Obama's Top Priority: Pakistan and Afghanistan with a new Grand Double Strategy

Posted in Broader Middle East | 27-Oct-08 | Author: Sahabzada Abdus-Samad Khan

"We cannot tolerate a terrorist sanctuary, and as  president I won't. We must make it clearer that if Pakistan cannot…
"We cannot tolerate a terrorist sanctuary, and as president I won't. We must make it clearer that if Pakistan cannot act, we will take out high-level terrorist targets like bin Laden, as Al Qaeda has an expanding base in Pakistan (FATA)," U.S. President-elect Barack Obama proclaimed in July. His top priority in foreign affairs is Pakistan including FATA and Afghanistan.The heat is on Pakistan now. A new double strategy is needed now including coordinated military actions with the Pakistan forces and much more effective civilian aid in FATA.
U.S. President-elect Barack Obama will shift U.S. forces from Iraq to Afghanistan and the American strategy to the broader areas including the tribal areas (FATA) and Pakistan soon after taking over the presidency in January, as he proclaimed in a major foreign policy speech in July. "We cannot tolerate a terrorist sanctuary, and as president I won't. We must make it clearer that if Pakistan cannot act, we will take out high-level terrorist targets like bin Laden, as Al Qaeda has an expanding base in Pakistan (FATA)," he told supporters (see Obama threatens direct action in Fata; see as well McCain and Obama about Pakistan in Presidential Debate including YouTube Video Link).

The heat is on Pakistan now.

His Vice-President, Senator Joe Biden – the best foreign policy strategist in the U.S. Senate – proposed a new $ 2.5 billion package of non-military aid to combat insurgency in the FATA (see Stabilizing FATA)

A new Obama-Biden strategy for Pakistan, the tribal areas (FATA) and Afghanistan are what the World Security Network has promoted for years including its international FATA Workshop in the Adlon Hotel in Berlin in May of this year with a detailed strategic approach, the EU-GCC FATA Friendship Fund (see details in GCC-EU FATA Friendship Fund and Pakistan: A new GCC-EU FATA Friendship Fund and Double Strategy to Contain Terrorism and the Taliban; Tribal Areas (FATA): U.S. Air Strikes Counterproductive - Smart Power is better than Hard Power; Pakistan: Land in the Line of Fire; WSN proposals for Afghanistan in Afghanistan & NATO’s Mission Impossible: A Radical New Grand Design Needed or Defeat is Guaranteed; Afghanistan: A new Grand Strategy for NATO, EU and the U.S.; on a better U.S. foreign policy see U.S. Foreign Policy: Dangerous - Destructive? Hubertus Hoffmann speech at Trinity College Dublin; The West needs Holistic Formulas for Peace on the basis of Diplomacy plus Power plus Reconciliation)

What should the new U.S. President and the Vice-President do to stabilize Afghanistan, separate the very few radical Taliban and Al Qaeda from the majority of peaceful people in neighboring FATA? Continue the failed military approach of the team of George Bush or a new double strategy of power and reconciliation, military strikes and civilian support?

In the early hours of September 3, 2008, an unprecedented US attack by helicopter-borne Special Operations forces, supported by air assets based in Afghanistan took place in South Waziristan in FATA (Federally Administered Tribal Areas of Pakistan). In the aftermath of this attack, there was much speculation regarding a secret Bush Administration directive, which was approved entirely without consultation with Pakistan’s newly elected civilian government or its armed forces. The attack resulted in 20 civilian casualties and came at a time when the area was witnessing a marked upsurge in US air strikes by MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper Unmanned Air Vehicles (UAVs) in the area. In the days preceding the ground attack for example, dozens of people were killed by UAV strikes targeting militants. However, as is often the case, women and children were also reportedly among those killed – yet no “high value targets” (i.e., high ranking al-Qaeda or Taliban figures) were hit. There is concern that further such incursions as well as “hot pursuit” raids and other cross-border action may ensue, further escalating tensions and eroding trust between these two allies.

The reaction to these attacks in Pakistan, particularly the ground assault, has been extremely negative, to say the least. Both the National Assembly and the Senate passed resolutions condemning the South Waziristan attack, and the opposition has called for the government to withdraw from the “war on terror” if the US strikes do not cease. At least one other US ground incursion almost certainly took place in the past, albeit on a smaller scale, but was not reported or confirmed. There has never been any agreement on ground attacks by US forces, but as far as UAV strikes are concerned, in the past these were generally undertaken with Pakistani permission. But now it appears that not only is the US is acting unilaterally, but it is also increasing the tempo of such attacks.

