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Saturday, January 12, 2013

The Threesome Tango: US, Taliban and Pakistan

Tango is a South American dance form where two dancers dance quite in an embrace.

However, a new type of tango has evolved in the Af-Pak region with three dancers in a deadly embrace, the Americans, the Pakistanis and the Taliban.

Now, the Taliban are not monolithic and are composed of at least two groups, the Afghan and the Pakistani Taliban. The latter, known as Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan or TTP, have two sub-groups, the 'good' and the 'bad' Taliban. The 'good' and 'bad' divisions are convenient creations of Pakistani Establishment to pursue their enduring concept of 'strategic depth'. See this for details. Since the Laal Masjid episode, almost all the Deobandi terrorist tanzeems in Pakistan have identified themselves with the 'bad Taliban', thereby making it the most powerful component of TTP. The 'bad Taliban' could have easily taken on the 'good Taliban' but tribal equations, and sane counsel probably prevailed upon them from starting a war of attrition that could not have helped the larger cause of AQAM.

Even assuming that there exists 'good' and 'bad' Taliban with different objectives and worldviews, the former fighting a jihad to regain their land from foreign occupation forces and the latter an evil force to perpetuate Al Qaeda's ideologies in Pakistan, we need to investigate the latest developments in the last few weeks.

Developments are taking place on two fronts, the Afghan Taliban front and the Pakistani Taliban front. The US, Pakistan and the Taliban are involved in both the fronts. While the US is the prime mover in the US-Afghan Taliban-Pakistan tango, it is Pakistan whih is the prime mover in the Pakistan-Pakistani Taliban-US tango.

Just, what are the objectives of these three players ?

The US wants to have an honourable exit from Af-Pak without much blood loss to retreating troops as the pullout of men and material begins. The US would also like to retain some presence in Afhanistan to oversee transition from the incumbent Karzai government to whatever new power-sharing agreement is arrived at for the post-2014 scenario. The US would like to ensure, for some time to come at least, that the new dispensation that comes to power in Kabul does not become a threat to US and Western interests. A base in Afghanistan would also help geostrategically in a region where American interests are huge such as in nearby Pakisran, Iran or Central Asian Republics (CAR) or even Russia.

For the Pakistanis, the requirement is simple: a pro-Pakistan government in Kabul that would allow Pakistan to re-establish its concept of strategic-depth and remove Indian influence which had alarmingly resurfaced in the last six years in Afghanistan. Other objectives such as bottling-up Pashtun nationalism that could pose a threat to its Durand Line border with Afghanistan come next and way below in terms of immediate priority.

The Taliban also want to regain control of Afghanistan but on their own terms. They want to be seen as victorious in the end of a decade-long battle without surrendering their ideological beliefs. They want the Americans and the Western forces to be seen as vanquished in Afghanistan, and would want to reinforce their usual claim of Afghanistan being country which has the reputation of being a place where no foreign invader has been able to rule the natives, They would therefore like to see no foreign troop on their soil post the American withdrawal in c. 2014. More than anything else, they would like to trumpet two things: the only remaining superpower has been defeated through jihad and that Islam (of Osama's variety)  has won.

Let us therefore interpret the recent developments with the above paradigm in mind.

