OVER A COFFEE: Ending the deadly embrace — I —Dr Haider Shah
The Af-Pak strategy requires long-term engagement of the US in Pakistan as Pakistan is considered to be too dangerous to be left on its own
The recent address of Obama regarding the troops drawdown from Afghanistan has generated a renewed interest among many analysts dealing with Afghanistan. Their thoughtful analyses, however, create an impression that the shifting of emphasis from Afghanistan to Pakistan is perhaps a shift in the US strategy. The geo-strategic thinking of various policy making establishments of major power players are often deciphered by defence analysts with the help of a historical lens, emerging trends, and a bit of their own imagination. However, there is hardly any need for guesswork in the case of Obama since Obama’s Wars by Bob Woodward provides in-depth coverage of the actual devolvement of the Af-Pak strategy. Though the term Af-Pak was coined by late Richard Holbrooke, it was Bruce Riedel who was entrusted with the task of developing Obama’s strategy on Afghanistan. Bruce had spent 29 years in the CIA, Pentagon and Clinton’s national security staff. He had also served as South Asian expert in Obama’s election team and has recently published a book, Deadly Embrace, which is an important read for understanding how the US-led world views Pakistan and its involvement in the war effort against the international jihadi movement.
Obama is known as a professor who likes to make a decision after thorough analysis and calculation. When he assumed office, demands for additional troops in Afghanistan were made but he refused to decide in haste and commit more troops unless he was satisfied that a well-defined Afghan strategy was in place after a thorough needs analysis. Consequently, he assigned the task of strategy development to Bruce Riedel. Bruce had already made his strategic assessment about the situation and had very bluntly stated that it was not Afghanistan that needed a long-term strategy but rather it was Pakistan that was the main problem. The essence of his prescription for conflict resolution in South Asia can be summarised in the following quote from Woodward’s book: “Pakistan had to end its complex, schizophrenic relationship with terrorists in which they are ‘the patron and the victim and the safe haven all at the same time’.” Riedel’s view of Pakistan is then also reverberated in President Obama’s strategic discourse as is evident from the following remark, which he had made while chairing the strategy review meeting: “Let’s start where our interests take us, which is really Pakistan, not Afghanistan.”
No strategy is cast in stone as unexpected externalities often render original strategy out of sync with ground realities. However, it seems that so far Obama’s administration is implementing the Riedel Af-Pak strategy in letter and spirit. In fact, the US never wanted to remain engaged militarily in Afghanistan for an indefinite period. Obama was aware of the war weariness of the US people and did not want to sustain a war without a clear objective, as was the case with Lyndon Johnson in Vietnam. He, therefore, had asked Riedel to draw up a strategy that did not warrant a long-term commitment of US troops to Afghanistan. Riedel consulted all principals in the American war effort and presented the Af-Pak strategy to Obama and discussed its main objectives while he was on board Air Force One. The strategy was embraced fully by the president and later, while chairing a major decision making meeting, he enunciated three major concerns driving his strategy as, one, protecting the US homeland, allies and US interests abroad; second, concern about Pakistan’s nuclear weapons and stability; third, Pakistan-India relations. It is, therefore, not difficult to see that the military drawdown is in line with the strategic planning, which has been immensely helped by the timely elimination of Osama bin Laden.
The new phase of the US strategy focuses on helping Pakistan end its deadly embrace with the Frankensteinian militants. Riedel in his book examines the entanglement of Pakistan’s security establishment in the complex cobweb of various militant organisations. The main thesis of the book is that Pakistan became a safe haven for al Qaeda leaders after the Taliban were routed in 2001. As the US had little faith in Pakistan’s security establishment, it evolved an operational strategy that prescribed drone attacks as an effective method of crippling the al Qaeda network by selective killing of its main leaders. The strategists, though, admitted that drone attacks alone would not solve the problem. They thus also focused on developing an independent human intelligence network in Pakistan to find all al Qaeda leaders and eliminate them. The Raymond Davis affair, therefore, was seen as a serious threat to the operational level strategy and no wonder even President Obama was obliged to personally step in. The successful operation in Abbottabad, however, has reassured Obama that his strategy finally delivered what it had promised.
The Af-Pak strategy requires long-term engagement of the US in Pakistan as Pakistan is considered to be too dangerous to be left on its own. In 1998, Bruce had written a memo to President Clinton titled ‘Pakistan: the Most Dangerous Country in the World’, which aptly portrays the image of Pakistan among the chief US strategists. The post-Osama situation could have been used by Pakistan to its great economic advantage. It could have identified quickly any culprits that were responsible for safekeeping of Osama and thus have earned the goodwill of the US and the world.
An American businessman confided to me in a private chat that the US had earmarked huge funds for economic uplift of affected areas in Pakistan and many projects were in the pipeline. But, unfortunately, Pakistan has squandered the chance as the belligerent stance taken by Pakistan has antagonised not only the US government but also public opinion in the US. If Pakistani decision makers had shown some sagacity in appraising the international scenario, they could have announced a complete end to the deadly embrace with the jihadi outfits. The watershed event could have also been used for some rational rethinking on our foreign and defence policy, which, due to our obsessive fixation with India, had gradually led us towards extremist organisations. Unfortunately, this has not yet happened and the acrimonious environment does not augur well as the US is now all set to deal with Pakistan after achieving the short-term objective in Afghanistan.
(To be continued)