Monday, April 13, 2009

Off-Topic: The situation in northern Pakistan

It is maddeningly difficult to sort out all the competing factors playing a role in northern Pakistan. A quick look at geography would lay to rest any naive geo-political theories. Pakistan shares a border with India, Iran, Afghanistan, China - along with a heavy presence of US and NATO forces in Afghanistan. I have written couple of posts on drone attacks in Pakistan (for example, see Push-button executions from the skies). From what I have been reading, the drone attacks seems to have been extremely successful in killing Taliban and al-Qaida operatives (please note - these are two distinct entities, and further that the Taliban come in many different flavors). At the same time, the collateral damage (i.e. civilian casualties) from the drone attacks and its psychological impact is resulting in a mass anti-American sentiment. In fact, "drone attack" is now a vernacular phrase in Urdu. Plus, the success of the killings in the tribal regions is driving the militants into mainland Pakistan - and also into the major cities. So what is the long strategic objective of the drone attacks and what is the end-objective on this front? It seems to me that the drones are winning battles but loosing the war.

What about the situation on the ground? If you are at all interested in sorting through the geo-political mess (as well as one can...) in northern Pakistan, please read this interesting and depressing article, Taliban v. Taliban. Caution: Yes, it may give you a headache while following all the twists and turns. But I should mention that even all of this complexity is not complete, as it is without any discussion of the strategic game between China and the US in region (China has recently built a high-tech sea-port at Gwadar in southern Pakistan and the US has access to an airbase in Baluchistan), not to mention that Iran also shares a border with Baluchistan. Phew! Ok. So here are couple of points to highlight (but read the full article to get the full picture):

Pakistan has been worried by India’s increasing interest in Afghanistan since the Bonn conference in November 2001 at which Afghan factional leaders and UN officials met to discuss the formation of a post-Taliban government. At that conference it became clear that the pro-Pakistani Afghan Taliban would be purged from the new Afghanistan under Karzai and replaced by forces dominated by commanders from the Northern Alliance (NA), which had opposed the Taliban regime before 9/11 and fought with US troops to overthrow it. India, Iran and Russia were the NA’s main supporters while Islamabad was backing the Taliban. Neither Pakistan nor the Taliban was invited to Bonn – this was ‘the original sin’, according to Lakhdar Brahimi, the UN representative.

India is one of Karzai’s few remaining champions. Delhi sees the new Afghanistan as a part of its sphere of influence. It has four consulates in Afghanistan and has given its government $1.2 billion in aid: a remarkable sum for it to donate to a country that is 99 per cent Muslim and with which it has no common border. Delhi has also put up the new parliament building and chancery, and has helped to train the army. India’s most ambitious – and, for Pakistan, most alarming – Afghan project is a new highway that will provide a route to the Iranian port of Chabahar. Not only will Afghanistan no longer need to use Pakistani ports, the road’s destination is a clear indication of India’s intention to consolidate an alliance with Iran in western Afghanistan in order to counter Pakistan’s influence in eastern Afghanistan. The road network, as they see it, is a new way to fight an old war. It’s precisely in order to resist the India-Iran bloc – as well as the emerging axis between Delhi and Washington – that the ISI has aligned itself with the Afghan Taliban and Haqqani.

I think Pakistan's exclusion from the Bonn conference was a critical mistake. But that wasn't the only policy blunder:

Since 9/11 Washington has tended to use Islamabad as a gun for hire: the army was given around $1 billion a year on condition that it secured supplies to US and Nato forces in Afghanistan and fought against the Taliban and al-Qaida in the tribal areas. In agreeing this condition Pakistan had expected that its interests would be taken into account following the Anglo-American invasion. But unlike India or Iran, and despite its services to Washington, Islamabad was given no say in the formation of the Afghan government. This confirmed Pakistanis in their view that Musharraf and his army were no better than mercenaries fighting ‘America’s war’, and as a result of this humiliation, the Pakistani army has interpreted its commitments selectively, opposing ‘safe havens’ that might be used to launch attacks against other countries, but supporting the Afghan Taliban insurgency. Washington is exasperated by Pakistan’s refusal to fight the Taliban, but it’s been given little incentive to do so.

