The start of a new administration in Washington is an appropriate time to assess U.S. counterterrorism strategy in South Asia, especially at a time of intensifying terrorist and insurgent violence. Recent developments include the daring attack in Mumbai in November 2008 and the attack on the Sri Lankan cricket team in March 2009, as well as the continued increase of Taliban influence in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) and parts of the Northwest Frontier Province (NWFP) of Pakistan. These signal an escalation of tactics and an expansion of the area of operations of terrorist and insurgent groups.
The key to any U.S. strategy is the approach toward Taliban and al-Qaeda insurgents and terrorists entrenched in FATA and parts of NWFP. Addressing this problem is the crucial first step toward a comprehensive and more effective strategy. But dealing with militancy from FATA requires changing the basic attitude of the Pakistani security establishment from one that distinguishes between good and bad jihadis to one that realizes that all these militant groups, operating from Afghanistan to Kashmir, are part of the same broad umbrella of radical Islamic groups.
The Af-Pak Strategy’s Problems
The key elements of the Obama administration’s Af-Pak strategy — a new addition to the security lexicon, “Af-Pak” stands for a coordinated Afghanistan-Pakistan strategy — are troop increases in Afghanistan and broader cooperation with Pakistan that focuses more on non-military aid. The latter includes increasing economic aid to Pakistan to the tune of $6.5 billion this year and the introduction of reconstruction opportunity zones (ROZs) in the border areas of the two countries. This useful step also partly meets one of Islamabad’s key demands. But there won’t be any visible short-term results from this approach on the ground. The immediate strategy still revolves around stabilizing through military means.
Enhancing military effectiveness lies in increasing international troops and speedier training and deployment of Afghan forces. It’s also crucial that other countries, including members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), contribute more troops to the International Security Assistance Force from the current levels of about 30,000 non-U.S. international troops in the country. But even the additional 30,000 troops that Washington will deploy this year will be inadequate unless firm military pressure is also applied from the Pakistani side of the border. Unfortunately, although their country bears the brunt of violence, Pakistani political and military leaders are still ambivalent about a clean break with all Taliban variants. So far, while Islamabad has fought back against the Pakistani Taliban, it retains the Afghan Taliban (the original group, with Mullah Omar as its leader) as an ally, in pursuit of its goals in Afghanistan.
For example, New York Times journalist David Sanger, in his recently published book The Inheritance, writes about the Pakistani army warning Taliban leader Jalaluddin Haqqani about impending military strikes while the army chief, Gen. Ashfaq Pervez Kayani, reportedly referred to Haqqani as a “strategic asset.” Moreover, the senior Afghan Taliban leadership, including Mullah Mohammad Omar, is believed to be located in Quetta, Baluchistan, without any visible efforts by Islamabad to apprehend them.
To deal with the growth of Taliban networks in FATA and the adjoining NWFP, U.S. forces have launched hundreds of missiles from unmanned Predator aircraft in these areas. Subsequently, violations of Pakistani sovereignty have led to widespread protests and further strengthened radical groups. However, in the absence of Islamabad’s military control over these areas there are few other options, which is why the Obama administration has continued the missile strikes. Only if the Pakistan military exerts sustained military pressure on the Taliban from its side of the border, and demonstrably reduces areas under Taliban control, can such strikes realistically end.
But despite suffering hundreds of casualties in the anti-Taliban campaign, the Pakistani military has offered at best a tactical response rather than strategically targeting all branches of the Taliban, Pakistani and Afghan. The problem is exacerbated by Islamabad’s propensity to make deals with various Taliban groups, despite the dismal track record of such agreements. In the latest one, in February 2009, the NWFP provincial government concluded a deal with the Taliban-linked Tehrik Nifaz Shariat-e-Mohammadi (TNSM) in NWFP’s Swat Valley in February. The objectives are three-fold: to give some breathing space to the beleaguered Pakistani military, which is on the defensive in its campaign against the Pakistani variants of the Taliban; to pursue negotiations with the Taliban-linked groups and look for alternative political solutions; and to draw away groups from the Taliban fold in the manner that the Sunni “Awakening” turned around and opposed al-Qaeda in Iraq.
However, as previous agreements have unambiguously demonstrated, such deals have only allowed the Taliban network to regroup and emerge stronger. Moreover, the concessions offered to the Taliban are hardly a tactical retreat by the Pakistani military. The Swat Valley agreement expands the area under Taliban control, which significantly is outside the FATA, and allows the TNSM to impose Sharia law. In effect, the Pakistani government has handed the area over to the Taliban. And far from splitting the Taliban network, the Swat agreement led to a consolidation of the broad Taliban network as three prominent rival Pakistani Taliban leaders (including Baitullah Mehsud) came together in an alliance and accepted the original Taliban leader Mullah Omar as their head. With the Taliban movement’s renewed momentum and consolidation in Pakistan, the Pakistani Taliban branches may well turn their attention toward Afghanistan, as recommended by Mullah Omar, reassured that the Pakistan military cannot exert any further pressure. Previous Islamabad-Taliban agreements, such as those in the summer of 2008, similarly led to a burst of Taliban attacks across the border in Afghanistan.
