By Amit Pandya – The strategy announced by President Obama on March 27th offers some welcome improvements. It acknowledges US failures to date, and the limited abilities of the governments of Afghanistan and Pakistan to act in support of our objectives. It emphasizes international consensus, and the need to involve all stakeholders, including Iran. It also continues some desirable and well-established features of US policy, such as partnerships with Afghanistan and Pakistan, and emphasizes the essential inter-relationship between security and development.
However, its basic framework and assumptions are flawed. It threatens to exacerbate the situation. It evinces excessive reliance on military force – both significant expansion of the Afghan Army and increased operations by US, NATO, Pakistani and Afghan armed forces. It also requires pressure to be brought to bear on the Pakistan government to more aggressively prosecute the battle against Al Qaeda and its extremist allies. Each of these reflects failure to acknowledge key realities.
War has caused significant institutional and social decay and political instability in both countries. A substantial increase in the size of the Afghan Army will further militarize that society, and tip the national-local balance upon which Afghan political stability has always depended. An increase in military operations by international armed forces and the Pakistan Army will only compound the social and cultural unraveling that is a significant source of violence in both societies.
In addition to the objective damage this causes to the social fabric that will ultimately have to sustain a stable future for the region, it also compounds the negative perception of the US there. People in both countries consider the US in no small part responsible, first in the 1980s fostering in both countries a culture of jihad and supporting radical insurgents (in concert with the Pakistani and Saudi governments) to counter Soviet power in Afghanistan, and in this decade conducting a war there which has spilled over into Pakistan.
Increased military operations will also result in more inadvertent civilian casualties, will give rise to more popular resentment, and could be a source of recruitment by insurgents. President Obama noted the 700 US dead, and the fact that 2008 was the deadliest year of the war for US forces. He might equally have noted that according to a UN report released in February, Afghan civilian casualties were 40% greater in 2008 than in 2007, and that fully half of these were the result of military operations by the international forces.
The way the administration plans to deal with the Pakistan government is troubling. While the President spoke of helping Pakistan, as a fellow-victim of al Qaeda and allied extremists, he also suggested that “… we will not, and cannot, provide a blank check. Pakistan must demonstrate its commitment to rooting out al Qaeda and the violent extremists within its borders. And we will insist that action be taken – one way or another (emphasis added) – when we have intelligence about high level targets.” The implication that the US would consider overriding the sovereign judgments of Pakistan, that we presume that Pakistan is not aware of its own security interests in rooting out these sources of violence, is ominous in the extreme. It flies in the face of all that we know about the deep nationalist concern and distrust – among liberal, progressive and secular Pakistanis – of our intentions and attitude in Pakistan.
Such a risky policy can only be based on the understanding that it is necessary to meet the principal source of threat against the US homeland. However, it exaggerates the extent to which control of territory is the key to al Qaeda’s capacity to threaten us, our friends and the civilized world.
Far more important to the execution of terrorist operations against us are financial, communications, technological and organizational networks located pervasively (and less detectably) throughout global society. Certainly in some cases the connivance or fecklessness of governments is important, as was that of the Afghan, Pakistani, Saudi, Sudanese and UAE governments in the lead-up to 9/11. However, these were complicit in access to networks, as much as in territorial control. The Pakistan-Afghanistan frontier is quite remote from those institutions and networks.
That said, territorial presence in these areas of al Qaeda and other extremists is not entirely immaterial. Training in Pakistan and Afghanistan remains a part of the operations of international terrorist networks. A better way to prevent a return to the former Taliban government’s protection of al Qaeda would be based on incentives and vigilance. The Taliban should be offered opportunity to participate in the political process of Afghanistan on condition that alliance with or hospitality to al Qaeda would be a deal-breaker. A consensus of all stakeholders among Afghanistan’s neighbors and other Afghan parties would act as watchdogs and guarantors of this. This would require intense US effort and commitment of diplomatic capital, but a lower US profile.
A variety of Pakistani opinion is convinced that the country is the secondary victim of the instability in Afghanistan and of the foreign military presence there. This rejects the notion implicit in the President’s strategy that Pakistan is the principal source of the threat to Afghanistan and the US. “Please go home,” they say, “stop making things worse, and let us deal with this in our own way.” Despite the Obama administration’s exclusive emphasis on al Qaeda and their extremist allies as the source of violence and extremism in Pakistan, the truth is that there is a far more pervasive culture of extremist ideologies there that affects much broader elements of the population, and leads to tacit sympathy with purveyors of violence seen as “standing up to the Americans.” This is challenge enough for Pakistani society. It is exacerbated, not ameliorated, by a high US profile in continuing instability in the region.
We cannot have absolute confidence that the Pakistani and Afghan peoples, institutions and governments will succeed in dealing with their security challenges in their own way. However, relying on them is a more promising approach to accomplishing US objectives. The new US policy will make matters worse, not better.
Amit Pandya is a Senior Associate at the Henry L. Stimson Center and Director of the project Regional Voices: Transnational Challenges.