The US exit strategy in Afghanistan  has a striking similarity to what happened in Vietnam way back in 1969, not only in the fact that the talks were held in Paris then as it is happening now also, but also in the format, content, strategy and situation as well. In Vietnam too, while the US was leading the fight, several SEATO member countries had sent in troops as well. Of course, Pakistan had not. Situationally, the US was not doing well in Vietnam when Richard Nixon came to power in c. 1968 and there were wide protests within the US to withdraw from there. The US decided to train and equip the South Vietnamese troops, a programme that lasted three years doomed only to fail in the end, as in the Afghan case. The US also attacked communist sanctuaries in neighbouring Cambodia.  Secret and open peace talks ensued. The North Vietnamese were particularly tough negotiators and after nearly three years of negotiations, the two sticky points were the likely leader of the provisional government of South Vietnam and the withdrawal of the Vietcong from the South. In the meantime, the US administration was  developing the détente with China and the USSR. This development which made the North Vietnam leadership literally see red (pun intended) along with  a massive punishing air campaign of two weeks made the North agree in the end. The US also needed to engage in other foreign policy initiatives like detente which was expected to reduce not only military risks but also help bring huge economic benefits to the US and so did not want to be drained anymore by the Vietnam situation. The US was engaged with the USSR in the SALT-I treaty negotiations and wanted it to succeed. In c. 1971, the US also engaged with the Chinese through dramatic secret talks, helped by Pakistan, to normalize relationship. Ultimately, the US left Vietnam leaving South Vietnam to decide its own fate. The South and the North fought between themselves for another three years before South Vietnam collapsed and the victorious North Vietnam captured Saigon.
In Afghanistan too, a weary US (and its allies) want(s) to go back home, though there are no massive protests per se within the US, unlike in the 1960s. The US has not been doing well within Afghanistan itself though the drone strikes have been successful in FATA of Pakistan. The US has been having secret and open talks with the Taliban who, like the North Vietnamese negotiators, have not been yielding ground. It is not possible for the US to send B52 bombers and bludgeon the Taliban into submission and the drones are the effective alternates. Already, we see a big rise in the number of drone strikes in the first week of the new year. An important leader of TTP who used to send his troops to Afghanistan to fight the NATO/ISAF, Maulvi Nazeer, has just last week been taken out by these drones in South Waziristan. Many members of another commander, Gul Bahadur, have been similarly killed in North Waziristan a couple of days back. Like developing the détente with USSR and China, the twin supporters of the Vietcong, the current US administration is trying to replicate the same with the Pakistanis who created and now support the Taliban and without whose support, the Taliban would be easily decimated. The US Administration wants to re-focus its foreign policy relations to the developing situation in the East China Sea, South China Sea and the Indian Ocean areas. The Obama administration has therefore decided to ‘pivot’ itself more closely in the evolving situation in Asia-Pacific and a useless unwinnable Afghan situation is unproductive and a massive drain. It has therefore been training the ANA, the Afghan National Army, (along with friends like India) in the hope that they would be able to take over when the US left. It may be that the Americans know what fate awaits the ANA after they leave but they have to maintain a pretext of training them to shoulder responsibilities. Again, like in Vietnam, the guerrilla forces of the Taliban would overcome the ANA easily and take over Kabul and Kandahar, the two centres of power (political and religious respectively) in Afghanistan.

For Pakistan, nothing is more important than seeing the back of the Americans and seeing the re-installation of the Kandahari Taliban in power in Kabul. They would like a smooth transition without the debilitating internecine war that accompanied the transition of power in c. 1989. At times, in the early years of the 1990s, Pakistan came close to losing Afghanistan as some of its plans came a cropper, until the Taliban force was created which had no participation of the powerful but warring mujahideen leaders, Pakistan cannot afford to go through a similar exercise yet another time, what with its own precarious internal conditions. It must have also received strong advice from China, its all-weather friend, that instability must be avoided at all costs since such a situation would lead to civil war for many years. Apart from Pakistan, and to some extent China, no other player in the region is interested in seeing a re-emergence of the Taliban. Afghanistan's neighbours such as Iran or CAR (Central Asian Republics) are against Talibani control of Afghanistan. Other regional players such as India and Russia are equally disinclined towards such a development. It is only the US (some of its allies like the UK) and Pakistan who, for different reasons, prefer the Taliban.

