The Coming Escalation in Obama’s War

Six months on and Obama’s War is nowhere nearer the end state he outlined in his West Point speech of December last year. He has merely a year to deliver on his promise of beginning to pull back troops by July next year. This is only seemingly a setback. The ‘AfPak strategy’ can be expected to have planned for this contingency.  Escalating the war this military campaigning season is therefore possible given US presidential election-related deadlines of 2012.

The political prong of strategy has not delivered the ‘good’ Taliban yet. The ongoing jirga is the latest effort to this end. With the hostiles staying away and terrorists attacking it, it is a non-starter. US allies are in disarray. The German President has had to resign over controversial remarks and the new UK dispensation has promised a review. Pakistan appears to have gained space for its position of having a ‘say’ in Afghanistan after its strategic dialogue with the US of February. Nevertheless, Secretary Clinton felt it necessary to administer a warning of unspecified action in case of a successful repeat of the Times Square plot. Relations between the US and Karzai are back on an even keel, but the military operation in Kandahar looms large ahead.

Militarily, US casualties have crossed 1000 even as US troops in Afghanistan finally exceeded their numbers in Iraq. Drones have been an effective weapon; but have drawn adverse attention from the UN on their use viewed through the prism of laws of war. Operation Mostarak, launched in the Taliban heartland of Marjah in Helmand in February, would have been studied for any lessons for application in the forthcoming campaign, and in particular how to avoid killing civilians. The link between the Afghan Taliban and the Pakistani Taliban has deepened, with the Pakistani Taliban demonstrating repeatedly their ability and intent by taking terror into Punjabi heartland best signaled by the Friday massacres in the two Ahmadiya mosques in Lahore. Hakimullah Mehsud has resurfaced.

The course of the future can be seen in the constellation of the present. Pakistan has conducted its conventional exercises Azm e Nau involving 40,000 troops. The exercise gives it the self-confidence to take on any Indian attack in case a future terrorist provocation was to cross the Indian threshold of tolerance. Operation Rah-e-Nijat to clear South Waziristan having ended last year, the army has had a breather. The operations over the past two years have not borne out the apprehension that an ethnic divide would open up in the Pakistan Army. Therefore, the Army is ready for the summer campaign. It is being pressured to go into North Waziristan to knock out the base of the Haqqani faction there. Kayani’s extension as Chief being virtually certain, the Pakistan Army may well do so, in conjunction with launch of the long delayed operations in Kandahar by US troops. Feelers for talks through declarations of Karzai, the Arabs, Pakistanis, the UN and possibly the UK, have not yielded results. This is seen as legitimizing the military option. This is the escalation predicted in the immediate future.

The intent would be to degrade the Taliban further. If the Taliban has not come to talk thus far, it is because it has apparently not felt pressured enough. A concerted operation on both sides of the Durand line could influence its decision and, in any case, contain its presence and military capacity. While military success can be predicted in light of the experience gained and preparatory time thus far, the possible asymmetric response options compel a pause.

Two possible outcomes can be envisaged. First is the worst case scenario in which the Punjabi portion of Pakistani Taliban escalates forays into mainland Pakistan. This would increase their unpopularity and enable legitimacy for military operations underway. However, two factors merit attention. One is whether the Pakistani state and society would be able to bear an extended terrorist onslaught. This concern is occasioned by the fact that both Zardari and the US are not popular even in mainstream Pakistan. The Punjabi Taliban has identified the Pakistani state with the US. A repeat of the situation in Algeria in the early nineties that resulted in over a hundred thousand dead eventually is a plausible scenario. Next, is the impact on cohesion of the Pakistan Army. The consensus among the Corps Commanders could come under considerable strain. Fears of this had led Pakistan to suggest to its partner, the US, a reaching out to the Taliban. With Mullah Omar still holding out, the fears may yet come true. Added to this is the wild card of terror directed at India and the US.

The second scenario is one in which the low intensity war continues, with the Taliban considerably inconvenienced, but still reckonable as a military foe and political presence. Obama has the choice to follow the set schedule without the situation stabilizing to desired levels, but with both Kayani and Karzai having the capacity to manage the degraded Taliban. This can transpire if the Pakistani state and society display the capacity to withstand the inevitable spike in violence. For this, Pakistan would require considerable support. Additionally, even as the operations are ongoing, another Arabian or Pakistani-led initiative to get the Taliban on board needs initiation. In case the violence crescendo reaches Iraq-like levels, then a shift of gears to the much neglected political prong would be possible. In any case, persistence with this over the following period as the political prong of strategy may be necessary, perhaps a replay of the Kai Eide dialogue by the UN. Even if a surrender is to be negotiated, holding out the possibility through maintaining contacts makes strategic sense.

It is more than just a timely coincidence, then, that India is poised to restart the composite dialogue. With the Pakistani state able to claim credit for movement on Kashmir, it would gain the space it needs to combat its internal enemies. The resumption would decrease the threat of anti-India terror attacks. With Pakistan taking on the Taliban finally, India’s concerns would be met considerably. In retrospect it would be perhaps be possible to trace India’s role in pressure in concert with the US on Pakistan to take on the terrorists.

While the military escalation is set to occur, preemption of the worst case possibility must be the focus. Keeping Pakistan on an even keel is a strategic necessity, since it is on the frontline. The Pakistani Taliban, in both its Pukhtun and Punjabi variants, would want to profit from instability. The resilience of Pakistan would be finally tested. Past experience suggests it could use whatever support possible, including, paradoxically, from India.

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