June 22, 2021
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Ear To The Ground

American Af-Pak Policy needs to be reconfigured urgently, taking the views of the affected local populations of the two countries, understanding their raw mood and ascertaining representation and legitimacy of the dialogue process as a whole

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Ear To The Ground
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The Obama Administration’s "Af-Pak" policy appears to be the centrepiece of his foreign policy agenda these days and a matter of much debate in the US itself. However, it is one thing to debate the pros and cons of this policy in high profile seminars -- as was  indeed carried out in the Brookings Institution on February 25, 2009 in a seminar titled "Pakistan: Dream Deferred or Denied?" which was attended by none other than Richard Holbrooke, Obama Administration’s Special Envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan -- and quite another to try and eke a normal life amidst the barrels of threatening guns.  

Significantly, on April 13, 2009, Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari signed a peace deal with the Taliban in the SWAT valley enabling the establishment of Sharia law there. Inhabitants of the valley are happy that the deal has been brokered as it signifies peace for which they are willing to be constrained by religious laws if it means some semblance of certainty in their everyday lives. However, for the international community for whom the everyday violent occurrences in the SWAT valley or the NWFP or in Afghanistan for that matter are a virtual reality present only through the internet, Television and newspapers, the deal is the undoing of the democratic government in Pakistan. 

The US has also expressed discomfort with the signing of the deal, viewing it primarily as giving in to Taliban ascendancy in these areas. The Obama Administration views Afghanistan and the tribal areas in Pakistan as the frontline in the "War on Terror" and would like to dictate to the Pakistan government on how to conduct the war. These conclusions are perhaps reached by the international community in general and the US in particular due to their misunderstanding of the rich history of deal making prevalent in the Pashtun dominated areas of Pakistan and Afghanistan throughout history based on the concept of Pashtunwali (the social code of the Pashtun which has enabled this 40 million people to survive for the last 1000 years).  According to the rules of Pashtunwali, enacting agreements with a rival party is a matter of skilled statecraft and is seen as a precursor to dialogue and conflict resolution.         

What is also rather interesting to observe is that the rationale for the US reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan appears to have taken a definite military or interest based shift under the Obama Presidency. Under the Bush Presidency, the framework for US presence in Afghanistan was geared not only in fighting the al Qaeda, but also towards building democratic institutions in Afghanistan. Under Obama’s Presidency, the thrust of the US war in Afghanistan is to ensure that the Taliban does not get a foothold in Afghanistan or Pakistan: Taliban ascendancy in this region is seen by the new administration as enabling establishment of bases for the al Qaeda and potential execution of 9/11 type attacks on the US. In speech after speech, President Obama has argued that "the U.S. mission in Afghanistan is about making sure that al Qaeda cannot attack the U.S. homeland and U.S. interests and our allies" or "project violence against" American citizens".         

This kind of policy rationale has however come in for some good critical questioning. In a recent article in Foreign Affairs, John Mueller argues that the Obama Administration is overselling the threat from the Taliban and the al Qaeda. It is now a given fact that the Taliban were reluctant to host the al Qaeda in the 1990s and felt betrayed when the later carried out the 9/11 attacks which led to their eventual ouster from Afghanistan. Mueller indicates that given the limited interest of the Taliban on issues outside Afghanistan or Pakistan, it is highly unlikely that they will support the al Qaeda in future terror attacks on the West. This argument is valid as radical organizations like the Taliban are 'rational actors' and carry out cost-benefit assessments of their future stakes and policies; any alliance with the al Qaeda is viewed by the Taliban as resulting in a future US military intervention with consequences known only too well by the group to risk it. 

Many security and terrorism analysts also argue that the 9/11 attacks were planned in Hamburg, Germany by loosely networked al Qaeda cells. Hence, Obama’s stress on al Qaeda’s effectiveness connected to geographic control reflects a lack of nuanced understanding of terrorists as loosely organized groups of transnational actors networked across time and space. And if acquirement of base areas by al Qaeda is indeed as critical as Obama makes it out to be, then there is a larger strategic question lurking in the present context. According to US intelligence, the al Qaeda has established bases in Pakistan’s NWFP since 2001 after being ousted from Afghanistan. Then, why is it that the outfit has not planned or launched 9/11 type attacks in the last 8 to 9 years?         

