Pakistan lies at the heart of President Barack Obama’s plan to wind down America’s war in Afghanistan. If — as he avers — the “overarching goal” is to “disrupt, dismantle and defeat al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan,” the war will be fought mainly in Pakistan. With fewer than a hundred fighters, al-Qaeda was defeated long ago in Afghanistan.

And if the military aim is to “degrade” the Taliban, the fight will be waged mostly in the south of Afghanistan and on its eastern borders with Pakistan, the insurgency’s Pashtun heartland. Should the Taliban guerrillas merely cross to the Pakistani side of the boundary, Islamabad will be asked to act as backstop, preventing the Taliban from regrouping, and apprehending or smashing them instead. As envisioned in comments to Congress by Gen. David Petraeus, head of the US military’s Central Command, or CENTCOM, the Pakistani army and security services will be “a catcher’s mitt, or an anvil, whatever it may be” to the American pitcher or hammer.

Pakistan, however, is loath to play either role. The country’s military establishment opposes Obama’s “surge” in Afghanistan, fearing that it will indeed push Taliban fighters across the border, where their presence will compound a Pakistan Taliban insurgency that already mires 200,000 Pakistani soldiers along the Afghan frontier. Pakistan’s beleaguered civilian government does not want US troops to “begin to come home” in July 2011, as Obama said they will. However slow the “drawdown,” the government knows that with the US departure from Afghanistan goes Pakistan’s special status as a frontline state and the largesse that comes with it. And the Pakistani people, reflexively, oppose both the surge and the exit. While the wisest among them accept that Pakistan is facing a homegrown Islamist rebellion in the tribal areas and Northwest Frontier Province, most know that the historical cause of their war is the US and Pakistani military’s woeful 30-year entanglement with Afghanistan. They worry that Obama’s move will push the war eastward.

Where people, government and army agree is in the perception that Obama’s late-inning pitch at the Taliban is an admission of US defeat. For some it is also vindication of the Pakistani military’s strategy toward Afghanistan since Gen. Pervez Musharraf was forced to “change sides” in the “war on terror” after the attacks of September 11, 2001.

The strategy was selective counterinsurgency. At US urging, the army and intelligence agents have pursued al-Qaeda, “rendering” a stream of fugitives and suspects (as well as some domestic enemies who have nothing to do with al-Qaeda) into the hands of the CIA or the sights of Predator drones. The most notorious of the captives is Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the alleged mastermind of the September 11 attacks who the Obama administration plans to prosecute in a civilian court in New York. In 2009 — in a belated display of self-interest — the army has taken the war to the Pakistan Taliban and a nexus of other Sunni jihadi groups in their new “emirates” of Swat, Bajaur and South Waziristan, in Obama’s words, “the epicenter of the violent extremism practiced by al-Qaeda.” In retribution reminiscent of al-Qaeda in Iraq, these groups are inflicting carnage upon Pakistani cities like Peshawar.

But the army has never gone after the Afghan Taliban and its leader Mullah Omar. Neither has it harried Afghan Taliban-allied commanders like Jalaluddin and Sirajuddin Haqqani or Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, all of whose battalions are ensconced in Baluchistan and tribal areas like North Waziristan. These militias fight US and NATO forces in Afghanistan but oppose or have no interest in spreading the insurgency to Pakistan. Instead, the army has cultivated ties with all these “pro-Pakistani” groups as “a kind of insurance,” says Pakistani military analyst Ayesha Siddiqa. “The military’s thinking was that the Taliban had been an asset [before 2001]. So why destroy an asset, especially if the foreign forces withdraw and there is a power vacuum in Afghanistan?”

Over the next 18 months, Washington will exert enormous pressure upon Islamabad to alter that calculus. Few Pakistani analysts believe the army or its intelligence agencies can or will. These well-paid US clients do not necessarily want to see their patrons bleed in Afghanistan. But they are recalcitrant in the face of the patron’s admonitions because no state can be pressed into acts it considers suicidal. No Pakistani general, to continue with Petraeus’ baseball theme, believes that Obama’s surge can retire the Taliban’s side in 18 months when US and NATO forces have failed to do so for eight years. And once the game is finally conceded by Washington, Pakistan will need its old teammates, the Afghan Taliban, the Haqqanis and Hekmatyar, to pick up the fight in the “post-American” Afghan wars to come.

A Front Too Far

Lucid about what must be done in Afghanistan, Obama was opaque about Pakistan when he unveiled the surge before an audience of cadets at West Point on December 1.

Countering the charge that the US was again about to “cut and run” from the region — as it did after the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1989 — he insisted Washington’s commitment to Islamabad was constant. “America will remain a strong supporter of Pakistan’s security and prosperity long after the guns have fallen silent,” he said. But Washington would “not tolerate a safe haven for terrorists whose location is known, and whose intentions are clear,” he added, in a swipe at Pakistan’s choosiness about which Islamist radicals to fight and which to leave undisturbed.

