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Contours of emerging US strategy in Af-Pak

By Colonel Anil Athale (retd)
December 02, 2009 15:48 IST
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In the first part of his two-part series, Making sense of the Af-Pak cauldron, Colonel Anil Athale outlined why the developments in the region can be called the second jihad. In this concluding part he says a long-lasting solution to the Af-Pak situation is balkanisation of the region.

It appears that the two-three month-long intensive brainstorming in the US over its future course in Af-Pak seems to have ended and a new strategy put in place. The salient points of that seem to be:

The US has apparently settled for a much more modest aim in Afghanistan -- to 'contain' the Taliban and eliminate the Al Qaeda. All pretence of nation-building and 'modernising' Afghanistan has been given up. General James Jones, President Barack Obama's national security advisor, at a press briefing on March 27, outlined it asĀ an 'attainable goal which is to disrupt, dismantle, and prevent Al Qaeda from being able to operate in its safe havens -- not only the Al Qaeda, but all forms of terrorism that would seek to destabilise our countries.' The American acquiescence in Hamid Karzai's flawed electoral victory points in that direction.

There is finally acknowledgement that the source of Islamist terror is no longer in Afghanistan but in Pakistan -- in the tribal areas as well as southern Punjab and urban pockets. The recent spate of bomb attacks in Pakistan show that the Pakistani Taliban intend to capture power in that country as a first step to their dream of a world caliphate. This poses a threat to the ruling elite of Pakistan (the army, landed gentry and industrialist lobby; primarily Punjabi dominated) and thus encourages the Pakistan army to act. In addition to mollifying civil society, a $1.5 billion annual economic aid is promised (the Kerry-Lugar bill) while the Pakistan army is kept happy with the latest weapons to assuage its fear of India.

In return for the Pakistan army's role in defeating the Al Qaeda and the Taliban, India is being pressured, albeit behind the scenes, to make concessions on Kashmir.

To further ramp up pressure on India, the job of stabilising South Asia is sought to be outsourced to China. This is a direct throwback to Bill Clinton's first term (his Secretary of State Madeleine Albright had made this explicit in 1997-98). Appointing a rabid India-baiter like Robin Raphel as aid co-ordinator in Pakistan shows the return of Clinton era policies. Raphel is often called the 'Krishna Menon of the US', referring to the destructive role that he played, single-handed, in destroying Indo-US relations in the late 1950s.

Militarily, as suggested by Vice President Joe Biden, instead of more troops, the US will rely on air power and drones to check the Al Qaeda in Afghanistan. Having accepted the Karzai line that there are indeed 'good Taliban' (pro-Pakistan), the US may well have decided to let Pakistan have its 'strategic depth' in Afghanistan. In short a return to pre-9/11 situation minus the Al Qaeda.

Americans are basically waiting for Osama bin Laden's scalp. To get him they are trying the old British trick of bribing the tribes to buy their loyalty. Pakistan is raising various pro-government 'Lashkars' (armies) of friendly tribes. Once the Americans are successful in getting to Osama, they would declare victory and leave. But this time round, rather than leaving a power vacuum they would ensure that a Pakistan-sponsored government takes over in Afghanistan.

All military strategies are based on some assumptions -- stated or unstated. At the risk of oversimplification, these are as given below:

It is possible to buy tribal loyalties and information on Osama.

The Pakistan army will be able to deal with the tribals militarily and neutralise the Pakistani Taliban.

India will accept making concessions on Kashmir.

Iran and Russia will accept return of a Taliban-like regime in Afghanistan.

The Uzbeks and Tajiks of the erstwhile Northern Alliance will co-operate in this venture.

Extremism in Pakistan can be controlled with economic aid and concession to the Pakistan army.

It is true that the above analysis is sketchy but intends to highlight the bare essentials. Else, for a complicated problem like Af-Pak, a whole book has to be written. Readers would be mindful of this before jumping to criticism.

A fly in the ointment

At the risk of sounding flippant, one could say that there is a swarm of flies in the ointment. The various assumptions on which this American strategy is based are flawed to say the least.

The Faqir of Ipi revolted against the British on November 25, 1936, called it jihad and for the next 12 years Waziri and Mehsud tribesmen, less than 1,000 in numbers, kept a well equipped British Army of 40,000 engaged. At the time of independence in 1947, the Faqir of Ipi still remained free and finally died of old age in 1960. The British did manage to control the situation in two years time mainly with Indian troops, the Gorkhas and Sikhs. The tribals were armed with primitive guns and were perpetually short of ammunition. The Pathan tribesmen have a healthy contempt for the Punjabis, whom they have ruled over since middle ages. Once war was declared it became impossible to 'buy' tribes as loyalty to faith was above all.

Cut to the 21st century. Thanks to jihad I, the frontier area is flush with arms and ammunition. The tribal is as well equipped as the soldier. Add to this, his native skill in the use of terrain and local knowledge and you have a formidable foe. Mountainous terrain neutralises technology. Given the relative hardiness of the tribesman, it is doubtful if the Punjabi dominated Pakistan army will be able to deal with the tribesmen. Large casualties are likely and the brutal Pakistan army is prone to reprisals against civilians. (Has the world forgotten the massacre of Palestinians in Jordan in 1970, the genocide in Bangladesh in 1971 and murderous campaigns in Baluchistan in 1975?). This has the classic makings of 'blood feuds' so common in the frontier area of Pakistan.

The Pakistan army has a fairly large proportion of Pathan soldiers; their loyalties in a prolonged war of this kind would be suspect. A terrible spate of bombings in Pakistani cities is a foretaste of things to come.

The Inter Services Intelligence has failed spectacularly to prevent or nab the terrorists. It needs to be understood that the 'super-efficient' image of the ISI is a creation of the gullible Indian media.

The Pakistan army has been using tanks, fighter aircraft and all the conventional war machinery in its so-called 'counter-insurgency' operations. It is hilarious to see Pakistani politicians or media-persons pointing finges at India's restrained use of force in Kashmir. We have never used heavy weapons or air power in Kashmir!

It is unlikely that the Northern Alliance of Uzbeks and Tajiks will accept the return of the Taliban. The Iranians would be worried over the fate of Shia Hazaras in the western part of Afghanistan. Finally, India, that did not succumb to the US pressures even in 1962 (when it was much weaker), is unlikely to compromise on Kashmir.

Russia under Vladimir Putin in his second term may see an opportunity of pay-back for the American actions in jihad I, though covertly. All in all the most likely scenario in Af-Pak seems to be a continuing civil war-like situation in Afghanistan and a real possibility that the present counter-insurgency in Pakistan also degenerating into internal revolt in south Punjab and the North West Frontier Province. A bruised Pakistan army may well think of taking over the reins again but this time at the behest of the Taliban and not Americans. A Taliban-like regime in Pakistan/Afghanistan seems the most likely outcome.

What this means to the world at large and India in particular is worth pondering. It appears to me, as some American military analysts have been thinking for a while, that the long-lasting solution to the Af-Pak situation is balkanisation of the region -- a Bangladesh-type solution.

Colonel (retired) Anil Athale is Chhatrapati Shivaji Fellow of the United Services Institution and coordinator of Pune based Inpad.

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Colonel Anil Athale (retd)