The Afghanistan Stalemate

By Saad Hafiz:

Taliban

It is getting very difficult after the Bin Laden episode to explain Pakistan’s doublespeak on terrorism and the Taliban to increasingly skeptical Western friends. The ambiguous Pakistani terrorism strategy of running with the hare and hunting with the hounds is now recognized as official State policy.

The Islamabad mantra describes “good” or “moderate” Taliban as those that are engaged in a nationalist struggle against coalition forces in Afghanistan. The good Taliban are expected to be in Pakistan’s corner once the Afghanistan end-game begins against the “bad guys” primarily the Tajik led Northern Alliance and their Indian backers. We are told that Pakistan supports the good Taliban in Afghanistan due to shared interests, worth the risk of inviting the wrath of our U.S. and NATO coalition partners.

The “bad” Taliban are identified as the suicide bombers that bring murder and mayhem to Pakistani streets and to a lesser degree those elements that battle security forces in South Waziristan. This seems like an easy and plausible distinction to Pakistanis but very difficult to sell elsewhere as our good Taliban are considered the West’s bad Taliban.

Coalition forces in Afghanistan have suffered over 15,000 dead and wounded thus far fighting the good and moderate Taliban. War fatigue is setting in and President Obama will need to show tangible progress towards ending the Afghanistan stalemate before the US Presidential elections next year. Similar anti-war sentiment is being heard in other Western and alliance countries involved in Operation “Enduring Freedom”. The West will not take kindly to any perceived Pakistani gamesmanship which adds to its agony in Afghanistan.

If the coalition withdrew troops now, Afghanistan will probably revert back to the pre-9/11 status quo within weeks. If the coalition accelerates the war by attacking the Taliban in the tribal areas of Pakistan, it could trigger a civil war in Pakistan and destabilize the entire region. The troop surge with the hope of training the Afghans to eventually take over the War seems like a losing strategy eerily reminiscent of Vietnam, that could bleed the coalition slowly until final capitulation.

The Afghan Taliban have used the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan as their primary weapon, conducting hit-and-run attacks on coalition forces in Afghanistan and then retreating to their sanctuaries across the border. Although Pakistan has made ostensible efforts to attack Taliban sanctuaries within its territory, these initiatives have not produced the desired result of halting cross border raids further raising suspicions about Pakistani ambivalence or covert support for the Taliban.

Thus, the simplistic coalition strategy of targeting the Taliban in their cross-border sanctuaries in Pakistan firstly through air power followed by ground troops and finishing them off once considered a non-viable option because of its destabilizing effect on Pakistan is more and more being considered the only solution. It is doubtful, however, despite giving “tacit” approval to drone strikes that the Pakistani establishment will yield to demands for a wider Western military involvement in the country due to serious domestic compulsions.

Some Pakistanis cheer the Afghan imbroglio or no-win situation that the West finds itself in. However, it is difficult to see how Western defeat and withdrawal from Afghanistan will benefit Pakistan.  The extremist curse firmly grounded in Pakistani society will not disappear due to the misfortunes of our discordant allies in Afghanistan.

The “Mexican standoff” between Pakistan and its coalition allies on who is the real enemy helps the good and bad Taliban. This stalemate shouldn’t be allowed to reach a point of who blinks first. The tactical and strategic differences between the allies must be resolved quickly.

Firstly, the Pakistanis should stop differentiating and dithering over good and bad Taliban. The Pakistani and coalition forces should launch a coordinated attack on terrorists on both sides of the border with full force until only those who renounce terrorism and accept a political settlement come to the negotiating table.

Secondly, the US should remove any misgivings that Pakistan may have on going after the Taliban by assuring that an alleged enemy won’t take advantage of the Pakistan Army’s preoccupation with terrorists. The US should also recognize Pakistan’s strategic interests in post-war Afghanistan.

Thirdly, the US should strongly encourage regional dialogue between all parties to resolve outstanding issues and encourage trade between countries. Genuine peace efforts and trade will hopefully shape the psyche of Pakistan’s ruling-elite away from foreign adventurism towards investment in education, health and welfare.

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