For Want of Pakistani Enlightenment, Afghanistan Will Be Lost

January 18th, 2011
Published in Family Security Matters January 17, 2011

The concept of “causality” involves the inter-relationship of events. One event–i.e., the cause–can trigger a second–i.e., the effect–which can become the triggering event/cause for a third, etc. The proverbial rhyme “For Want of a Nail” underscores this theme:   For want of a nail to shoe a horse’s hoof, the horse was unavailable for its knight to ride; thus the knight was unable to go to battle; thus the battle was lost; thus, ultimately, the kingdom fell. Nowhere is causality more complex than the equation for US success in Afghanistan

This equation involves numerous variables–resolution of which lies outside Afghanistan’s borders and direct US control.   Everything right could happen inside Afghanistan but, due to these outside variables, stability still would not prevail. These variables will play out in Pakistan.

Following the US defeat of the Taliban and al-Qaeda forces in Afghanistan in 2001, the militants moved across the border into the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), located in northwest Pakistan. FATA has remained a safe haven for the militants ever since. Success in Afghanistan clearly turns–as recognized in a recent US strategy review–on denying the enemy continuing access there.

With tacit Pakistani approval, the US has been conducting drone strikes into the FATA regions which have proven very effective in killing many mid/high level militant leaders. But Afghanistan has no chance for stability unless the safe haven is denied to the enemy. This can only happen in one of two ways: militants are either turned out by tribal authorities or driven out by the Pakistani army. As militant brutality tempers tribal resistance, tribal action is unlikely. Therefore, the US pressures Pakistan to take action, but with little success.

Pakistan has conducted limited military operations into FATA. In 2002, 8000 troops were sent into the area to find militant sympathizers. After the operation met with local resentment, the army began going after the militants in 2003. Under the presidency of General Pervez Musharraf, who had seized power in Pakistan via a military coup in 1999, a build-up of forces in FATA continued. By 2005, an 80,000-man force was disrupting militant activities in FATA; by 2007, those forces increased to 120,000 with the US pumping billions of dollars of aid into FATA as part of a developmental plan for the region.

Various ceasefire agreements between the Pakistani government and the Taliban were reached–and then broken. But with the resignation of strongman Musharraf in August 2008 and his replacement by Asif Ali Zadari, the same military commitment to containing the militants in FATA was not there. The militants not only expanded operations into Afghanistan but also expanded territorial control within Pakistan. After securing the Swat valley area, Pakistan signed a peace agreement with the Taliban in February 2009. In exchange for the government relinquishing control of the Swat valley, the militants agreed to disarm and not expand beyond the region. Almost immediately, the Taliban began violating these conditions. Zardari realized military action was again necessary.

Pressure has been put on Zadari to launch a major offensive into FATA–especially into the Taliban’s principal sanctuary in North Waziristan. But Pakistan has repeatedly delayed undertaking the North Waziristan offensive. Seasonal weather was raised as a factor. When that passed, lack of equipment was a factor. The US funded additional equipment but once provided, delays still occurred. The reason seems to lie elsewhere.

One possible reason is a lack of ability to commit appropriate military forces to undertake the operation. If so, this lack of commitment stems, not from a lack of forces, but from a Pakistani misperception of threat priorities. The effect of the misperception is the strategic deployment or reserve of Pakistani armed forces for a war unlikely to happen rather than their deployment in a war that is. Critical to US success in Afghanistan is Pakistan’s reassessment of these priorities.

The misperception is Pakistan’s view that another war with India is likely–the effect of which ties up hundreds of thousands of military forces along the country’s eastern border. Since 1947, India and Pakistan have fought three major wars, one undeclared war and numerous border skirmishes. Relations have been strained, to say the least. But India demonstrated remarkable restraint in the aftermath of the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attack that was later linked to a Pakistani terrorist group with assistance believed to have been provided by Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI).

Fifteen months after the Mumbai massacre, in an encouraging sign Pakistan perhaps had re-assessed its threat priorities recognizing militants on its territory to be a greater threat than India, Islamabad withdrew 100,000 soldiers from the border.   But Pakistan’s failure to not yet commit these troops as a “surge” force into North Waziristan suggests their withdrawal from the border may have been false encouragement–as they are being kept as a reserve force for an India contingency. If not so, one other possible reason for the delay exists.

This possibility involves competing interests within the Pakistani government–those seeking to eradicate and those seeking to support the militants. Pakistan’s ISI helped nurture the Taliban after the 1980 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan by recruiting fighters for the group. After driving the Soviets out, the organization’s success spawned a thirst for control, supported by the ISI which viewed Taliban control of Afghani provinces along its border as being in Pakistan’s interests. But the Taliban’s control has been brutal. While this caused it to lose some support within the Pakistani government, the ISI allegedly still maintains ties to the Taliban today.

If ISI is running interference for the Taliban by delaying a military offensive against their safe haven, prospects this will change under the current Zadari administration are not encouraging as Zadari proves incapable of effective leadership.