This has put the newly elected civilian government and President Asif Ali Zardari in a very difficult position. On the one hand, he has pledged his commitment to “stand with the United States” in its war, but he must attempt to balance that with his increasing dependence on tribal area MPs to maintain his Pakistan Peoples Party-led coalition’s dwindling majority. Beyond that, with much of Pakistan’s armed forces committed to fighting large-scale offensives in the Swat Valley, Waziri tribesmen have threatened to withdraw from a long-standing peace agreement with the government if they are unable to halt the attacks. Meantime, Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani stated that attacks by UAVs on targets in FATA amounted to "terrorism" and that such actions encourage and strengthen militancy and were therefore counter-productive. For its part the US had assured Mr. Gilani that it would respect Pakistan's sovereignty and the Prime Minister hoped that this promise would be kept.

Recently, Pakistan’s armed forces have also become vocal critics of the US strikes. Following this American commando operation, Chief of Army Staff General Kayani warned that foreign forces would no longer be permitted to conduct missions on Pakistani soil. Another high-ranking military official later confirmed that the army has been ordered to retaliate against any foreign troops inside the country. Meanwhile, Maj. Gen. Jeffrey Schloesser warned Pakistan recently that if it does not step up its fight against the militants “a new kind of war could well begin.”

WSN Editor Pakistan Samad Khan had the opportunity to interview Gen (ret) Ehsan-ul-Haq, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Pakistani Military (2004-2007), Director of ISI (2001- 2004), who still plays an important role in Pakistani politics. He is a member of the WSN Advisory Board and played a vital role in the WSN conference on FATA (Federally Administrated Tribal Areas) in May 2008 in Berlin.

WSN founder Dr. Hubertus Hoffmann has launched an initiative to enhance the living conditions in this strategically important region – important for any relevant progress for more security and stability in Afghanistan and in Pakistan. (see Pakistan: A new GCC-EU FATA Friendship Fund and Double Strategy to Contain Terrorism and the Taliban; GCC-EU FATA Friendship Fund)

Pak General (ret) Ehsan ul-Haq: "U.S. Air Strikes strategically counterproductive"

- Exclusive WSN interview with the former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff of the Pakistan Military and Director ISI, conducted by Samad Khan -

General (ret) Ehsan ul Haq, former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff of the Pakistan Military and Director ISI.…
General (ret) Ehsan ul Haq, former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff of the Pakistan Military and Director ISI. "It is regrettable that even with all the civilian suffering caused by such large scale violence and in a situation where the Pakistan Army is employing some 125,000 troops (plus untold numbers of men and aircraft of the Pakistan Air Force) who are fighting in the area every single day, that there should continue to be skepticism regarding Pakistan’s resolve in the war on terror."
Samad: NATO/ISAF have long appreciated the severe pitfalls of attacking targets across the Durand Line over the objections of the Pakistani government, and have declared that they will not participate in any US strikes. The Bush Administration appears not to feel the same way, the agreed rules of engagement with Pakistan notwithstanding. But with widespread indignation against the US already escalating to alarming levels under “Phase I,” what are the chances of the alliance surviving the next two phases, assuming that these would entail a similar approach but with increasing levels of magnitude?

Gen. (ret) Ehsan-ul-Haq: This was a serious escalation on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. Let us not forget the timing of the incident as well: During 2007 and 2008 there has been a very serious deterioration in the security environment in Afghanistan, with the US, ISAF as well as Taliban forces suffering unprecedented levels of casualties. This caused a resurgence of the Taliban and showed up the failure of the Karzai government. Furthermore this attack transpired at a critical time for the increasingly beleaguered Bush Administration, seeing that it is election season and President Bush’s last term in office is all but over. The Bush Administration felt compelled to demonstrate some vestige of success in this war and to leave an honorable legacy. President Bush may also have been compelled by the situation on the ground and was affected by the dynamics of the new internal political dispensation in Pakistan. The democratic changes led to uneasiness in the US leadership with the new Pakistani government and there was impatience with the fact that the new government was taking so long to settle down, which reduced its ability to act quickly and focus on FATA issues. This frustration must have reached a peak when the US decided to operationalize its contingency plans. The US has still not ruled out further cross-border ground action, but seeing the backlash in Pakistan that would ensue, they would be foolhardy to repeat this action.

