The US should play hardball with Rawalpindi to change its strategy in Afghanistan
As the United States mobilises support from its NATO allies to shore up the government in Afghanistan at a summit in Chicago,Washingtons real challenge lies in altering the strategic calculus of the Pakistan army and compelling it to stop promoting the Taliban and other enemies of Kabul.
Notwithstanding the recent thaw in US-Pak relations marked by Islamabads decision to reopen the overland transit facilities for delivering supplies to the international forces in Afghanistan and NATOs invitation to President Asif Ali Zardari to attend the Chicago summit the contradiction between the interests of the international community and Pakistan in Afghanistan remains to be resolved.
The NATO summit underway in Chicago marks a new phase in the longest war that the US has ever fought. President Barack Obama has given up on Washingtons earlier ambitious objectives of defeating the insurgency in Afghanistan and constructing a modern nation-state in Kabul.
Amid the rapidly declining popular support in the United States and the West for a prolonged war in Afghanistan,Washington has set modest objectives for itself and the international community.
These include ensuring reasonable stability in the country,preventing the al-Qaeda and its affiliates from regrouping in Afghanistan,helping the Afghan armed forces to stand up and defend their country,and facilitating Afghanistans regional economic integration.
Washington is also convinced that a military victory over the Taliban is not possible. It believes some kind of political reconciliation with the Taliban is critical for a stable Afghanistan. Although Washingtons outreach has been rejected by the Taliban,the NATO summit is expected to reaffirm the international interest in seeking a deal with the Taliban.
After the new American military minimalism is confirmed in Chicago,Washington will rally international donors to pledge financial resources for the economic development of Afghanistan at another summit to be held in July in Tokyo. The American efforts to pursue limited political goals in Afghanistan (with declining military resources),however,will not be successful without significant cooperation from the Pakistan army.
In fact,it is the Pakistan armys enthusiastic support for the Taliban and the Haqqani network,and its reluctance to confront the al-Qaeda bases on its territory,that have made the decade-long international enterprise in Afghanistan so expensive and messy.
The history of civil wars reminds us that governments can never win them if the opposition enjoys sanctuaries across the border. Afghan President Hamid Karzai has long argued that fixing the source of the problem in Pakistan is more important than the endless American experimentation with big ideas about how to transform Afghanistan.
Karzai,however,found little political resonance,as the West chose to mollycoddle the Pakistan army rather than confront its double-game in Afghanistan. Might matters change a bit after Chicago?
The good news is that the Pakistan army is a bit chastened after the US Special Forces raided and killed Osama bin Laden,who had taken shelter under its very nose of,a year ago this month.
That Rawalpindi was playing both sides of the street in the war on terror can no longer be hidden from the US Congress and other international stakeholders in Afghanistan. In a bid to re-establish its presumed geopolitical leverage with the US,the Pakistan army played the trump card of denying NATO geographic access to Afghanistan last November,but it has come a cropper.
There is bad news as well. While Rawalpindi has reversed its decision and is negotiating a reopening of the land routes to NATO,there is nothing to suggest that the Pakistan army has given up its search for strategic depth in Afghanistan. The evidence from the ground shows that Rawalpindi continues to destabilise Kabul through its proxies.
Even with its weakening position in Afghanistan,the US has enough levers to force a change in the Pakistan armys behaviour in Afghanistan. Four options present themselves to Washington.
The first is to declare the Haqqani network a terrorist organisation and raise the heat on the Pakistan army to abandon its support to what top American officials themselves have called a veritable arm of the ISI.
Second,underlying Rawalpindis decision to walk back from the NATO blockade is recognition of its international isolation and the perilous condition of the Pakistani economy. Rawalpindis efforts to get China and Saudi Arabia to back its defiance of the US have not gone very far. Rawalpindi can no longer sustain the presumption that the US needs it more than it needs Western economic support. If Washington acts on the logic of changed circumstances,it could exercise considerable pressure on the Pakistan army to dismantle the sanctuaries to the Taliban and the Haqqani network.
Third,instead of trying to engage the Taliban on its own,the United States could demand that Rawalpindi nudge the insurgents towards direct talks with Kabul. That would strengthen the legitimacy of the Karzai government,which is eager to find a measure of accommodation with elements of the Taliban.
Finally,the US can help rebalance the civil-military dynamic in Pakistan. With Islamabad on the verge of the first ever peaceful transition from one elected government to another,and Rawalpindi humbled somewhat after the bin Laden affair,the US can indeed push for a restoration of civilian primacy over the army and the ISI in Pakistan.
The civilian leaders in Pakistan are quite eager to move away from Rawalpindis adventurism,which has badly isolated Pakistan and weakened its international standing. They are eager for normal neighbourly relations with Afghanistan and India.
Despite its tendency towards strategic over-reach,the
Pakistan army is a rational actor. Rawalpindi might get its calculations right if Washington plays hardball.
If the Obama administration avoids the temptation of returning to business as usual with Rawalpindi,it has an opportunity to get both Afghanistan and Pakistan right.
The writer is a distinguished fellow at the Observer Research Foundation,Delhi,email@example.com