Fear of India’s influence was heightened by Bush’s decree last July allowing US Special Forces in Afghanistan to pursue al-Qaida and Taliban fugitives into Pakistan’s territory without the approval of its government. There has been one US ground assault and more than 30 drone attacks since then, overwhelmingly in North and South Waziristan. Washington claims to have a tacit agreement about the drone strikes with the Pakistan government. The government denies this. Army officers admit that the strikes may have killed scores of al-Qaida fighters, and that the ISI may have supplied intelligence for the operations, but the missiles have also killed civilians, including pro-government tribal elders.

Now there are signs that the Obama administration is correcting some of the policy mistakes (actually it has to do that in almost all areas). For example, it is planning on providing aid primarily for civilian programs. However, it is continuing some of the old strategy:

America has just unveiled a strategic review of its policy towards Afghanistan, Pakistan and the tribal areas. While civilian aid to the Pakistan government will increase, Obama will continue with certain policies from the Bush era. One is the use of military force. There will be more drone attacks in the tribal areas (at least 80 people have been killed by US missiles since January) and perhaps in Balochistan, and a ‘surge’ of 21,000 US troops in Afghanistan, mostly along the border with Pakistan. Obama has also promised that US policy towards India – and Kashmir in particular – will be ‘dehyphenated’ from policy towards Pakistan and Afghanistan.

One consequence is that three feuding Taliban factions have now joined forces against ‘Obama, Zardari and Karzai’ in an agreement brokered by Mullah Omar. One of the factions is led by Baitullah Mehsud. The other two are pro-Afghan Taliban factions based in South and North Waziristan, which had largely refrained from attacking the Pakistan state and army but may not do so any longer. The army is also worried that the surge could cause a further flight of Afghan Taliban and other militants into the tribal areas. If the army acts against them, retaliatory strikes may follow across Pakistan. If it doesn’t, US and Afghan soldiers might chase them inside Pakistan – as they did last September, killing 20 tribesmen ‘by mistake’. Any such incursion would unite the Pashtun tribes behind the Taliban, deepen anti-American sentiment in the army and stretch US-Afghan-Pakistani co-operation to breaking point.

The article ultimately argues (more or less correctly) that the mess in northern Pakistan will only be sorted out when there is peace between Pakistan and India - and that will only happen when the two countries are not trying to out-maneuver each other over Kashmir. Talking about a recent attempt at a solution:

The process collapsed partly because of the political crisis that engulfed Musharraf after he sacked Pakistan’s chief justice in 2007. But it also fell apart because India did not reciprocate: military rule in Indian-occupied Kashmir remained as entrenched as ever. ‘The army’s recent experience with India is very bitter,’ a Pakistani analyst told me. ‘After 2004 the army scaled down militant intrusions into Kashmir by 95 per cent. And India’s response was to refuse to talk about Kashmir. The army thinks it would be the same in Afghanistan if it abandoned the Afghan Taliban.’ In the last year Indian Kashmir has seen increased penetration by Pakistani militants and skirmishes between the Pakistani and Indian armies. The spike seems to have less to do with Kashmir, where violence is at its lowest ebb in 20 years, than with the proxy war in Afghanistan. And it would suggest that – far more than on strategic reviews – peace in Afghanistan rests on peace between India and Pakistan. The road out of Kabul goes through Kashmir.

All sorted out! Read the full article here. While I agree with most of his analysis, there are other factors that are taking life of their own. Hard-line Islam is rapidly gaining ground in Pakistan, of which sharia in Swat is only one manifestation. Some Pakistani groups are merging with al-Qaida. True, most of them are directed against India - but some are also embracing a more global approach. If these issues are not dealt with soon, even a peace with India will not produce calm in the region .

Update (4/14): And if you are still not concerned enough, here is an article from today's NYT: Allied Militants Threaten Pakistan's Populous Heart. I'm not too surprised by the article as Lahore has started seeing major bombings - and Lahore used to be a very safe city. What's truly frightening is the furious pace of the spreading militancy. (by the way, this article also notes the repercussions of drone attacks in Pakistan's tribal areas).

Update (4/17): Another article about how the Taliban have been able to exploit class tensions and channel rage for their gains. See Taliban exploit class rifts to gain ground in Pakistan. This goes well with the above article from 4/14 - as it provides the blueprint for how the Taliban are going to destabilize Pakistan's populous areas. Yup - things are every bit as frightening as advertized.