The Pakistani Army cultivated the 'good Taliban', had 'peace deals' with them which were followed scrupulously. This helped the Pakistani Army a relief of pressure to that extent. But, times are changing now. The small component of 'good Taliban' has clearly outlived its utility though they might be close to Mullah Omar. It will be the larger 'bad Taliban' that alone can ensure peace both internally and in FATA and beyond. So long as division existed within TTP, the Pakistani efforts may be derailed and there may be a constant threat to itself. This is what Gen. Kayani meant recently which was wrongly interpreted in India as recognition at last by the Pakistani Army that threats to its existence came from within and not without. Pakistan now wants to effectively turn this 'threat within' to tackle the 'threat without'. The TTP has also been speaking the Pakistan Army's language of avenging the 1971 defeat. At the same time of offering an olive branch to the Pakistani Establishment, the TTP is also showing its ruthless face by assassinating the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Minister, Bashir Ahmed Bilour followed a few days later by the cold blooded murder of the 22 captured Levies soldiers who happened to be Shi'a. The latest Quetta massacre of the Hazara Shi'as is also by the same group. All these incidents sent multiple messages - that TTP would not go soft on its targets just because talks are initiated, that it will keep the pressure on the Establishment, and that TTP is sectarian with a very narrow extremist Sunni agenda that sees Shi'a as murtad,

The Pakistan Army has been unable to take on the TTP and their associates in the last eight years since they launched the operation against them. They have conceded ground to them and the writ of the state has shrunk in large areas of Pakistan where the Taliban have successfully established their rule. Places like FATA, Swat, Peshawar, Quetta, Southern Punjab, parts of Karachi etc come to mind immediately. They have successfully carried out violent attacks against the armed forces including at locations where nuclear weapons are stored, at the General Head Quarters (GHQ), airforce, navy and army bases with little counter attack by the Pakistani armed forces. The Taliban are beginning to considerably establish their sway in Karachi. At a political level, they have the overt support of all Islamist political parties and parties like Imran Khan's Pakistan-Tehrik-e-Insaf (PTI) which completely sympathizes with their demands and actions. A nationalist party like the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa based Awami National Party (ANP) has been literally bludgeoned into submission especially after the recent killing of Bilour. At a societal level, large scale conversions to Deobandism are taking place or are being attempted all over Pakistan. People who profess the Deobandi interpretation of Islam will provide overt and covert support to the TTP. At an international level, the peace talks between the US and Afghan Taliban have raised the question as to why Pakistan cannot have a similar dialogue with the TTP who after all are all Pakistanis. The US President has, during the joint press conference with the Afghan President Hamid Karzai yesterday (Jan 11, 2013) said options other than military hold the key for peace in Af-Pak.

The Pakistani Army, the main component of the Establishment, is therefore forced to adjust itself to the emerging situation. At the same time, it realizes that increased trade and contacts between the people of India and Pakistan, which Pakistan grudgingly allowed under pressure from the US, might, in the long run, undermine its strategic objective, that of comprehensively defeating India and destroying it if possible. Even if it may not be able to defeat India, it would be happy to see anarchy, violence and terrorism in India in the same scale as it exists in Pakistan.

Pakistan operates on cues. The green signal given by the US to play a prominent role in Afghanistan once again, the US green signal for pursuing options other than military in dealing with terrorists in Pakistan, the arrival of John Kerry as Foreign Secretary in the US, the politically-besieged, clueless and impotent Indian ruling coterie, the imminent withdrawal of the US from Af-Pak, the start of flow of funds and armaments once again from the US and above all the likely re-installation of the Taliban in power in Kabul and Kandahar will all embolden Pakistan to start another misadventure with India. The prelude to that has started along the Line of Control (LoC) already.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