This escalation came at the worst possible time on many counts: 1. For the first time, Pakistan had launched a decisive campaign on three fronts, which is reflective of a much stronger resolve to achieve decisive results. The US action in South Waziristan detracts from Pakistan’s chances of success on those other fronts where its forces are in action. 2. The civilian government is in the process of a debate within and without the Parliament with a view to reflect a degree of ownership of this war. The US role is deeply unpopular amongst the public and parliamentarians and only makes life difficult for the civilian government at this critical time. 3. Please remember that Pakistan was only recently transitioning from a semi-military regime to democratic dispensation. General Musharraf quit in August 2008. In the public perception the US escalation (esp. the ground attack) was viewed as a coercive act to express its unhappiness. It was seen by many as an indirect way of “propping up a dictator” and undermining a popular government, as the US is traditionally wont to do. 4. The strategy of air strikes was counterproductive and did not achieve any decisive results; it may have yielded some tactical results but strategically the effects were negative.

Samad: This escalation would obviously complicate the task of Pakistani forces, which for the past few months have been involved in intense military operations against militants on three fronts in the area (Bajaur, Swat and, for a time, near the town of Darra Adam Khel, south of Peshawar). Not since the civil war and break-up of the country in the 1971 war with India has the Pakistani Army fought its own people on such a scale and at such close proximity to a major city. An estimated quarter of a million people have now fled the air strikes and artillery fire of the Pakistani military, as well as the intimidation, rough justice and violence of the Taliban who appear to be very well dug-in with ample arms, money and supplies. Some 20 000 people are so desperate that they have sought refuge across the border from Bajaur in Afghanistan. Many others are crowding around Peshawar, where UNHCR is providing humanitarian assistance at nearly a dozen Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) camps. The number of IDPs in Pakistan fleeing the recent fighting is estimated at more than 250,000.

The Taliban have started executing far more daring terrorist attacks such as the suicide truck bombing of the Marriott Hotel on September 20. This terror campaign has generated alarmist fears among sections of the establishment and the media that the country is teetering on the edge of collapse – especially given Pakistan’s already dire economic condition.

Gen. (ret) Ehsan-ul-Haq: Yes, it is indeed regrettable that even with all the civilian suffering caused by such large scale violence and in a situation where the Pakistan Army is employing some 125,000 troops (plus untold numbers of men and aircraft of the Pakistan Air Force) who are fighting in the area every single day, that there should continue to be skepticism regarding Pakistan’s resolve in the war on terror.

"These are our own people after all, and the Pakistan Army is very sensitive to that fact and conducts operations…
"These are our own people after all, and the Pakistan Army is very sensitive to that fact and conducts operations in a very restrained and cautious manner - even if this means risking higher casualties amongst its troops."
Samad: At the front near Darra Adam Khel, the Army recently regained control of the strategic Kohat tunnel, a road more than a mile long that carries ISAF supplies from the port of Karachi to US and ISAF forces in Afghanistan.

There are increasing calls from Pakistani opposition leaders for Islamabad to try and play the “transit supply card” (i.e., ISAF and US oil and food supplies and other provision transiting through Pakistan to sustain their forces in Afghanistan) in order to coerce the US to realize that it will be exceedingly difficult for US and allied troops to operate in Afghanistan if Pakistan opts out of fighting the US war on terror and ceases the provision of this transit facility. The magnitude of this dependence can be gauged by the fact that every month, some 400 containers transport food and other essential items to US and ISAF forces in Afghanistan from Karachi and Quetta. Just as crucial are the 300 million gallons supplied to them every month over the same route. Although ISAF has been searching for an alternative, if somewhat circuitous, supply route through Central Asia and Russia, it is far from certain if this is a viable option. Is there in fact a back-up supply route and can Pakistan afford to pressure the US using the “transit supply card,” publicly or otherwise?

Gen. (ret) Ehsan-ul-Haq: No, logistically and geopolitically, Central Asian supply routes are not a viable option, especially after the cooling of Western relations with Russia in recent months.

Samad: Some “hardliners” in the Pakistani establishment argue that at this stage in the game, in some areas the militants are so well dug in and supplied that the only realistic option would be to follow a “scorched earth” policy. Such action would require the mass evacuation/displacement of the local civilian population. This line of thinking argues that once the militants have been rooted out and a ceasefire is in place, the government would follow up with massive post-conflict reconstruction and economic development efforts in the area. They argue that at this late stage this course of action would be the better of evils. What are your thoughts on this?

Gen. (ret) Ehsan-ul-Haq: Scorched Earth? Nothing like this is being done or contemplated at all. That would involve the burning of villages and carpet-bombing and the like, which we witnessed in WWII and in Vietnam. These are our own people after all, and the Pakistan Army is very sensitive to that fact and conducts operations in a very restrained and cautious manner - even if this means risking higher casualties amongst its troops.

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