Thus, increasing forces on the Afghan side is hardly going to help unless there is an equivalent response from the Pakistani side. Moreover, potential negotiations for a future political solution that could involve “moderate” Taliban elements have to be based on a carrot-and-stick policy. Unfortunately, the repeated concessions by Pakistan don’t involve any semblance of a “stick.” In any future talks, the Taliban will be the party negotiating from a position of strength, as it did with the Swat deal.
Pakistan’s military commitment is also hampered by increasing domestic political stability. The experiment with post-Musharraf civilian rule has soured, mainly because of President Asif Zardari’s many incapabilities, which have made even the final years of the Musharraf regime seem almost acceptable. Political instability only increased with a biased Supreme Court and its February disbarment of the Sharif brothers from elected office. The subsequent reinstatement of the dismissed Supreme Court chief justice, the main demand of the opposition parties, is a step in the right direction. But there has to be some degree of institutional stability in the country to prevent periodic political crises. Such upheavals make the Islamabad government even more divided and unstable, and reduce the efficacy of counterterrorism efforts. Moreover, it only increases the relative standing of the military in the political structure.
The Kashmir Connection?
As part of the Obama administration’s reappraisal of the Afghanistan-Pakistan strategy, there is a greater consideration of Islamabad’s needs and constraints. Consequently, some analysts and policymakers have advocated more attention to the Kashmir dispute in order to take care of Islamabad’s concerns, which would then allow for increased Pakistani cooperation against the Taliban. Simultaneously, Islamabad has argued that a solution to insurgency and terrorism in Afghanistan and Pakistan’s tribal areas involves a resolution of the Kashmir dispute. Islamabad expects that a negotiated end to the Kashmir standoff would reduce the incentive for terrorist networks to continue using violence to achieve their objectives. The unstated assumption is that if the Kashmir issue were resolved, the military in Pakistan would have no incentive to maintain links with terrorist groups.
But it’s unclear why the various Taliban branches would necessarily be satisfied with a resolution of the Kashmir dispute. Even though they have links with Lashkar and Jaish-e-Mohammad, among other groups, the Taliban network is focused more on expanding its area of influence in western Pakistan and Afghanistan. In their demands to Islamabad and the United States, they haven’t raised the Kashmir issue beyond generic anti-India statements.
Moreover, what does “resolution” of the Kashmir dispute even mean? Especially since the 1999 Kargil war, the international community increasingly accepts the sanctity of the Line of Control (LoC) that divides the two Kashmirs. Redrawing of borders is out of the question. The only options are to formalize the LoC to be formalized and/or adopt some version of the “irrelevance of borders” strategy. Groups like Lashkar-e-Taiba and hardline elements of the Pakistan military are hardly likely to be satisfied with a middle path. Even if there were a link between Af-Pak counterterrorism strategy and the Kashmir question, India-oriented terrorist groups won’t accept any of the realistic solutions.
The only reason to subsume the Kashmir issue under the broader Afghanistan-Pakistan problem would be to force some concessions for the Pakistan military and sections of the militant-religious establishment that have historically supported the Kashmiri militancy. But this only legitimizes a strategy of state-sponsored terrorism, something the international community can ill afford. And, as reported by Steve Coll in the New Yorker in March, secret negotiations between Indian and Pakistani representatives on Kashmir have already taken place, and made more progress than previous rounds of public talks. Although these negotiations broke down because of President Musharraf’s weakening domestic position in 2007, it did demonstrate that there is ground for meaningful negotiations between the two sides.
One reason why Islamabad came around to the idea of negotiating a political settlement was a realization among some sections of the establishment that its traditional policy of supporting the Kashmiri militancy was counterproductive. Islamabad must recognize that it can’t pick and choose the jihadi groups that it will combat while retaining the rest as strategic assets. Making progress on the Kashmir dispute a precursor for renewed commitment in the anti-Taliban campaign risks removing any incentive for Islamabad to change its attitude in talks with India. Why would Islamabad bother to seriously continue negotiations with India when the Taliban issue can be leveraged for more gains on the Kashmir dispute through U.S. pressure on New Delhi?
The debate over strategy on the region throws up an increasing list of “what not to do” policies, as compared with concrete steps that are compatible with existing resources at hand. But the sine qua non of any Af-Pak policy has to be a permanent rollback of the Taliban’s armed capabilities, especially on the Pakistan side. As past experience shows, short-term deals with militant groups do more harm than good. Eventually, there has to be a political solution in Pakistan’s tribal areas and Afghanistan. But such a solution has to be negotiated from a position of strength, and only a comprehensive military response to the Taliban in the immediate present can set the stage for a meaningful political solution.