Ahmed Rashid on a credible U.S. strategy in Afghanistan
Visits from three senior U.S. officials in three weeks indicate troubles in the U.S.-Pakistan relationship. Washington has failed to deliver on the regional strategy it promised this spring, and friction with Pakistan seems to be contributing to the long delay in announcement of a new U.S. strategy in Afghanistan. Pakistan is critical to any Afghan strategy the Obama administration undertakes. Pakistanis hope that President Obama will push his state guest this week, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, to be more flexible toward Islamabad. But Pakistanis, too, must compromise if there is to be hope for Afghanistan and South Asia.
In their recent visits, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, national security adviser James Jones and CIA chief Leon Panetta promised to push the Indians on regional issues. But the Pakistani army does not trust American promises and has leaned on the civilian government in Islamabad to scale back its largely pro-U.S. positions.
Any surge of U.S. troops into Afghanistan would depend on the Pakistani army's help to protect the truck convoys that would supply the extra Western troops in landlocked Afghanistan. Washington would need even greater clandestine cooperation from the Pakistani military in targeting terrorist hideouts along the border.
Pakistan's army, which is overshadowing the elected government on regional policy, does not want U.S. forces to pull out of Afghanistan. But neither does it want a massive surge of U.S. troops, which it fears will ultimately drive more Afghan refugees into Pakistan or boost morale for the Pakistani Taliban.
The army is finally fighting decisively against the Pakistani Taliban on several fronts in the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP) and has had some success in driving the Pakistani Taliban out of its main stronghold in South Waziristan. Yet the army is loath to even acknowledge the presence of the Afghan Taliban leadership that is based in Baluchistan province and North Waziristan.
U.S. troops cannot roll back the Taliban in southern and eastern Afghanistan without the Pakistanis cutting off the men and materials the Afghan Taliban can draw on.
If U.S. and NATO troops stay on in Afghanistan and beat back the Afghan Taliban in the next few years, the Pakistani military is likely to cooperate with the West.
If, however, President Obama speaks soon of an exit strategy, as many in the United States and Europe want, the Pakistani army is likely to push Afghan President Hamid Karzai to accept a Pakistani-brokered deal to form a pro-Pakistan government with the Taliban in Kabul.
The Pakistani army has no love for Islamic extremists now, but it differentiates between the Afghan Taliban, which it sees as a potential ally in a pro-Pakistan Afghanistan if U.S. efforts there fail, and the Pakistani Taliban, which is viewed as a threat to the state to be eliminated.
In reality, the two Taliban groups and al-Qaeda are closely allied. Both Taliban groups acknowledge the Afghan Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar as head of the essential jihad against Western forces in Afghanistan. Even though Afghan Taliban leaders are careful not to fight alongside their Pakistani brothers in South Waziristan, they would be happy to see larger parts of the NWFP controlled by the Pakistani Taliban so that their own base areas could expand.