Pak-US relations: the "safe havens" dip

Daily: Daily Times
Date: 24.09.17

Prospects for peace are subservient to the fear of unknown. Each year the month of
September discharges this message to the US, which still believes that if 9/11 can visit the
US once, it can visit it again. Certainly, the maxim that the ruinous part of history retains the
option of and potential for self-replication keeps a human being wary of the visiting future.

One wonders if the definitional aspect of ‘safe havens’ creates any problem in relations
between Pakistan and the US. Do Pakistanis and Americans define the term, ‘safe havens,’
in the same way or is there any definitional variance present?

The US may have gotten hold of some intelligence lead that a kind of safe haven is extant
in the western half of Pakistan, especially in the suburbs of Quetta and Peshawar, but
Pakistan may not perceive the human assemblage or activity automatically qualifying any
area for being declared a safe haven. It is high time both governments aired their
definitional perspective on safe havens. Nevertheless, to an outsider to the exclusive
informational loop, the apparent yardstick to gauge the possibility for the presence of the
number of safe havens in the western half of Pakistan is the number of violent attacks on
Kabul. What bolster this causational relationship is the past, when the Taliban were born
into the suburbs of Quetta (Qilla Abdullah District) and later on appeared in Spin Boldak, a
district in the eastern Kandahar Province of Afghanistan, in October 1994. The notoriety of
the suburbs of Peshawar for harbouring the Taliban was established in the aftermath of
9/11 when the Taliban, along with al-Qaeda operatives, fled Afghanistan in celerity and
took refuge in Pakistan..

The US thinks that, in the post-1996 era, when the Taliban were holding the reins of Kabul,
the presence of safe havens for al-Qaeda in Afghanistan inflicted 9/11 on the US. Today,
the presence of any safe havens around Afghanistan keeps alive the danger of the
disruption of peace in Kabul. The concern ancillary to this supposed tragedy is that if the
Kabul government crumbles, the next round of the spawning of safe heavens back in
Afghanistan for any al-Qaeda like organisation may take place prompting to repeat the 9/11
episode.

Two such developments are known in Pakistan, but their end results remain unknown. First,
the success of drone strikes in Pakistan’s tribal area in eliminating al-Qaeda was the
outcome of the information provided accurately to the US authorities by insiders to the tribal
area. That is, the loyalty of certain locals, whosoever was ready to assist in return for
money (or may be for the US citizenship), was bought to turn against the foreign militants
who had sought refuge there. The US dollars on the ground and missile-laden drones in
the air squeezed the life out of al-Qaeda. In this regard, what is less emphasised are
drones, which are bald of missiles. The technological (or electronic) advancement in the
drone technology generating drones of various sizes and types help a drone-handler to
gather information of any locality. Listening drones are also available to the bewilderment of
many. Second, over the years, the Peshawar Consulate of the US has grown in its technical
size to increase the compass of its intelligence (or information) gathering activities. Both the
chip and strip technologies have outclassed their competitors. Certainly, the consecration
aspect of any war is that it allows the allocation of resources, both human and material, to
develop a new kind of technology.

Sometimes, it seems that the term ‘Taliban’ is both illusory and cumbrous in the sense that
it creates necessarily an impression of a Pashtun militant of Afghan nationality, who has
been educated from a religious seminary in the western half of Pakistan and who claims to
have stakes in the political affairs of Afghanistan. Generally, the relationship between an
Afghan and the politics of Afghanistan makes sense, but the relationship between a Taliban
and the Afghan politics is impugned because of the assumed tilt of the Taliban (ie Afghan
Taliban) towards Pakistan. Against this background, the term ‘safe havens’ makes such
congregations an extension of Afghanistan into Pakistan.

Apparently, both the terms ‘Taliban’ and ‘safe havens’ in their given form are instrumental
in rendering the US commitment to Afghanistan open-ended. The regime change was made
possible by force whereas the regime stabilisation was made possible by the introduction of
the constitution-based democratic system. Both these steps made the Taliban irrelevant to
Afghanistan owing to shrinking physical and political space for them — and these are both
the grievances nursed by the Taliban. Interestingly, these are also the points where
Pakistan finds itself handicapped. That is, neither can Pakistan help reverse the regime
change in Kabul nor can Pakistan offer a system alternative to constitutional democracy in
Afghanistan. In the given scenario, staying the course seems the best available option with
the US. Moreover, in the staying option lies the seeds of the successful US exit strategy.

If safe havens are the extension of Afghanistan into Pakistan or the Taliban active in
Afghanistan are the expression of Pakistan in Afghanistan, the outcry in Pakistan on the
projected surge in US forces amounting to just four thousand is justified, but not otherwise.
The anxiety gripping Pakistan on the news of surge disqualifies Pakistan for being a neutral
observer. An illusion, overwhelming many in Pakistan, is that the US is alone in Afghanistan.
On the other hand, Europeans have rallied around a consensus that the presence of a
democratic government in Afghanistan is the best bid against any disruption of peace in
Europe, especially the Western Europe.

Announced on August 21, the policy of US President Donald Trump describing his version
of Af-Pak strategy is reflective of the intentions of the dropping of the mother of all bombs
on some hilly area in Afghanistan in April 2017. On the other hand, the hope, which is
somehow still booming in some circles in Pakistan, is that the US will one day get bogged
down in Afghanistan but then the hope strikes the dead-end when it is imagined what
options will be open to the Taliban (ie Afghan Taliban) or Pakistan afterward. In September
1996, after capturing Kabul, the Afghan Taliban stopped listening to Pakistan. Neither could
Pakistan avert 9/11 nor could it save itself from the ravages of the war on terror. In both
instances, Pakistan remained at the receiving end of the repercussions.

Presently, it seems that Pakistan is failing in convincing the Afghan Taliban (if and when
they are listening to Pakistan) that they have to learn to survive democratically by taking
part in the elections. No one is stopping the Afghan Taliban from taking over Kabul but the
itinerary adopted to do so is important.

Back to columns in 2017