Zadari’s ineffectiveness as a leader is the result of two events. First, he and several senior ministers face corruption charges. Second, Zadari’s power rests on his party’s coalition with another–the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM). When the MQM recently announced it was quitting the coalition, thus endangering Zadari’s pro-US government of a parliamentary majority a last minute effort succeeded in coaxing a junior party member back into the fold, enabling Zadari’s party to maintain a simple majority. But this majority minimized Zadari’s influence. Meanwhile, an “old salt” in Pakistani politics, Nawaz Sharif, awaits Zadari’s fall.

Sharif is described as a “model ‘moderate Muslim.'” But it is a label in which the West should take little comfort. Sharif is affiliated with Jamaat-e-Islami (JI)–Pakistan’s oldest religious party which is among the most influential Islamic revivalist movements. It is totally opposed to Western influence, which suggests Sharif’s support for democracy is hypocritical. In the past, Sharif has sought the title of “Amir-ul Mu’mineen”–i.e., one having authority over all Muslims or Muslims within a particular territory. One seeking such authority and an alleged moderate should be leading the criticism of Islamic extremism–yet Sharif rarely uses his pulpit to do so.

Sharif’s support base is found in the province of Punjab, where more than half Pakistan’s population resides. Recently, shocking acts of violence have plagued the province, including the assassination this month of Punjab’s governor, Salman Taseer, by his personal bodyguard. The bodyguard’s reason for the attack was Taseer’s defense of a Christian woman sentenced to death for violating Pakistan’s blasphemy law–outlawing any criticism of Islam–which the governor had sought to modify.

Taseer’s effort to change the blasphemy law was fought by JI–the religious party to which Sharif has close links. Zadari eventually had to surrender on the issue of a blasphemy law modification in exchange for retaining his parliamentary majority.

Sharif failed to criticize Taseer’s assassination. But even more worrisome is the response of leading Pakistani scholars and religious leaders–five hundred of whom issued a statement revealing a deep divide between those educated in the West and those educated in Islamic conservatism. It is clear from the statement what the former see as a breakdown in law and order, the latter see as enforcing Islamic law and order.

The group of scholars praised the assassin as a “Ghazi” (Islamic warrior), lionizing him for his courage (despite the fact the unarmed governor was cowardly shot 26 times from behind with a sub-machine gun while getting into his car) in defending Islam! He has, they claimed, “revived the 14-century-old traditions of Islam,” making Muslims around the world proud. These “educated” Muslims also warned against any expressions of sympathy for Taseer as being blasphemous.

In the event Sharif comes to power, the bottom line is we would see Zadari’s delays in launching the army’s Northern Waziristan offensive turn into Sharif’s refusal to do so. But of even more concern is the realization a Sharif-led government–that would cater to the wants of JI and those praising Taseer’s assassin–would also have control over Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal.

Through its 63 years history as a nation-state, Pakistan has proven a fragile democracy. It is a history in which its military has remained a strategic player in shaping the country, occasionally overthrowing democratically elected leaders on the basis of mismanagement or corruption. Even when the military did not take an active role, its council was still sought. That was the background against which Musharraf came to power in 1999.

The popular, favorable response to Taseer’s assassination and threats that sympathizers not criticize this brutal act shows the world Pakistanis are a “not-yet-ready-for-prime-time” democracy. Zadari’s regime is in a state of paralysis. The only viable civilian replacement on the horizon for Zadari is Sharif–who will be heavily influenced by anti-Western and Islamic extremist interests. The end result will be an increasingly unstable nuclear state falling under increasing Islamist control. The Islamist, nuclear-armed state we have been hoping to avoid in Iran will become an overnight reality in Pakistan if Sharif comes to power.

The single most important stability issue concerning Afghanistan and Pakistan is stability of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal. All other issues–including a FATA offensive–pale in comparison. And, as the stars of instability come into alignment in Pakistan, it appears the military is quietly taking control once again to prevent the instability a Sharif presidency would precipitate.

Zadari has become toothless, thus leaving power in Pakistan to rest with the army’s chief of staff and former ISI head, General Ashfaq Kayani. Appeals by US officials for Kayani to undertake the North Waziristan offensive have fallen on deaf ears. Kayani understands its importance but simply does not trust the US. Kayani claims Pakistan is America’s “most bullied ally,” which resonates well with the country’s strong anti-American public. He refuses to give any appearance Pakistan is a US lap dog. Based on a “trust deficit,” Kayani believes Washington will “cut and run” in Afghanistan, abandoning Pakistan as well. He believes the US seeks to disarm Pakistan as a nuclear power. And, he still believes India–more so than the militants–is Pakistan’s major threat, generating his reluctance to commit additional forces, needed to defend against an attack by India, to a FATA offensive. Unfortunately, this false threat perception blinds Kayani to the militant cancer eating away at Pakistan.

Concerning Pakistan’s future, the good news is Kayani’s motivation is stability-oriented–which includes maintaining a secure nuclear arsenal–while Sharif’s is not. The bad news is, whether Kayani or Sharif is in power, a North Waziristan offensive is unlikely.

Stability for Afghanistan rests on an enlightened Pakistani leader coming to power who recognizes Islamabad’s true threat priorities and acts accordingly to root militants out of North Waziristan. For want of any such enlightenment, Afghanistan will be lost.

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