Friday, November 21, 2008




    The most remarkable aspect of the War on Terror that is purportedly being fought on both sides of the Durand line is the sheer lack of trust, not only between adversaries but also between allies. By extending drone attacks into the settled districts of NWFP, the US has yet again delivered an unambiguous message that it will not hesitate to strike unilaterally against terrorist targets inside Pakistan. More than anything else, the attack on an al Qaeda safe house in Bannu demonstrates US' lack of confidence in the ability, willingness and, most of all, commitment of Pakistani security agencies in combating the Islamists. Clearly, the US is not ready to share information with the Pakistanis and let them take the lead in anti-terror operations because they are not sure if the information will not be leaked to the intended targets, some of who – Hafiz Gul Bahadur, Mullah Nazir, Jalaluddin Haqqani, to name a few – retain close links with the Pakistani intelligence agencies.

    Even though senior US civil and military officials publicly appreciate Pakistani efforts to curb the Islamist insurgency, particularly after the military action in Bajaur and Swat, the suspicion that the Pakistanis are playing both sides outweighs the praise. There are good reasons for the doubts about Pakistan that continue to linger in minds of US officials. After all, how is it that a much-vaunted fighting force like the Pakistan army has not been able to oust the Taliban from Bajaur and Swat for over three months now despite using heavy artillery, fighter jets, helicopter gunships and tanks? It is said that the Taliban are very well dug in behind an intricate network of defensive earthworks. But if the Taliban are fighting what is by all descriptions a conventional conflict, then why has the Pakistan army deployed only around 10,000 troops in Bajaur? Why not 40,000 or even more? While the Pakistan army claims to be bleeding the Islamists, there is no independent confirmation of these claims. For all anybody knows, these claims could be mere psy-war to boost the morale of troops and at the same time damage that of the Islamists and their supporters. But psy-war can be counter-productive if there is no progress on the ground.

    This begs the question why the Pakistanis are not going whole hog against the Islamists. There are five plausible reasons for keeping the conflict lingering. The first is the India factor. In other words, the Pakistan army is using the bogey of its commitments on the eastern front to avoid moving more forcefully on the western front. And now, with US president-elect Barack Obama linking a resolution of Kashmir with the situation in Afghanistan, the India factor has acquired a new salience. Second, the Pakistanis see the continuing conflict as a cash cow. The dollars will continue to flow Pakistan's way as long as this conflict lasts. The trick is to keep it manageable so that it doesn't acquire proportions that actually threaten the Pakistani state's survival. Lending credence to this is the hubris in many top Pakistani military officials that the Taliban don't pose a significant challenge and can be bottled up as and when the decision to do so is taken. That this could be a serious miscalculation is not something that bothers the people who hold this view.

     A third reason could be that the army doesn't want to eliminate the Taliban completely because they might be needed in Kashmir and Afghanistan as and when the Americans leave, something that the Pakistanis believe will happen in not too distant a future. Perhaps this is why the use of force is at present only aimed at demonstrating to the 'irreconcilable' elements among the Taliban the massive firepower that will be brought to bear if they don't agree to function within the parameters set for them by the Army. The idea is to not allow the insurgency to capture any more territory, and at the same time not push it back completely. If in the process of a military stand-off, a substantial section of the militants can be made amenable to play the game by the army's rules, then they can be used for fighting the dirty wars in Afghanistan and Kashmir.

    The fourth reason could be that the Pakistan army no longer has the capacity, capability or commitment to comprehensively defeat the Taliban. The Generals probably don't want to exert beyond a point to win back the areas they have lost to the insurgents because retaining control over regained territory is an immensely difficult and expensive proposition. The force levels required to maintain supply lines and re-establish the writ of the state in this inhospitable terrain are not going to be easy to garner for the Pakistani state.

    Finally, there could be a real fear that large scale military operations may worsen situation rather than improve it. In case the militants fight the army to a stand-still or worse, defeat the army in a few engagements, it could precipitate a crisis of unmanageable proportions for the Pakistani state. The unavoidable collateral damage – civilian casualties, hundreds of thousands of internally displaced people,
large scale destruction of homes and hearths – could unleash forces that could push the Pakistani state into failure. It is for this reason that the Pakistani authorities don't want to throw everything at the insurgents and want to keep open the option of a political settlement.

    In all likelihood, all these reasons are playing a role in what outsiders see as Pakistan's continuing ambivalence on the issue of fighting the Islamists. But there is another very important reason for Pakistan's double-game. The Pakistani security establishment and an influential section of the intelligentsia harbour deep suspicions, nay paranoia, of American objectives in the region. This is being reflected in the public discourse inside Pakistan that is increasingly veering around to the view that the Americans want to redraw the borders in the region and deprive Pakistan of its nuclear capability. Many Pakistanis are convinced that the US and India have deliberately diverted the Islamist insurgency into Pakistan in order to destabilize Pakistan and destroy its nuclear capability. In support of this theory, they point to the inflow of weapons and militants from Afghanistan for the insurgents and ask why the US does not destroy these supply lines. It is entirely possible that the US and perhaps even India are maintaining listening posts in Afghanistan, and might even be using smuggling networks as double agents to get information from ground zero which is then used to strike at high value targets. But to imagine that this is what is sustaining the insurgency inside Pakistan is nothing but denial at its worst.

Exploiting the growing divide between the so-called allies is the Taliban. They have very cunningly thrown the bait of a ceasefire to be followed by a dialogue towards Pakistan. The Taliban have proposed a ceasefire not because they believe in it but because it will come handy to fix both the Pakistanis and the Americans. At the same time they will use the space created by a ceasefire to rebuild and regroup their forces. While a ceasefire and negotiations will satisfy the Pakistani public's desire for a negotiated political settlement with the Islamist insurgents, it will be unacceptable for the Americans simply because even the Islamists who are in favour of negotiations with Pakistani authorities are very clear that they will continue to wage jihad against the foreign troops in Afghanistan.

The Americans will therefore mount immense political, military and economic pressure on Pakistan to prevent it from entering into any deal with the Islamists. If the Pakistanis disregard US reservations, they risk economic collapse and the prospect of military confrontation with the US. On the other hand, if the Pakistani government succumbs to US pressure it will cause public outrage, which will only increase if the US and Pakistani military operations intensify against the insurgents and the Taliban retaliate in major towns and cities across Pakistan.


    <1340 Words>                    21st November, 2008



Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home