TTP and Pakistan

As the situation in Afghanistan moves relentlessly towards a denouement, a flurry of activities has been set into motion by various actors involved in the Af-Pak theatre. Two of them who merit attention for Pakistani watchers are the ‘Establishment’ of Pakistan and the so-called ‘bad Taliban’ or the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP).
Why do these two entities merit our attention suddenly ? It is not any ‘sudden’ attention that Pakistani watchers are focusing on these two entities for they have been always under the scanner; but, some new developments are taking place suddenly between these two that we need pay attention to.
But, who are the ‘Establishment’ and the ‘bad Taliban’ ?
The ‘Establishment’ has two permanent members, the very top commanders of the military forces of Pakistan (particularly the Army) and some powerful members of the bureaucracy. Whenever the President of the country was an Army General, he was naturally the head of the Establishment. Otherwise, it has been the Chief-of-Army-Staff (COAS). The overwhelming power and influence within the Establishment lies with the top Army generals and the Chiefs of the Intelligence agencies. At various times, the political classes may be co-opted into the Establishment for a limited period and purpose depending upon the exigencies of the situation. The Establishment operates with the sole and permanent motive of avenging the 1971 defeat and, if possible, destroying India. In the course of pursuing this goal, the members of the Establishment enrich themselves personally, a fact borne out by various scandals. For sustaining themselves at the pinnacle, they effectively use the cards of 'Islam-in-danger' and 'national interest and security'. The Establishment had generally had excellent relationship with its Masters, the US administration, with the result that the latter were able to considerably influence Pakistan’s policies. The Establishment members were severally and collectively rewarded by the numerous administrations of the US for their services. The Chinese have similarly developed a deep influence over the Establishment but, for various reasons, personal benefits may not accrue much to the members of the Establishment from the Chinese. Nevertheless, their hold over the Establishment is considerable and natural when Pakistan depends entirely on them for strategic weapons and their delivery arsenal.
Who are the ‘bad Taliban’ ? This is a figment of the Establishment’s fabrication solely to preserve its core concept of ‘strategic depth’. In spite of being four decades old, the Establishment is steadfastly refusing to give up this core concept. In a recent video interview, the incumbent Emir of TTP, Hakimullah Mehsud, accepted what has been putative otherwise, namely that the ‘good Taliban’, ‘bad Taliban’ and the Al Qaeda were all one and the same. Why did this division come about then ? During the time period between c. 2004 and 2012, the US and its allies were pursuing a two-tier strategy against the terrorists in the Af-Pak region. The first tier was the most important and that was to eliminate all leaders of Al Qaeda and scatter and degrade them in such a way that they would not be of any direct threat to the US and Western interests in the medium term. For this, they needed the whole-hearted support of Pakistan and they received it through various threats and inducements. Yet, the Pakistani ‘Establishment’ added a sting in the tail by safekeeping the trump card, Osama bin Laden, away from American harm for as long as possible. The second and a less important tier of the NATO/ISAF approach had been to go after the Afghan Taliban who ‘accommodated’ and facilitated the Al Qaeda on the soil of the 'Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan'. This goal, again needed Pakistani Establishment’s support. By this time, Al Qaeda, Afghan Taliban, warlords in the Af-Pak borderlands and various Pakistani terrorist tanzeems of the Deobandi variety had coalesced to fight the twin common enemies of the US and its subservient Pakistani state. Though Gen. Musharraf quoted the ‘Treaty of Hudabayah’ to describe his incipient engagement with the US, the enraged AQAM (Al-Qaeda and Allied Movements), as the new coalition was called,  was unwilling to accept the General’s nuances. Pakistan’s capitulation to US demands after 9/11 so angered the AQAM that they decided to pursue their own two-tier approach, that of fighting the Americans and allies in Afghanistan and attacking the ‘Establishment’ in Pakistan that was supporting the US. The former task was undertaken by the Afghan Taliban and the Afghan warlords, particularly Haqqani and his shura now safely ensconced in North Waziristan of FATA. The latter task was handed over to the new outfit, the TTP,  that was formally created in c. 2007, after the Laal Masjid incident in Islamabad.
Though there were uncoordinated attacks earlier too on the ‘Establishment’ by various outfits owing allegiance to Osama bin Laden, it was the creation of the TTP that lent it a vicious gruesomeness. Naturally, the Establishment wanted to isolate and deal with those who were attacking them; but, at the same time, they could not afford to antagonize the Afghan Taliban in whom they had invested heavily since c. 1994. The Establishment wanted to preserve the Afghan Taliban because they wanted to ensure that Afghanistan came back under their pre-2002 sphere of influence after the US and allies eventually left. The Establishment cannot tolerate any Indian influence in Afghanistan and the Afghan Taliban were the surest bet for ensuring that. So, the Establishment protected Mullah Omar and dozens of his shura members at various ISI safehouses in Quetta and Karachi. The Establishment cited one reason or