Saturday, September 25, 2010

Taliban Strategy Comes Full Circle

A very interesting article published at the AfPak Channel by Imtiaz Gul on September 22, 2010. I have his book "The Most Dangerous Place" on my list of books to read.

Late last week, Afghan President Hamid Karzai, General David Petraeus, and American AfPak special envoy Richard Holbrook descended on Islamabad to jointly think a way out of the Afghan imbroglio.

Officials touted their meetings with Gen. Ashfaq Kayani, ISI officials and civilian Pakistani leaders as routine brainstorming sessions. Yet Afghanistan's surge in violence and its extremely low turnout in the Afghan parliamentary election two days later on Saturday, betray the bitter truth: the region is in crisis. Afghans are fear-stricken, the American top brass is frustrated by its failure in showcasing any tangible success back home, Karzai is resentful of Washington's high-handed approach and Pakistan itself is struggling with the consequences of an over-bearing counter-insurgency campaign, complicated by recent devastating floods. Not only do the stakeholders feel they're getting nowhere -- they feel like they're moving deeper into chaos.

This frustration essentially stems from an approach that from the first day centered more on money and military muscle than on long-term strategies.

Indeed, only two days before the big heads gathered in Islamabad, the National Security Archive (NSA) in Washington released several previously secret U.S. government documents which shed considerable light on the strategic missteps of the current war.

Contents of some of the memos suggest that despite joining hands in the anti-terror war in Afghanistan, there was little love lost between Washington and Islamabad in the aftermath of 9/11 - and that their differences centered on the question of how to best counter the Taliban

"We will not flinch from a military victory... but a strike will produce thousands of frustrated young Muslim men, it will be an incubator of anger that will explode two or three years from now," former ISI chief Gen. Mahmud Ahmed had told U.S. ambassador to Islamabad Wendy Chamberlin on September 23, 2001, according to a 12-page document titled "Islamabad 5337."

General Mahmud expressed these reservations after Chamberlin had "bluntly" ruled out a dialogue with the Taliban. The United States responded by pressuring Pakistan to sideline Mahmud (President Musharraf forced him to retire not long thereafter.)

Nine years since the U.S. and its allies unleashed war, the approach to Taliban has now come full circle. Where United States officials were once snubbing Pakistani requests for patience and dialogue, they are now seeking to "flip" Taliban militants.

The consequences of this long delay for Pakistan have been nightmarish. Particularly since 2007, thousands of angry young Muslims, inspired by al Qaeda's pan-Islamist revolutionary and anti-American appeals and trained in the remote tribal regions, have swelled the ranks of Pakistan's domestic radical outfits such as the TTP and Lashkare Jhangvi. Hundreds have blown themselves up in suicide bombings across Pakistan, killing thousands of innocent women and children as well as security personnel -- all in the name of Jihad against the "infidels occupying Afghanistan."

In another memo by NSA, Ronald E. Neumann, former U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan, had warned Washington in 2005 that "if the (al Qaeda ) sanctuary in Pakistan were not addressed it would lead to the re-emergence of the same strategic threat to the United States that prompted our (Operation Enduring Freedom] intervention in 2001."

"The 2005 Taliban resurgence in Afghanistan was a direct product of the four years that the Taliban has had to reorganize and think about their approach in a sanctuary beyond the reach of either government," Neumann wrote.

The sanctuary Neumann alluded to in his dispatches to Washington was obviously the Waziri border lands where Osama bin Laden and his cohorts settled down after their defeat by the U.S.-led coalition. The memos clearly explain how a porous and mountainous region spread over 27,200 square kilometers turned into a sanctuary for al-Qaeda and its Afghan affiliates. Initially "the tribes in [FATA regions] were overawed by U.S. firepower" after 9/11, which provided the Pakistan army a window of opportunity to march in, but the areas quickly became "no-go areas" where the Taliban could reorganize and plan their resurgence in Afghanistan, the NSA papers quote Neumann as saying.

And, as the events suggest, FATA did turn into a haven for al Qaeda, where it found local and foreign allies and facilitators to launch attacks on the U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan. Not only that; FATA also became the birthplace for the Tehreeke Taliban Pakistan (TTP), a vicious al-Qaeda auxiliary that rose in the mountains of the Waziristan region, where Faisal Shehzad, the man behind the May One botched Times Square bombing attempt , received his terrorist training.

For FATA and its residents, it has been both a painful as well as a frightening ordeal; the Operation Enduring Freedom and the hunt for al Qaeda plucked these ultra-conservative and practically lawless regions from obscurity and brought them into the international limelight. Not only because of bin Laden but also because the Waziristan region became the breeding ground for future terrorists, something many in Pakistan including Gen. Mahmud Ahmed and Masood Sharif Khattak, former head of the Intelligence Bureau had warned about in September 2001.

The latest round of general elections in Afghanistan, accompanied by widespread violence and intimidation, doesn't inspire much hope for the future. The dire straits require all stake-holders to take a broader view of the situation, one embedded in ground truths, rather than driven by selfish concerns and considerations.

While I don't doubt the sincerity of General Mahmud, he was, after all, the head of ISI, which, at the time, was more interested in self-serving goals than in ridding the region of extremists. Between 2001 and 2007, ISI played both sides of the game, pitting Taliban groups against Western forces, internally hoping that the Taliban would be weakened and the US would withdraw. It wasn't until the Tehrik-i-Taliban (TTP) was formed and began its brutal terror campaign against Pakistan, that the ISI "woke up" and realized that their pet project had turned against its master.

Gul, however, is right. We should have immediately eganged with moderate Taliban groups from the outset. Instead, we adopted a neanderthalic, "let god sort them out" mentality, which did nothing but recruit new Taliban and al Qaeda members and put a viable long term strategy on the back burner. This pragmatic, black and white approach is, unfortunately, not how the real world works.

While it may be too late to convince some Taliban groups to come to the table, it is still worth the effort to establish a dialogue and focus on the fact that neither side is winning. But, the Taliban have the trump card--as long as Pakistan refuses to effectively engage the militants in combat and kick them out of the Tribal Areas, all they have to do is wait until we pull out. Thus, this dialogue has to include Pakistan and Pakistan must demonstrate a willingness to not tolerate the presence of the Taliban. There has to be three-party talks, but each party has to be engaged in the process for it to work.


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