The Af-Pak strategy is alive and kicking

Daily: Daily Times
Date: 10.12.14

During the recent two-week long visit of Pakistan’s Chief of Army Staff (COAS) General
Raheel Sharif, the US became successful in emitting at least two loud messages: first,
Pakistan should foster friendly ties with Afghanistan and, second, Pakistan should stamp
out the militants’ dens from its land. The ‘do more’ refrain implied shows that the US is still
not satisfied with the job Pakistan has done so far. The first demand is exclusively for the
nature of Pak-Afghan relations but the second demand has two hidden facets: the ability of
militants based in Pakistan to cross the border into either Afghanistan or India and play
havoc with the lives of the innocent people there. Nevertheless, these are the same
demands the US made through its Af-Pak strategy of March 2009 reinforced by the Kerry-
Lugar-Berman Act of October 2009.

Against this background, it seems that within the US policy decision-making circle, a few
assumptions are bandied about. First, Pakistan is averse to any government in Kabul not
well disposed toward it. Second, Pakistan is necessarily pro-Taliban when the Taliban are
active in Afghanistan. Third, Pakistan can influence the Taliban to make them lay down
their arms, accept Afghanistan’s constitution and recognise the Kabul government. Fourth,
Pakistan still looks after those militants (or non-state actors) who can cross the border and
jeopardise peace in neighbouring countries such as Afghanistan and India. Fifth, Pakistan
is supposed to play its new reduced regional role in the post-9/11 world.

Operation Zarb-e-Azb also means that the entrenchment of the Pakistan army in North
Waziristan may span from months to years. The consolidation of victory in this hilly and
lawless area needs more time and effort than usual. The porous Pak-Afghan border may
be a blessing for the divided Pashtun tribes, demographically and economically, but a curse
for Pakistan in the context of oscillatory movements of the Taliban across the border. There
are reports that because of the operation, hundreds of Taliban have fled to the southeast
of Afghanistan and have sheltered there. It is interesting to note that the Taliban of Swat
took refuge in North Waziristan in 2009 and now the Taliban of both Swat and North
Waziristan have been pushed further to cross the border and dwell in Afghanistan. This is
simply a shifting of their safe havens. If a new concept is floated in terms of East Waziristan
being in Pakistan and West Waziristan in Afghanistan, one can say that the Taliban
leadership (of both major and minor groups) must be concentrated in West Waziristan in
Afghanistan in the area bordering Pakistan.

Like the former COAS General Ashfaq Kayani, General Sharif has also announced publicly
his understanding of the threat besetting Pakistan. He considers the internal threat more
challenging than an external threat. General Sharif has also guaranteed that no
organisation following the Daesh (Islamic State) of the Middle East will be allowed to find a
foothold in Pakistan. Such a stance indicates that the Pakistan army is now worried about
Pakistan’s stability with regards to its internal security. Nevertheless, it seems that the scare
level of the elected civilian government of Pakistan is one notch above the army. The
civilian government thinks that the militant threat to Pakistan’s existence is coming from
both inside Pakistan and across the Durand Line. Those who have taken sanctuary in
Afghanistan find recruits from ideologically motivated circles (which are in abundance) in
Pakistan. Over and above all this, the civilian government is keen to work with the newly
elected government of Afghanistan. One can argue that General Sharif’s visit to the US for
two weeks was flattering and was simultaneously indicative of weak civil-military relations
but strong US-army relations. However, another point of view can be that what the civilian
government of Pakistan could not say to its General, US Secretary of State John Kerry did.
Similarly, one can argue that it is the abandonment of one part of foreign policy to the
Pakistan army. However, another one can argue that it is asking the US to look after the
situation as per its own satisfaction or desire.

Several circles in Pakistan used to assert that post-2014 (or the post-withdrawal phase),
the Afghan National Army (ANA) would not be able to withstand the Taliban’s onslaught
(whenever it happens). They used to argue further that the ANA is smaller in numbers and
less equipped to brave a front opened by the Taliban. To this point, US President Barack
Obama has replied by retaining combat-specialist US forces in Afghanistan at least for
another year. This shows that the US clearly realises the weaknesses of the ANA and the
consequent vulnerability of peace in Afghanistan. The US considers it important to protect
the coalition formed between Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah to run the central
government, apparently from divided positions but shared roles. This type of post-election
coalition is also a new experiment (perhaps in Afghanistan) in running the affairs of a state
democratically. The coalition needs armed protection and the same has been provided.

In this arrangement, the resilience of the Taliban (or any local Afghan fighter who is against
the US’s presence in Afghanistan) has been challenged. Secondly, in this arrangement, the
policy of the Taliban to wait — assuming that time is on their side — and then attack has
been frustrated. Apparently, everything has gone fine this year. Elections have taken place
peacefully. The transition of power from one elected democratic government to another has
taken place smoothly. The foreign forces are evacuating Afghanistan to finish by December
31, 2014. However, what is not being realised is that winter in this region lasts till the end of
February. The month of March opens surroundings to life and activity called war. The real
results of the post-withdrawal phase will be witnessed in March 2015. If there is any iceberg
hiding below any apparent tip, it will surface.

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