Dangers of the Afghan war

By Khalid Aziz

THE US Defence Department’s quadrennial review for 2006 defined the security threat facing the US in the following words:

“The United States is a nation engaged in what will be a long war. Since the attacks of September 11, 2001, our nation has fought a global war against violent extremists who use terrorism as their weapon of choice, and who seek to destroy our free way of life. …Currently, the struggle is centred in Iraq and Afghanistan, but we will need to be prepared and arranged to successfully defend our nation and its interests around the globe for years to come….”

The review highlighted areas that required strengthening; one of these advocated the shift of emphasis from “conducting war against nations – to conducting war in countries we are not at war with (safe havens)”.

This means fighting war by stealth, while maintaining the façade of peace. In this sense, the Defence Department has entered an Orwellian construct where we live in a world of, “doublethink [that] means the power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one’s mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them”.

In 2006, we find the US military seeking a solution to fighting a war within the territory of a country with whom it is at peace – Pakistan. However, by 2011, the US had developed the capacity to execute that kind of war with success, through pilotless aircraft, special forces operations, pursuit teams in Fata, electronic surveillance and false-flag operations – like the Raymond Davis affair. They all add up to a formidable capacity to fight such a war within the territory of an ally.

The operation to kill Osama bin Laden was the latest and not the last example of this new approach. Both the US and Pakistan are allies in the war on terror; that is where the agreement ends, as Pakistan is beginning to lose cohesiveness. If it becomes ungovernable, then the chaos will dwarf any gains made by the new US strategy.

The Pakistani political-military elite supports the overall objective of defeating Taliban radicalism and countering extremism; yet the population is not really concerned with this goal being more worried by the daily business of living under increasingly gruelling conditions. Pakistani public sentiment is seen to largely support the Taliban perceived as fighting a war of liberation against a foreign ‘aggressor’.

As long as the US remains in Afghanistan, it will feed that perception. Therefore, improved US metrics in Afghanistan don’t really add up to much. The situation in some ways resembles the Tet Offensive in Vietnam. The US won but ultimately lost the Vietnam War.

Military logic says that if you kill enough of the enemy you can dictate the terms. Yet this is not how it works in Afghanistan or Pakistan. The counterintuitive war on terror creates the following logic. Pakistan is a huge country with a population of 180 million and a military strength of around 500,000.

Large tracts of the country that provide the soldiery for the military are also regions that have over the last 20 years become the hotbed of radicalism and contributed fighters who have battled the US troops in Afghanistan and fought against the Pakistan Army in Fata and Swat. At one time, these forces were used by Pakistan against the Indian forces in Kashmir.

These warriors have now grown numerously over the last three decades and fought first against the Soviet Union and later India. They are now convinced that they are fighting a defensive jihad against the Pakistani and US forces for the freedom of Afghanistan, a Muslim land.

The dangerous consequence is that since 9/11 the contagion of jihad has entered the military at the junior commissioned level, a class whose scions are represented at the highest level in the military thus creating profound doubts and misgivings in this class for launching new operations that the US is demanding so vociferously. They are seen as threatening the unity of the armed forces. Operationally, sympathy for the Taliban cause creates the danger of leakage of battle secrecy.

Secondly, as transpired in the 2009 attack on GHQ and the complicity of some ranks in the Mehran naval base attack last month, there is a real threat of possible fragmentation of the fighting forces. It is these considerations that compel the Pakistan military to avoid new operations. It is this fear that prevents the military from moving against the Haqqani network in North Waziristan. The US too faces a dilemma. Should it under these considerations exert pressure on Pakistani decision-makers to launch new operations in North Waziristan or elsewhere? Perhaps the US needs to step back and think. Its unilateral actions in Pakistan may open a can of worms that would be difficult to shut once opened. Pakistanis don’t only live within the country. There is huge diaspora overseas in many countries of the West and the US. They could become a threat.

If the destabilisation of Pakistan is a much more serious danger than the challenge in Afghanistan then does it not call for prudence in handling the situation in Pakistan? Should this not also result in a new strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan?

Given the threats facing it, Pakistan must seriously undertake de-radicalisation and reintegration of an angry population.

However, a necessary condition for this to happen is leadership.

This analysis suggests that the US needs to phase out of Afghanistan as early as possible. If the fighting continues then Pakistan will become more brittle and the ability of its military on which the US depends heavily will be compromised. This must not happen.

The writer is chairman of the Regional Institute of Policy Research in Peshawar.



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