By Ghalib Sultan
The recent New York Times article (NYT, Monday 20th November) that focuses on possible US military operations across the Pakistan-Afghan border into Pakistan to pursue Taliban and destroy sanctuaries may not be accurate but it is not that far off the mark as is being suggested. It has to be seen in the overall context of the pressure being orchestrated to get Pakistan to eliminate ‘Taliban sanctuaries’ in the FATA and Baluchistan. These ‘sanctuaries’ are being seen as the main reason for continued Taliban resistance, even resurgence, in Afghanistan by the US and their hosts-the Afghan government. The US wants Pakistan to ‘sanitize’ these sanctuaries.
The pressure on Pakistan to ‘act’ was always there. It has picked up dramatic momentum after the US Afghan War Strategy Review. Several tracks are being used to create a cumulative effect. There is the impression being created that the political government wants to fast track the normalization process with India and respond positively to US demands for action in the western border areas but the ‘establishment’ (euphemism for the military and intelligence-ISI) are the stumbling blocks. Needless to say both India and the Afghan government support this view. The ‘establishment’ is being projected as the real force calling the shots in the country and having its own agenda linked to its resource requirements. The past is dredged up to focus on old transgressions like interventions and policies that led to negative consequences and a blowback that has destabilized the country. Doubts are periodically raised about the security of strategic assets and a past proliferation episode is repeatedly presented with ‘new’ and ‘just uncovered’ dimensions to involve the military institution. There has been a most significant surge in drone strikes and this has led to outrage in civil society. Linked to this is the media report of possible US cross-border operations against ‘sanctuaries’. Within the domestic context the overall effect is that anti-US sentiment increases, the military gets blamed for passivity and for giving unprecedented access to the US (WIKILEAKS confirmed this!). Inevitably decision making becomes difficult because no military waging a counter-insurgency campaign can afford to be alienated from civil society. The government and the military also cannot act in tandem if there is the perception of a civil military divide-especially if this perception is created and nurtured.
Where this orchestrated campaign takes us cannot be predicted but it is clear that it will not lead to a situation that Pakistan desires. Pakistan (including the ‘establishment) wants a government-military-civil society relationship that is seen to be pulling in the same strategic direction and jointly resisting the attempts to cause discord or create the perception of discord. Pakistan understands its internal environment better than anybody else and knows that economic viability, security and internal harmony are interlinked and sensing the change in the regional balance of power knows that there cannot be a push for anything other than a threat reduction policy – this has implications for Pakistan’s policies towards India and Afghanistan. Pakistan – neither the government nor the establishment – can allow themselves to be railroaded into actions that lead to imbalance and violence across the country in a period of economic vulnerability. There is full understanding in Pakistan that sections of the western border areas are havens for drugs and weapon smugglers, bomb makers, suicide bomber trainers, criminals, kidnappers, insurgents and terrorists and would-be terrorists from across the world as well as Afghan Taliban, Al Qaeda and various other organizations that are active in the region. Afghanistan and Pakistan are the two countries directly affected but legitimate concerns exist in the Central Asian States, Russia, China, India, Iran and countries that have disenchanted segments of society. Why would Pakistan want ‘sanctuaries’ that threaten it on its soil if it can act to destroy them?
So ‘sanctuaries’ are neither a US discovery nor an exclusive concern of the US. It follows that Pakistan would want its writ across its western border areas and stability within the country. The question is what effect is the US presence in Afghanistan having, how long this presence going to continue and how is it going to end – if ever? Clarity on this could do much to shape regional policies. The US-Pakistan Strategic Dialogue should either lead to an understanding of respective positions or it should be treated as a façade behind which transactional and expedient policies are being implemented by those who lack the vision to see beyond the tactical domain – the orchestrated pressures and manipulated perceptions then start making sense. The drugs-weapons-dollars chain needs to be seriously challenged. Border security needs to be enhanced by a multi state effort. The ambiguity surrounding drone strikes and their targets is no longer sustainable and an agreed policy has to be evolved. Intelligence coordination on a regional basis is badly needed to track the dispersal of terrorists and exposure of their sponsors. Economic aid and support measures have to be raised to levels that compensate the countries involved for what they are losing. An overall environment has to be created for a negotiated political settlement that is acceptable to all and that survives the US/NATO withdrawal.