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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.

2 comments:

  1. What do you mean by Obama's variety of Islam?

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    Replies
    1. Thanks for pointing out. It should be Osama's and not Obama's.

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