another for several years not to take on the Haqqani shura though they went after the TTP in the nearby South Waziristan. The US-Pakistan relationship came close to break-point a couple of times during this period but the Establishment weathered those storms. The US administration, completely at the mercy of Pakistan, blew hot and cold but to no avail. The Establishment created the canard and compartmentalization of the Taliban into ‘good’ and ‘bad’ for its own narrow strategic needs. The Establishment’s definition of the ‘bad Taliban’ includes the Pashtuns on the Pakistani side of Durand Line (excluding some sarkari Taliban commanders like Maulvi Nazir Ahmed of South Waziristan or Gul Bahadur of North Waziristan) along with jihadi groups such as Harkat-ul-Jihadi-Islami (HuJI, the original Punjabi Taliban), Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (or LeJ), Jandullah (created by Khalid Sheikh Mohammed who plotted 9/11), Tanzeem-ul-Ikhwan, the Zafar Group,  and Brigade 313 (the group formed by Ilyas Kashmiri killed in c. 2011) among others. All these groups have at one time or another enjoyed the full patronage of the Establishment right upto the highest level.
What is America’s position on the Taliban, good and bad? The Americans had extensively dealt with the ‘good’ Afghan Taliban before 9/11 and they had no particular problem with them except for some of their women-related issues or extreme fundamentalism. They have always treated the issue of the Taliban as an internal matter of Afghanistan. Even after 9/11, their emissary to the Taliban, the discredited ISI Chief  Lt. Gen. Mahmoud Ahmed, was asked to convey only the handing over of Osama bin Laden and other Al Qaeda leaders for the Taliban rulers to be left alone. They would therefore have no compunctions in handing power back to them under a paper guarantee that they would abide by the Constitution of Afghanistan. For their part, the Afghan Taliban, the ‘good’ variety, have rejected the existing Constitution and demanded an Islamic one, again, something the Americans can have no particular issue with. Thus, the stage is set for greater role of the 'good' Taliban in the Afghan peace talks and the task of turning the Taliban around for peace talks is left in the capable hands of Pakistan, which simply means in the hands of the Establishment. As for the ‘bad Taliban’, the Americans attacked them whenever the Pakistanis felt particularly overwhelmed by them. The American drones took out Nek Mohammed, Baitullah Mehsud, Ilyas Kashmiri and other ‘inconvenient’ commanders, thus relieving pressure on the Establishment.
The Establishment, which until recently, had a tumultuous relationship with the US (variously referred to as the fifth period of divorce) sees a thaw in that and wants to seize the opportunity. This see-saw US-Pakistan relationship has been a constant feature ever since the US President Gen. Eisenhower made that fateful decision to have close military and political relationship with Pakistan in c. 1954. The Establishment knew that the US would eventually come around and therefore held on tenaciously, even if precariously, until it happened. The ‘road map’ of Afghan denouement, which was released recently, gives primacy to Pakistan in peace efforts and the resolution of power-sharing among various groups come c. 2014. The Establishment is elated that, if it plays its cards meticulously, it will re-establish its strategic depth in Afghanistan. Unlike in c. 1989, this time, the Chinese friends of the Establishment are also interested in these developments because they want to have access to the rich resources of Afghanistan and beyond. The Trans-Karakoram railway line that is being built can be put to good use too to cart away the riches. They may also have a strategic need to be present in Af-Pak to contain the Uyghur separatism radiating from these areas into XUAR (Xinjiang-Uyghur Autonomous Region).  The People's Liberation Army of China (PLA) is already in Gilgit-Baltistan (GB) and Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (POK) and would not feel averse extending that, if necessary, to Af-Pak border or into Afghanistan.
Consistent with these developments, new alliances have to take place and the TTP and the Establishment have taken a lead. Seemingly out of nowhere, the TTP offered last week to have talks with the Pakistani Government and the latter have responded ‘cautiously’ too. Of course, TTP has laid down important conditions for talks such as
  1. TTP willing to have a ceasefire but no surrender of arms.
  2. TTP would not forsake its friends and allies such as the Uzbeks, Chechens, Uyghurs and Arabs at any cost.
  3. The TTP reserves for itself the right to kill anyone whom it considers as infidel.
Pakistan's Interior Minister, Rehman Malik, has already welcomed the talks provided the TTP 'quit its violence'. For a good measure, he has also said that "action would be taken if the TTP continued on its path of violence.". We can immediately recognize the smokescreen being created by Rehman Malik. Already, one expects the talks to have begun between the Establishment and the TTP. The much battered (by TTP) Awami National Party (or, ANP) of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa has also welcomed the talks. They are in a particularly difficult situation for they would lose either way. They probably felt it prudent to welcome the talks and avoid more battering from the TTP. The whole lot of Islamist parties such as Jama'at-e-Islami (JI) or the factions of Jama'at-Ulema-e-Islami (JUI) have always advocated talks with the TTP and no military action against them. The Prime Minister in waiting (or, is he ?), Imran Khan, has been a strong sympathizer of the TTP though he is no longer in their good books currently.

