Wednesday, May 13, 2009

AF-PAK: LESSONS FROM KASHMIR

The recent advance of the Taliban in Swat and Buner has greatly encouraged the Al Qaida that now smells blood and is "intoxicated by the idea of a jihadist takeover in Pakistan". In an article in The New York Times of May 10, 2009, Mark Mazzetti and Eric Schmitt say that while it remains unlikely that Islamic militants could seize power in Pakistan, the concern is that by extending their territorial gains they could create "mini-Afghanistans" around Pakistan that would allow them even more freedom to plot attacks.

That the Al Qaida needs sanctuaries in Pakistan to survive and give shape to its long-term goal of establishing the rule of Wahhabi Islam over the West and the rest of the world is a no brainer. The real question is whether, given that objective, it will be satisfied with a few safe areas in that country. Only the naïve will believe that Osama bin Laden will leave present day Pakistan, a Muslim but "non-Islamic" country as per his definition, in its present democratic form while taking on the rest of the world. For the Al Qaida to sustain global operations, keep attracting new recruits and maintain the motivational levels of its operatives, it cannot for long live with the de facto defeat that its failure to convert the whole of Pakistan into a pre-9/11 Afghanistan will be seen as, sooner or later.

The Arab Al Qaida and its Pakistani arm, the Taliban, therefore have no choice but to convert the whole of Pakistan into a fully Islamic state. If they fail to do so, over time, the movement that Laden started will whither and die. Powerful jihadi type elements in Pakistan's establishment have evidently been aware and supportive of this plan and will be more than happy to turn Pakistan into what they had made Afghanistan before the Americans landed there after 9/11. This desire, coupled with Pakistan's strategic territorial ambitions both to its east and west, is mainly why for years, Pakistan played a double-game with the Americans.

Thanks in no small measure to the Bush blunder of going into Iraq and taking the focus off this region, Pakistan was able to appear to be fighting with the Americans while helping the Taliban to defeat them. But with the Obama administration now concentrating on winning this war - defeat not being an option at all - and holding Pakistan accountable for delivering quick and visible results, its leadership has finally been jolted into taking action. Much against the wishes of powerful elements in the military and civil establishment, it has been forced to fight against the Taliban in a manner that perhaps no one in Pakistan would have even dreamt of before 9/11. The presence of American troops in Afghanistan and Pakistan's critical dependent on US dollars for the very survival of the state is making Pakistan listen to the US and do what it wants, even if half-heartedly.

Troops have recently been pulled out by Pakistan from its eastern border against India and deployed to throw the Taliban out of Buner as well as Swat, where it had earlier entered into an agreement to hand over the valley to the Taliban. As per reports, commandos have been dropped into Taliban strongholds in both areas and have secured important towns and facilities that had fallen to the Taliban. The operations have sparked off a humanitarian crisis with more than half a million frightened civilian refugees streaming out of the three districts ripped apart by fighting.

American troops stationed in Afghanistan cannot as of now cross into Pakistan to hunt down the Al Qaida and the Taliban. On the other hand, the border is virtually non-existent for militants who can cross over to Afghanistan at will to launch attacks on NATO troops and then pull back into the safety of Pakistan, if and when the situation demands. So far, the US has deployed drones to target specific targets inside Pakistan. These attacks will force the Al Qaida and the Taliban to change tactics but will not be enough to defeat them.

The Americans are facing in Afghanistan what the Indians have been in Kashmir for two decades. There too, the border does not exist for militants, though the heavy deployment of Indian troops one one side makes movement relatively more difficult, despite Pakistani troops often helping militants to cross over. Indian troops also cannot go into Pakistan, nor can they use any other overt means to target jihadists in Pakistan, which is their nursery as well as sanctuary.

In short, Kashmir is India's high cost war and Pakistan's low cost one. Thanks to India's refusal to tackle it at source, it has lasted for so long, with no end in sight, unless something extraneous happens. India is not likely to do anything to force a closure; Indian blood is manifestly not so valuable, there is no political will and the military also lacks the punch to deliver a decisive blow below the nuclear threshold.

If the Americans want to win their war in Afghanistan without avoidable delays and pitfalls, they need to look at the lessons that India should have learnt from its war in Kashmir but hasn't, and the lessons that Pakistan has successfully learnt and is now using against the Americans. As the aforementioned developments show, it appears that they have begun to look at both quite closely.

The Afghan war has to be won in Pakistan, not Afghanistan, both physically and ideologically, no matter what recent history says about what happened to the British and the Soviets under very different circumstances. Unlike India, the US can compel Pakistan to use its military to kill the monsters that the latter has created. It has begun doing so, and some results are also beginning to come in. It can also exert pressure on it to choke the growth of Wahhabi Islam in the country by cracking down on Madrasas and other institutions that are involved in spreading it. This is absolutely critical for achieving enduring success. The US can, if required, also send special forces into Pakistan. It will most likely have to do that to go after really high value targets that Pakistan cannot take out or does not want to.

Only time will tell whether Pakistan will actually do enough to decisively destroy its "strategic tools" and re-calibrate the objectives that led it to create and deploy them. In all probability, Pakistan will try prolong this fight to tire the Americans to the point where public opinion forces the US President to do a Vietnam. That seems to be its current unstated objective. It will also attempt to double-cross the US about the situation in Pakistan and lull it into believing at some point of time that it has done the needful and that the US can withdraw its forces from Afghanistan without worrying about any resurgence of the Al Qaida and the Taliban.

India can afford to keep half a million troops in Kashmir indefinitely and still hope to tire Pakistan out, though at great human cost. The US, for many reasons, cannot do that in Afghanistan. It has to achieve victory as soon as possible. If it pulls out from the region before achieving total success, as the Al Qaida, the Taliban and powerful elements in Pakistan want it to, the consequences, as Americans will discover, will be disastrous.
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Readers may also read:
1. Zakaria's Afghanistan strategy: salvage or surrender?
2. Understanding and defeating the ideology of terror
3. Kashmir and Afghanistan are two sides of the same terror coin
4. India and Pakistan are not victims of the same terror