If Such an Eventuality Takes Place, Pakistan’s Problems Will Be Compounded

Obama’s election was a miraculous event. Americans did not believe it could happen. Another miracle will be needed if his Afghan strategy is to succeed. But because Obama achieved a miracle once, some believe that he can make it happen again.

Pakistani soldiers secure an area on Kund mountain in South Waziristan on October 29, 2009 (Nicolas Asfouri/Pool/AP)

In his speech on Tuesday, Obama outlined an escalation of forces (30,000) and their exit simultaneously; to expand the war and to shut it down; to send more troops and yet promise not to send more after that even if the situation deteriorates — in other words to say yes and no.

Paradoxes are infectious. Pakistan too does not want a US withdrawal, but neither do we want a US surge because that will drive the insurgents into Pakistan. We do not want to fight the Afghan Taliban, but wish to crush the Pakistani variety, although they are from the same genre and, for some, inseparable.  The Taliban also want to have their cake and eat it, too. They do not wish to fight the Pak Army but, according to Ahmed Rashid, want their Pakistani brothers in arms to clear the Army out of the North West Frontier Province (NWFP) so that their base areas could expand. But for sheer fantasy, nothing can beat the Europeans, who, with the exception of the hapless British, actually want to win a war without fighting. “The happy state”, as Horace wrote, “of getting the victors palm without the dust of racing”.

Admittedly, without contraries there can be no progression but what the protagonists in the Afghan war desire is nothing less than the marriage of heaven and hell, and that requires a miracle.

Conventional military doctrine has it that to win a war an occupation army needs 20 to 25 soldiers for every one thousand of the population. By this reckoning America would require 600,000 men to win in Afghanistan. Such a large number, to speak of the financial cost ($800 billion?), is beyond America’s ability to raise or afford.

Nor can America tolerate a stalemate, for many reasons; not the least of which is the growing unpopularity of the war. The absurd notion that some fanatics can, notwithstanding all the precautions taken since 9/11, steal into the US from the Afghan badlands and hijack planes or explode bombs is far-fetched. What is worse, it is considered reason enough to have young Americans returning in body bags and to have innocent Afghans being carted off to improvised burial grounds. It smacks of Cheney’s “1% theory” which asserted that if there was a 1% chance of a terrorist attack on America the source of the threat must be eliminated; a notion born out of arrogance and paranoia was paraded as policy.

Obama can beat up on the Taliban for a few more years and then offer some operational successes as a smoke screen to declare victory and withdraw. Alternatively, he may be able to kill or capture a high profile al Qaeda leader, perhaps even Osama bin Laden or Ayman al-Zawahiri, if they are alive and in Af-Pak, and declare that the surge has been successful and the mission accomplished. This may earn Obama kudos with the American electorate but it won’t change anything on the ground. There are Islamists and ultra nationalist Muslims in every village in Afghanistan. Xenophobia existed in Afghanistan long before bin Laden’s arrival, (the Arabs of al Qaeda are pejoratively called “camels” by the Taliban), and will continue much after America’s departure.

Even a “negotiated” departure and the semblance of a broad based government, as the end product of parleys, will have little impact because once the Americans leave it will be unenforceable. Negotiating with the Taliban is a tricky matter; compared to them an eel is like a leech. They do the opposite of what they promise and think nothing of it; Afghan history consists of a litany of broken promises, by the Afghan themselves, the British (“the perfidious Albion”) and the Russians. If the Durand line has survived it is not because a commitment given must be honoured, but rather because of the inability to undo a commitment extracted.

In addition to the 3 US brigades that are reportedly being sent in response to General McChrystal’s request, Obama is trying to inveigle the reluctant Europeans to send more troops. And last week in Washington, the Indian Prime Minister was feted, lavishly praised, and induced with offers of every kind of cooperation, including full nuclear partner status and open ended access to America’s armoury, in return for his help in prising America out of the Afghan bog: “The United States and India have agreed to work jointly to deal with terrorism emanating from India’s neighbourhood and to defeat terrorist safe havens in Pakistan and Afghanistan,” (Dawn, Nov. 26).

While cooperation to thwart terrorism from one and all is welcome, America should tread warily when it comes to co-opting India in any joint operation that involves Pakistan. General McChrystal’s sensible caution that India’s further involvement in Afghanistan is likely to prove a red rag to the Pakistani bull is worth heeding. Obama must know that the closer that America draws in India, the further it moves away from Pakistan, and without Pakistan’s cooperation no solution is workable. Managing relations with a much disliked US is difficult enough for a Pakistani government. Keeping them on an even keel would be impossible if there is military collusion between India and the US in targeting Pakistani territory.

Terrorism is no doubt a global issue but whether the Taliban or the Northern Alliance prevails in Afghanistan is not. It is an exclusively domestic concern of the Afghans. None of Afghanistan’s neighbours’, including Pakistan (not to speak of countries further afield), have the right to interfere. Besides, history has shown that interference begets interference.

Of course, the world and the US in particular are legitimately concerned whether an Afghanistan under the Taliban will again become a safe haven for al Qaeda. That obviously cannot be allowed to happen; although, as Polk has pointed out, “the terrorists who attacked New York and Washington on 11 September were partly trained in the US and based mainly in Europe. Propaganda emanated from Afghanistan but the real work was done elsewhere. Terrorists can operate from anywhere.”

Will, therefore, the Taliban allow terrorists to set up shop again? And, if they do, will they want to endure the severance of trade and communication links between a Taliban controlled Afghanistan and the outside world? And, what is more, raids by coalition Special Forces against al Qaeda hideouts and the Taliban themselves, aided by Pakistan and others? In short, will the Taliban permit their al Qaeda guests to endanger the lives of their hosts for the sake of something as unavailing, nebulous and far-fetched as a world Islamic Caliphate? Will the Taliban once again be willing to commit political suicide – assuming, that is, if they manage to conquer Kabul and the rest of Afghanistan after America leaves, by itself, a tall ask?

One thinks not, because the Taliban aren’t mad, and if they appear to be from another planet they nevertheless bleed like those on Earth. Besides, why has the eminently sane Holbrooke said that he could negotiate with madmen? The Taliban too must have their lucid moments.

By letting the dust settle where it will in Afghanistan, and by forswearing interference, a great deal of turmoil can be avoided. Instead, we are warned that civil war will follow a US withdrawal; tens of thousands of causalities would result; Afghan refugees would flood Pakistan; the Pakistani Taliban and al Qaeda would run rampant; Pakistani generals would cave in to the Taliban and lose control over Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal; Islamic violence would overtake India; an Indo-Pak war would take place and quickly go nuclear and al Qaeda would attack Britain and the US (Steve Coll, The New Yorker).

Similar disasters were predicted for the free world if North Vietnam was allowed to prevail over the South. Many had sleepless nights wondering which “domino” was to fall next once Saigon was evacuated. As it happened 53,000 Americans died only to prevent what did not and could not happen.

The threat posed by the Pakistani Taliban, the Jihadis, and al Qaeda to Pakistan, though serious, is not of the magnitude that cannot be contained and rolled back. Indeed, that is happening. The American presence in Afghanistan is of no help; quite the contrary. What would help is financial support and access to markets. Pakistan will win, not because it is winning, but because it wants to win, and that’s what counts.

Zafar Hilaly is a former Pakistan ambassador to Rome and one of  the  most  respected analysts in  Pakistan.