03 May 2011

A fork in the road for the U.S. in South Asia

President Obama can call an end to the Fourth Afghan War and allow the Pakistani Army to fill the void, or he can shift tack and push for an end to the alliance between generals and jihadis that lies at the root of the region's terror complex.

3 May 2011
The Hindu

A fork in the road for the U.S. in South Asia

Siddharth Varadarajan

In tracking down and killing Osama bin Laden in the Pakistani town of Abbottabad on Sunday night, America finally seems to have got something right.

The terrorist attacks of 9/11 were the result of a catastrophic intelligence failure in which different American agencies failed to connect the dots. In response, the George W. Bush administration launched not one but two wars, first in Afghanistan and then Iraq, but did not manage to capture or kill the mastermind behind those attacks. The military sledgehammer produced collateral gains and losses for the U.S. — regime change in Kabul and Baghdad but thousands of body bags too, military bases in the cockpit of Asia but international opposition and even opprobrium as well, a bonanza for its arms and contractor industries but also a fiscal deficit which helped pave the way to a full blown financial crisis.

While counter-terrorism gains such as the capture of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed were almost all intelligence driven, the preoccupation with a military approach to the ‘AfPak' region has produced the single biggest liability for Washington: a toxic dependence on the Pakistani army. GHQ, Rawalpindi's associations and entanglements with terrorist groups ensures the “war” being fought remains unwinnable. No amount of tinkering at the margins, no Petraeus or McChrystal plan, no proposal of rehabilitation and reintegration of the Taliban, has helped the Pentagon overcome this fundamental flaw.

Patience wearing thin

Though the U.S. gave Pakistan a very long rope, signs that Washington's patience was wearing thin have been multiplying in recent months. As the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) and GHQ happily played both sides of the ‘war on terror' game in pursuit of their own long-term political and strategic objectives, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) was quietly distancing itself from its unreliable Pakistani counterpart. The Raymond Davies affair — in which no less a person than President Barack Obama saw fit to intervene — brought this decoupling out into the open in a particularly dramatic fashion. The Abbottabad operation is also likely a product of America going solo on Pakistani soil.

Last month, Admiral Mike Mullen openly accused the Pakistani military of collusion with the Haqqani network and other terrorists operating in Afghanistan. It is safe to assume he laid this charge in full knowledge of the fact that bin Laden was living in Abbottabad, a town north of Islamabad that is a stone's throw away from the Pakistan Military Academy in Kakul. The fact that the world's most wanted man could remain undetected in a small town crawling with soldiers and officers suggests either a high degree of dysfunctionality within the Pakistani system or, worse, a high degree of collusion. Plausible though the first option is, most Americans inside and outside the administration — not to speak of officials and lay persons the world over — will likely believe the second.

Mr. Obama was gracious enough to say in a general sort of way that America's “counterterrorism cooperation with Pakistan helped lead us to bin Laden and the compound where he was hiding” but a senior administration official who briefed reporters later on Monday was blunt about the limits of that cooperation. “We shared our intelligence on this bin Laden compound with no other country, including Pakistan,” he said.

Pakistan and Afghanistan

Where do U.S. relations with Pakistan and Afghanistan go from here? Indian officials fear there will be growing domestic political pressure on Mr. Obama to declare the ‘Fourth Afghan War' over and accelerate the drawdown of U.S. troops in the run-up to the 2012 presidential election. But just because the U.S. is waging a war against the Taliban and al-Qaeda in Afghanistan is no reason for India to fear its departure. At stake is what remains to fill the void. The insurgency in Afghanistan can only be defeated by strengthening the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF), on the one hand, and expanding economic opportunities for the country's peoples, on the other. Unfortunately, the former has only recently become an American priority and even then, Washington remains unwilling to allow the ANSF to develop critical assets like an air force. As for development, it is contingent on security and stability, both of which have proved elusive.

If the Pakistani military has run with the jihadi hares even as it has hunted with American hounds, it has done so in anticipation of Washington's eventual withdrawal from Afghanistan. At the same time, this cannot be an argument for the indefinite extension of the American military presence in that country — especially when U.S. troops and aircraft have killed a large number of innocent civilians. Ten years on, it should be clear that the problems in Afghanistan do not have a military solution, at least not one the U.S. can deliver. What America can and must do, however, is to choose its friends wisely and to use its economic and political clout to ensure the Army's nexus with jihadi groups in Pakistan is weakened and destroyed. If indeed the ISI was kept in the dark about Abbottabad, this is a bad augury for the Pakistani military. But unless the U.S. is prepared to go further down that fork in the road, the terrorists who are already preparing themselves to take bin Laden's place will continue to find fertile ground inside Pakistan.

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