Obama’s Af-Pak policy also does not take into account the sensitivities of the affected local population, both in the immediate situation they face and in their prospects for the future. While Obama shows concern for the humanitarian aspects of the war in Afghanistan and visualizes the coming back of the Taliban as brutal and disastrous for the Afghan people, the US is unwilling to commit any troops for purposes other than securing itself from terror attacks from this part of the world. It is towards this goal and not the welfare and security of the Afghan people that Obama has committed 17, 000 additional US troops along with 4, 000 more to train the Afghan police. This will increase the US troop presence in Afghanistan to about 60, 000 along with 30, 000 troops from NATO geared towards fulfilling the political objective of securing the West from terror attacks.         

The armed violence in Afghanistan and Pakistan is also having a strong negative impact on South and West Asian regional stability, with international implications. The question that begs answering in this context is: Are US troop increases an answer to the problems in Afghanistan? Historically, Afghanistan has been one of the most difficult terrains for foreign troops to maintain and hold territory. The Soviet Union had 120, 000 troops in Afghanistan and lost. Later day US studies of the Soviet failure in Afghanistan indicates that around 500, 000 Soviet troops were needed to control the Afghan rebels amounting to a virtual military siege of the country and turning it into a military base. 

General Dan McNeill, the former commander of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan (February 4, 2007 to June 3, 2008) argues that it would take 400,000 US troops as against the current 60,000 troops to turn the violent tide in Afghanistan. However, such a massive US troop deployment to fight a ragtag Taliban insurgency of 5000-6000 armed men in a strategically located Afghanistan will be viewed with skepticism by regional actors like India, China and Russia. Afghanistan, historically, has always acted as a buffer to South, Central and West Asia. Russia already argues that 9/11 gave the US a pretext to establish a base in Afghanistan to maintain direct access to the resource rich Central Asia. There is also a strong counterview to the US terrorism rationale which argues that the real reason for the US presence in Afghanistan is to keep a close watch on countries like China, Russia, Iran and India situated as they are at such close geographic proximity to Afghanistan. 

The way out in Afghanistan is therefore not more US or NATO troops but a well trained and motivated Afghan National Army (ANA) with strong allegiance to the Afghan state. In Afghan culture, loyalty to the clan comes first, then comes the tribe, the community and finally loyalty to the larger super-organism—the state. Significantly, the recruits to the ANA come from this social base. Any visit to the provinces in Afghanistan like Helmand and Kandahar however, makes it rather clear that the state has not been able to secure the common citizen from the dangers of everyday physical violence. Hence, it is but natural that the common man will turn to either clan or community loyalties in order to ensure his own or his family’s self preservation. 

It has also been observed that the US combat forces lack a basic understanding of Afghan culture and the way of the land. This alienates the local Afghan from these troops whom they view as coming from a culture and civilization alien to their own. The lack of intercultural dialogue between the two is creating misunderstandings on a daily basis and local people question the real reason for foreign troop presence in their country. An ordinary Afghan is generally disheartened by the almost superb facilities provided to the UN personnel and US military in Kabul vis-à-vis his own wretched existence. The NATO air field in Kandahar is a walled multi-cultural city which was expanded with good infrastructure in 2008 with an estimated cost of US $ 780 million. Inside, troops from Western countries live a surreal life complete with Dutch Chain restaurants, Mc Donald, Kentucky Fried Chicken and Pizza Hut whereas the areas outside are desolate and dreary.

The local Afghan narrative on international security and aid is rather poignantly revealing of what the common person believes of outsider interference in his/her local affairs: more than three-fourth of the aid money ear-marked for Afghanistan goes into keeping the Western men and women happy and safe in their jobs as aid and security providers in Afghanistan. 

