and military leadership. They will have to exhibit extraordinary communication skills to explain the geo-strategic compulsions that the current international environment places on Pakistan.

Friday, 27 Mar, 2009 (Dawn)