Testifying on the new policy before the Senate Armed Services Committee on December 2, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was more explicit. “It is difficult to parse out the different groups that are operating within Pakistan, all of whom we think are connected in one way or another to al-Qaeda, and partition some off and go after others,” she said. “It will be our continuing effort…to make the case that the Pakistanis have to do more against all the insurgent terrorist groups that are threatening them, that are threatening us in Afghanistan and the Afghan people and are threatening other neighbors in the region.”

To “make the case,” the US will propose a trade. The Obama administration will tell Islamabad that US aid and trade packages have “unlimited potential” and that its diplomats will also help to defuse tensions with India over the disputed province of Kashmir and the 2008 Mumbai attacks, in which New Delhi alleges the Pakistani state had a hand. In return the Pakistani army will be expected to dismantle the “havens” of the Afghan Taliban and related insurgents on its territory, or let US Special Forces do so. A Pakistani official interpreted the Obama administration’s message as follows: “If Pakistani help isn’t forthcoming, the US would have to do it themselves.”

The tough talk is no bluff. Obama has already approved a new CIA plan that extends the area of operations of Predator drones inside Pakistan from the tribal areas to “settled” locales like Baluchistan, where Mullah Omar is said to sometimes find refuge. The plan also provides for commando incursions into Pakistani territory in pursuit of Taliban and/or al-Qaeda fighters. In his ten months in office, Obama has authorized more drone attacks and killed more Pakistanis, Afghans and others inside Pakistan than President George W. Bush did in eight years. Some of these operations, usually assassinations of alleged al-Qaeda fugitives and foreign fighters, have been coordinated with Pakistani intelligence.

But others have not. And many missile strikes have killed civilians, embittering the anti-American sentiment that is already toxic in large parts of the country. Publicly, the army condemns the drone assaults as “counterproductive” for its attempts to separate militants from the tribes in the borderlands. Privately, the generals are caustic, saying that each Hellfire missile that plows into the earth of South and North Waziristan validates the claims of Islamist radicals (and other opposition forces) that Pakistan is a hired gun in “America’s war.”

Despite the real and implied threats from Washington, the army is unlikely to “do more” than it is already doing. One reason is history. Under US pressure, the Pakistani military first entered South Waziristan to hunt down al-Qaeda fugitives in 2004, beginning a four-year series of offensives punctuated by “peace agreements” with tribes aligned with the Pakistan Taliban. The “tribal campaigns” were a disaster. They succeeded only in turning the Pakistan Taliban from a sidekick of its Afghan big brother into an impassioned tribal movement affiliated with al-Qaeda that, by 2008, had 30,000 men under arms and controlled most of the tribal zone and large parts of the settled Northwest Frontier Province.

The army has managed to wrest back some of this territory in 2009 through counterinsurgency campaigns. Its firepower is greatly superior, for one thing, but it has also taken care to distinguish those tribal areas hosting Pakistan Taliban militants hostile to the state from those sheltering Afghan Taliban hostile to US and NATO forces in Afghanistan but quiescent toward Islamabad. In essence, Obama wants Pakistan to erase the distinction.

It is a front too far, says army spokesman Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas. “If we take on all the tribal militias, including Haqqani and [other pro-Afghan Taliban] groups, and the US leaves Afghanistan tomorrow, then we will be alone to face a tribal uprising. We do not want their short-term gain to be our long-term pain.”


There are other reasons for the army’s reluctance to enlist in Obama’s surge. Historically, the army allied with the Afghan Taliban to project Pakistani influence into Afghanistan, particularly the Pashtun belt that runs through both countries. This self-interest was why Islamabad backed the Taliban from 1996 until 2001, when the militia formed a de facto regime that controlled most of Afghanistan. It is why the army maintains ties with the Afghan Taliban, the Haqqanis and Hekmatyar today. With a US withdrawal in sight, the idea that the army will abandon these allies is illusory. The ties will tighten, not only to resist the surge, but to strengthen the army’s hand in the aftermath of the US exit.

As far as the Pakistani military is concerned, it faces two adversaries in Afghanistan — neither of which is the Taliban or even al-Qaeda. One foe is the regime of President Hamid Karzai, particularly its nascent military and intelligence directorates. Those forces, for the most part, are commanded by Tajik warlords formerly belonging to the Northern Alliance, the conglomerate of anti-Taliban militias that, along with US Special Forces, toppled the Taliban government in 2001. The Pakistanis view the Tajiks as hostile and irredentist toward the border-straddling Pashtun tribal areas, which the Karzai government believes should fall under Afghan sovereignty in their entirety. The army also charges the Tajik-dominated spy agencies with responsibility for some of the ferment inside Pakistan.

