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Tuesday, September 28, 2010

IPCS Article #3246, 28 September 2010
AfPak: Beginning of the End?

In an attack on Pakistan from Khost province in Afghanistan, International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) forces killed 50 Taliban insurgents. The NATO spokesman rationalised the attack as “ISAF forces must and will retain the authority, within their mandate, to defend themselves in carrying out their mission.” This action has been taken as a violation of its sovereignty by Pakistan. Pakistan has indicated that it “will be constrained to consider response options” since there exists no agreement on such ‘hot pursuit’ with the NATO force in Afghanistan, the ISAF.

After a lull resulting from the devastating floods in Pakistan, AfPak is back in the news with a bang. Two possible interpretations exist. One is that the attack manifests the energy of the ‘surge’ that has by now been finally completed, and Petraeus’ determination to prevail in the asymmetric conflict. The second more negative one is that it could be indicative of frustration within the ISAF against a wily foe having sanctuary across the Durand line.

In either case they potentially herald the beginning of the end. The end state could once have been visualised along the line of engagement and cooption of Taliban. Such attacks make this remote and instead are pointers that the strategy of herding the Taliban to the table through the surge has not worked. The possible end state now staring in the face is destabilization of Pakistan with expansion of the war into FATA in hope of ending the sanctuary. While the attack by itself does not presage follow-up attacks, it does indicate a strategy of reliance on military force.

In the pre-flood scheme of things, indicators pointed to increased readiness of the Pakistan Army in ending the sanctuary in North Waziristan through military action. However, with the Army deployed in flood relief, this was not to be. The attack can be seen as a substitute for the military operations that were to be otherwise conducted by the Pakistan Army. The drone attacks, continuing since the Bush presidency and intensified in the Obama period, may now be supplemented by both ‘boots on ground’, if only temporarily, and Apache helicopters. This has precedence in isolated cases earlier, with in one instance, over ten Pakistani Rangers being killed for providing cover to the retreating Taliban. It bears watching if there would now be a switch to a more aggressive military posture.

Earlier the logic put forth was that such areas constituted ‘ungoverned spaces’. Since the writ of the government in Islamabad did not run in these areas, interdiction of Taliban presence required being done. Pakistan was not in a position to do anything about it, it had tacitly agreed to the drone attacks even while putting up a token protest. Thereafter, Pakistan had taken on the onus of constraining the Taliban presence through Operation Rah-e-Nijat etc. However, it would have been obvious to the NATO that these were directed more against the Tehreek-e-Taliban (TTP) Pakistan that was anti-state rather than the Afghan Taliban contesting the ISAF. For the ISAF strategy to work denial of bases in FATA was necessary; therefore these attacks.

What do they portend? Over the immediate term, it could be indicative of retribution through bombings etc in Afghanistan to include Kabul. Of greater consequence is what could happen on the Pakistani side.

Apprehending this, Pakistan was quick to challenge the attacks, so as to send the message to the Taliban that it was not culpable. This reveals the apprehensions Pakistan has in the possibility of the Taliban turning against it. Given that the Taliban has proven a formidable foe even for the NATO, Pakistan has so far preferred to have it on its side. In case the Taliban were to lose the secure sanctuary, it would not need Pakistani state support and thus could turn against the Pakistani state.

A deepening of the already convergent interests with the Pakistani Taliban would make the combined Taliban implacable. The TTP through bombings even during the calamity of floods has demonstrated its reach. The Pakistani state has proven inept in its response to the floods and lost credibility. Its Army is unwilling to go the distance in taking on the different groups of Islamists together. Given its ideological inclinations and institutional interest in cohesion, it is doubtful it can be pushed to do so either. Clearly, Pakistan cannot be relied on to clean up the fallout of policy options adopted by the NATO.

Since all this is clearly discernible, it begs the question as to why the continued reliance on the military template. The optimistic answer is that once the hand of the Pakistani military is forced, it would go after the Taliban of all hues. This can be made possible by the Taliban being provoked into challenging its hosts. The Army’s willingness has been worked on considerably through incentives such as the IMF bailout, a three year extension to Kayani etc. This is the time to call collect.

Obama’s exit strategy relies overly on Petraeus’ military reputation. Time will tell if the risk was a calculated one.

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