The situation in Pakistan is not starkly dissimilar. According to the Economist, the Zardari government is governing the most dangerous place on earth, Pakistan. Such media opinions in the West are creating a sense of foreboding in the Pakistani mindset. Already, the US Defence Intelligence Agency (DIA) under severe Israeli pressure (Israel fears Pakistani nuclear weapons making their way to Iran or falling into terrorists hands ), has installed the Permissive Action Links (PALS) in Pakistan’s nuclear installations buttressed by a dual key safety mechanism in the Command and Control system, virtually making it impossible for a rogue commander to press the nuclear button. Though the US has given the impression that the final code authorization for nuclear use is with Pakistan’s civilian leader, the Pakistanis believe that the US has frozen the PALS system thereby neutralizing Pakistan’s nuclear deterrent potential. This has created a sense of siege within Pakistan and negative social forces are reacting in ways that are proving counter-productive to the very idea of Pakistan--increasing militarization of Pakistan, lack of democratic space and insurgencies in its border areas. Also, the western media’s categorization of Pakistan as a place more dangerous than Somalia or Mexico is hitting the Pakistani pride, more so, when its imagined hated neighbour, India is termed as a rising power in Asia and soon to be third largest economy in the world by the same press.

What can the US do? 

First, it is a fact that the US is the world’s strongest military power. However, the military is primarily trained for fighting large scale conventional wars and views counter-insurgency as a secondary duty. In the cold war period, the scenario for the US was "US versus the USSR", now it is argued that the next stage of a great power confrontation will be the Indian Ocean Region between the US and Indian militaries on one side and Chinese military on the other. However, for fighting the insurgencies in Afghanistan and Pakistan, what are urgently required are small unit forces acting in formations of 100 to 200 specialized personnel countering a Taliban insurgency of around 5, 000-6, 000 armed men. Moreover, the US military is informed by Clausewitz’s dictum of large force concentrations for decisive victory in battle. In a counter-insurgency or guerrilla setting, there is no battlefield. Therefore, large force concentrations can achieve nothing spectacular which perhaps a small special force can. 

Second, the US needs to ensure that its military training doctrine for counter-insurgency is based on a strategy of "trust and nurture", which includes a mix of factors like democratic political culture, measured military methods, special counter-insurgency forces, local social and cultural awareness and an integrative nation-building approach in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The element of "trust building" must be practised on a day to day basis. 

Third, the Taliban strongholds amounts to around 65 per cent of the provinces in Afghanistan outside the purview of the Central government in Kabul, and enjoys popular support. The US needs to shift its policy focus from Kabul to the provincial power structures. Holding consultations with tribal elders and community leaders is a better way to ensure that the reach of the Afghan state is visible in these areas. 

Fourth, President Obama needs to re-articulate his framework for US engagement in Afghanistan. The Afghans are intelligent people and it is perhaps wrong to presume that all Pashtuns in Afghanistan and Pakistan view the US as an enemy or supports terrorist groups like al Qaeda. Therefore, at the highest US policy level concerning Afghanistan and Pakistan, there is a deep requirement to understand these divisions in the population and reach out to the moderates, who want to come for dialogues and manage the violence with outside help. 

Fifth, the US needs to ascertain the present Taliban leadership structure. There is a genuine lack of intelligence on this count. While Muhammad Omar was the leader of the group from 1997 to 2001, who is at the current helm of affairs? Is it Jalaluddin Haqqani or Qari Yusuf Ahmadi? There must be clear intelligence on who are the leaders one is fighting against? Otherwise, it is going to prove a never ending struggle.

Finally, a process of inter-cultural dialogue based on a multi-level approach needs to be activated. This should involve both an individual state specific approach like that between the US and Pakistan and the US and Afghanistan, and a larger multi-layered framework including regional actors like Iran, India, China, Pakistan, Russia, Saudi Arabia and the US sitting on the same table and discussing the growing chains of violence in this region threadbare. 

Otherwise, the present US policy of balancing and counter-balancing by dealing with Pakistan, India and Iran in isolation while playing off one against the other at the same time can prove disastrous for those on the ground. Societies at the grass root level also need to be tapped into mainly for the purpose of understanding the raw mood and ascertain representation and legitimacy of the dialogue process as a whole. 


Dr. Namrata Goswami is a Visiting Research Fellow at the Centre for Dialogue, La Trobe University, Melbourne and Associate Fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA), New Delhi. The views expressed here are that of the author and not that of the institutes.


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