The second adversary is India, with which Pakistan is embroiled in a long-running conflict. The Indian footprint in Afghanistan, in the words of one Kabul-based ambassador, is “strategic and vast,” and Pakistan is duly alarmed. New Delhi was the regional backer of the Northern Alliance and is now Karzai’s strongest ally in South Asia. It is one of Afghanistan’s largest foreign donors and has helped train the armed forces. Along with Iran, India has built a road network in western Afghanistan that allows Kabul access to the Persian Gulf without using Pakistani ports — facilities Islamabad deems vital to its economic future.

With most of its army still stationed on the eastern border with India — and an unfinished war in Kashmir — Islamabad’s nightmare is that Indian and pro-Indian Afghan forces will fill the void left by departing US and NATO forces on its western flank. “We are concerned by India’s over-involvement in Afghanistan,” says Abbas. “We see it as encirclement. What happens tomorrow if American trainers are replaced by Indian trainers? The leadership in Afghanistan is completely dominated by an India-friendly ‘Northern Alliance.’ This alliance’s affiliation with India makes us very uncomfortable. We see in it a future two-front scenario.”

Historically, armed factions of ethnic groups acting partly at the behest of regional powers have filled power vacuums in Afghanistan. The Afghan Taliban is the strongest fighting force among the Pashtuns, Afghanistan’s largest ethnic group. It has been backed over time by Pakistan against Tajik, Hazara and Uzbek fighters supported in turn by India, Iran and Russia, respectively. There is no reason to assume that this balance of power will tip in the future, nor that the allegiances will shift, says Ahmed Rashid, the veteran analyst of Afghan affairs. “Is it in Pakistan’s interest to antagonize the Afghan Taliban now, if they could be in power two or three years down the road?” he asks.

Reprising History?

Is there any hope of avoiding a bleak reprise of Afghan history?

Instead of trying to “degrade” the Taliban in Afghanistan, the US and NATO could start negotiations with them. The basis for talks is clear: withdrawal in exchange for a pledge by the Taliban to share power with other Afghan groups and prohibit transnational elements like al-Qaeda from using Afghan soil to attack others, near or far.

Pakistani governments have been peddling this line since the late 1990s. The logic of negotiations assumes that the fundamental relationship between the Afghan Taliban and al-Qaeda is tactical or material, rather than ideological, and that the Taliban is at heart a Pashtun movement before it is an Islamist one. In return for a share of power the Taliban leaders can be turned against their jihadi allies, argues Asif Ahmed Ali, a former Pakistani foreign minister. “We have to talk to the Taliban. There will be no peace in Pakistan and Afghanistan without it. The Taliban is the only force that can expel al-Qaeda.”

A national compact embracing the Taliban and other Afghan groups could be embedded in a wider regional accord whereby each of Afghanistan’s neighbors urges its allies or proxies to agree to fair representation in a “neutral” Afghan polity. Iran, Saudi Arabia, Russia, China and the Central Asian republics would all have a stake in such an accord, but the crucial players are Pakistan and India.

To end the proxy wars in Afghanistan would require Islamabad ceasing its sponsorship of jihadi groups that attack India and New Delhi engaging in serious negotiations to end the conflict in Kashmir. Movement toward an Indian-Pakistani peace could be the key to tamping down the indigenous fighting in Afghanistan. Peace between the two major South Asian powers, indeed, is “as important as anything to the long-term stability of the region,” as Obama told journalists at a White House luncheon in December.

Sadly, the president did not expand upon this insight in his West Point speech, which contained scarcely a mention of the importance of the regional perspective for the Afghanistan problem. Nor has he issued any serious call upon the Taliban to enter into talks, extending an olive branch only to those who “abandon violence and respect the human rights of their fellow citizens,” conditions that would rule out most of Karzai’s ministers, all of his armed forces and most of the US and NATO militaries.

Instead, in Afghanistan — very much like Bush did in Iraq — Obama seems to be banking on an infusion of troops and weaponry to supply the lull in combat needed to install a regime that can fight Washington’s corner in the regional wars to come. In the worst-case scenario, the surge could bequeath to Afghanistan the kind of inter-communal slaughter that proved such an incubator for al-Qaeda in the 1990s. The best case might be that the surge will “force the Taliban to come to terms to allow the US an exit,” says Pakistan analyst Shuja Nawaz. But negotiations could bring those terms quicker than expanded war.

In either case, at this stage the Pakistani military sees nothing on the horizon that would compel a revision of its strategy of selective counterinsurgency. The army will not be the “anvil” against which the US hammer will shatter the Afghan Taliban. It may be a “catcher’s mitt,” but not in the manner that Petraeus intended when he invoked the metaphor to Congress. A catcher’s mitt is where the ball rests when the opposing batter has struck out, but more often the catcher pulls the ball out and throws it right back to the pitcher.

How to cite this article:

Graham Usher "Catcher’s Mitt," Middle East Report Online, December 31, 2009.

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