Ghosts at the Banquet

By Shujja Nawaz

Last week’s release of the latest White House report on Afghanistan and Pakistan drew the ire of Pakistani commentators to the few critiques hidden inside this 38-page document. Many had not read the entire document. No doubt a similar reaction will occur on the State Department’s human rights report released on April 8 that draws attention to the lack of public accountability inside Pakistan. These reports, as well as the Raymond Davis case, will continue to be the ghosts at the banquets accompanying the Strategic Dialogue between these “friends.” In the absence of a truly shared vision for the future of their relationship, both the U.S. and Pakistan continue to talk past each other and shift the blame for lack of cooperation on the other.

The United States, in seeking to move from a transactional relationship to a longer-term and consistent one with Pakistan continues to report on Pakistan in transactional terms. The much-touted reporting “metrics,” based more on art than science, force it into that mode. Pakistan has no publicly available evaluation of its own performance against the militancy from either the civilian government or the military. Parliament remains mum on this topic. And by continuing to accept Coalition Support Funds for its military operations, ostensibly in support of U.S. efforts in Afghanistan, Pakistan remains stuck in transactional mode. Meanwhile, Pakistani media jump on the bandwagon in stirring fears of some deeper conspiracy every time the U.S. critiques Pakistan.

The latest report notes “substantial, but also uneven” progress in efforts to increase dialogue, improve cooperation, and enhance exchange and assistance programs. It acknowledges the high cost to Pakistan and its Army of the military operations. And it stresses the need for U.S.-Pakistan-Afghanistan trilateral dialogue to produce regional stability. But the report states that “as a result of political gridlock, the government continues to be unable to develop consensus on difficult economic and fiscal reforms.” And it notes the “muted” response of the government to the blasphemy-laws discussion, allowing “extremist voices to dominate the public debate.” None of this seems to have caught the headlines in Pakistan. What did attract attention was the discussion of Pakistan’s operations against the militants in the western border region. These operations were the subject of my own report, Learning by Doing: the Pakistan Army’s Experience with Counterinsurgency, for the Atlantic Council in February based on visits to the region. I saw a dramatic improvement in the training of the Pakistan Army and Frontier Corps, including with U.S. help, to fight the war inside Pakistan’s borders and shift away from the total India-centric approach that guided it in the past.

The U.S. notes the “inability of the Pakistan military and governmentto render cleared areas resistant to insurgent return.” (My emphasis.) This is correct and points to the weakness in the civil-military nexus in planning and carrying out joint counterinsurgency (COIN) operations. Military action addresses the symptoms not the causes of discontent and violence, and cannot alone solve the problems associated with militancy. As a result, the COIN continuum of “clear, hold, build, and transfer” often stops at “hold” and sometimes reverts to “clear.” Swat has been the one area of success in this strategy, but not the federally-administered tribal areas. Coalition efforts in Afghanistan have suffered the same results. Moreover, and this the White House report does not highlight, the U.S. has failed to provide Pakistan with timely or sufficient equipment and weaponry to execute its plans in the difficult terrains of FATA and Malakand Division.

Even its criticism of the poor maintenance of the Pakistani helicopter fleet sounds hollow against the backdrop of continuous operations over the past eight years of a small fleet that has not been substantially enhanced by the U.S. Pakistan’s tiny fleet has had no rest and no time for refurbishment. Since 2001, the provision of no more than 26 Bell 412 helicopters, four Mi-17s plus six on loan, and 20 Cobra AH1F gunships do not provide an adequate force for Pakistan to use in a territory spanning thousands of square miles in high mountains and difficult weather conditions.

“There remains no clear path toward defeating the insurgency in Pakistan,” states the White House report. This has irked the Pakistani authorities no end, coming as it does in the presence of a similar situation inside Afghanistan. What might be better for both the U.S. and Pakistan is to focus on how best to address the causes of the insurgency. U.S. aid has been slow and most of it still is in the pipeline. In Pakistan, the setting up of the National Counter Terrorism Authority (NACTA) under the prime minister’s office is a must to help coordinate civilian efforts in support of the military. Pakistan needs to focus on the critical COIN-Counterterrorism (CT) nexus. Rather than being oversensitive to criticisms from abroad, Pakistan needs to exhibit serious introspection and reporting on its own operations or lack of action, so that it can solve its problems on its own. This is less an issue of resources and more of political vision and will.


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