The TTP have excellent advisors guiding them. Even as they extend an olive branch, they have set conditions from which they would not reconcile. Thus, it is the establishment which has to make concessions. Going by past experience, the Pakistan Army had always done so and this time would be no exception either. The Sararogha Peace Agreement of c. 2004 in which the Peshawar Corps Commander shared the platform with Nek Mohammed, hugged him and handed over to him USD ½ Million and agreed to humiliating conditions is a pointer to what can happen now as well. In that public ceremony, Nek Mohammed openly declared that “Pakistan's authority has become a thing of the past; now the Taliban will rule”. The Lt. Gen. did not refute the contention. The peace deal did not even survive a couple of weeks and the Taliban only consolidated their position and the Pakistani Army only formalized the loss of territories through the deal. The many Peace deals that subsequently followed met with the same fate. The Mother of all Peace Deals that the Establishment is about to sign with the TTP now will hand over Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (KP), Quetta, pockets of South Punjab and Karachi to effective TTP control. From here, the evil Emirate will radiate all over Pakistan in quick time. 

However, the Establishment is delighted that the TTP is talking the Establishment's words. The TTP has said that it was time to avenge India for the defeat of 1971 and for the hanging of Kasab. The Establishment is once again proving its time-tested tactical brilliance (if the impending deal can even be called brilliant) and strategic stupidity. In an earlier avtar of the Establishment, it similarly encouraged the Ahl-e-Hadees group of Professor Hafeez Saeed, the UNSC sanctioned terrorist chief of Lashkar-e-Taiba (or, LeT), to inculcate Islamism in the Pakistani armed forces and we now know where those efforts have taken the Pakistani forces to. The TTP are a particularly vicious amalgam of Deobandi, Wahhabi, Salafi and Takfiri brands of Islam imported from Saudi Arabia. Already, a grand effort to convert the majority berelvis into Deobandis is afoot within the Pakistani society. The close nexus that would develop between the TTP and the Pakistani armed forces as a result of the new peace deal will give an entirely new violent meaning to the Pakistani Army's motto of  'jihad fi sabilillah'.

Why is the Establishment so keen in forging a peace deal with the TTP which has pummelled the Pakistani armed forces hard in the last five years ? That takes us back to the scenario in c. 1989. One of the multiple reasons for which Pakistan supported the American 'Bear Trap' project was to let loose the remnant jihadi groups on India after the Afghan operations were over. The Establishment wanted to replicate aspects of the Afghan jihad in Pakistan's eastern border. At that time, Pakistan had not thought through the consequences of its mindless actions. Though there was some initial success, in the long run, Pakistan has been weakened considerably and India has emerged much stronger. This time around, Pakistan has to perforce find alternate employment for the TTP non-state actors because the denouement process will soon make them jobless. Or, at least, that is what the Establishment thinks. The Establishment feels that it can reap double benefits by deflecting them on India and thereby avoiding further blowback to itself.

Thus, the French proverb, Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose (the more it changes, the more it remains the same) fits Pakistan once again.