No Clean Hands in AmAfPak

This was originally published by Daily Times as my weekly column BAAGHI on Monday October 24, 2011

The recent diplomatic overdose to Pakistan by the US has not only heightened the verbal tug-of-war between the two allies but has also exposed the paucity of both sides to defend themselves with rational counter-arguments. A cursory look at the course of events in Afghanistan and Pakistan after 9/11 attests to the fact that there have been no clean hands in the AmAfPak theatre.

The visit by Hillary Clinton upped the pressure last week when she ‘warned’ Pakistan to ‘squeeze’ the Haqqani network in ‘days and weeks’ because Pakistan could not nourish “snakes in its backyard” and expect that they will only bite the neighbours. The warning had a quick follow up by Major-General Athar Abbas, the Pakistan army’s spokesperson, who returned the argument in the same coin and mentioned sanctuaries available to Mullah Fazlullah in Nuristan province on the Afghan side of the Durand Line. Now the challenge is to sift who has moral higher ground and some rational weightage. Not to forget that both have mutual complaints of a similar nature (providing safe havens to the enemies of the other), both have a similar history of patronising Islamist terrorists, both have a similar track record of using proxies in foreign lands to turn geopolitics in their favour, both have a similar tendency to use double talk whenever it suits them.

One could mention a hundred junctures where the US went wrong in Afghanistan over the past 10 years, including turning a blind eye to the Taliban and the elements of Pakistan’s security establishment who had been openly supporting militants. The double game under General Musharraf, then the president of Pakistan and chief of army staff, that went largely unnoticed by the US, either out of an underhanded understanding with him or because of sheer gullibility, was responsible for the Taliban surge two years after the October 2001 military action on Afghanistan. For instance, one still cannot reconcile with the idea of giving an air corridor to the Pakistan Army to airlift a mixed group of Taliban militants and ISI workers from Kunduz in November 2001.

In his book, Descent into Chaos, Ahmad Rashid calls it a ‘major air bridge’, what was initially ‘sold as a minor extraction’. Around a thousand ISI agents and Taliban commanders were airlifted from Kunduz and transported to Pakistan’s northern areas. After this game changer ‘Evil Airlift’ (as it was nicknamed by the US Special Operations Forces on the ground), the saved Taliban commanders proved instrumental in reconsolidating themselves in Waziristan only to come up forcefully in what we call the 2003 Taliban surge. All through the years from 2001 to 2007, the US silently witnessed this ‘secret’ affair going on quite openly despite the fact that Pakistan’s progressive civil society continually screamed about this duplicity. It reminded one of how the US closed its eyes to the Pakistani establishment’s nuclear experimentation as well as drug trafficking. No morality was invoked when in a US Congress Committee a senior member seriously floated the idea of using drugs on the Red Army soldiers.

Let alone the strategic follies in the war zone, some fairly dumb decisions were made politically too. Forgetting that the battle for a peaceful Afghanistan was not about ‘winning hearts and minds’ only and that it should have entailed a lot of political thinking, the US backed former mujahideen who were Taliban allies in the 1990s. Some people with a shady track record were accepted in the new governance structure of Afghanistan — Mohammad Qasim Fahim being one of them, who used to be loathed for human rights excesses and rigidly violent conduct. These decisions on the part of the coalition forces and the new government in Afghanistan made one thing quite clear, that there were no moral or ideological considerations in labelling people as friends or foes. What mattered was how quickly you change your allegiances from the enemy (al Qaeda and the Taliban). One has to trust many of the Afghan warlords for their potential on this. One saw them doing that with the speed of light when the Taliban started consolidating their successes in 1994-5; it was not very difficult to reverse their direction once the Taliban persecution started. Even in the current parliament, many such faces could be seen who have not only been Taliban allies but have also been equally, if not more, puritanical in their religious beliefs — Abdul Rasul Sayyaf to name one.

Having said that, it was still possible to crush the Taliban movement had Pakistan’s security establishment decided to do so. The fact that the Taliban and al Qaeda had sanctuaries and freedom in Pakistan is largely responsible for their present position in the strategic equation. Saying that the US has lost the war because the Taliban are a shrewder enemy is an overstatement. The Taliban had an edge because they got their shelter and supplies intact and unhindered in Pakistan, till the time they got this advantageous position. The argument that Afghanistan too has sanctuaries for the Pakistani Taliban, who are attacking Pakistan, is also strongly linked to Pakistan’s earlier support to militants only to make them formidably strong to challenge the writ of the state this side of the border.

Once the operations Rah-e-Rast and Haq were carried out to push them (as opposed to finish them off), they found sanctuaries in Afghan provinces, especially Nuristan. This could not have been possible without utilising the influence of the Afghan Taliban in these areas, which got stronger after the US’s failure in shifting their counterinsurgency drive in the eastern provinces in the second phase as per the original McChrystal plan. This big failure was coupled with the botched NATO attempt at the Afghan National Security Force and Afghan National Army’s training and subsequent transference of security responsibilities to them from the NATO forces. The drawdown began without heeding these very important milestones that should have been pre-requisitioned. The resultant loss of writ in Nuristan, Paktia, Paktika and recently Badakhshan and Kunar as well, contributed hugely to the success of the Afghan Taliban and thus of Mullah Fazlullah’s group backed by the Pakistani Taliban.

That the US has been trying to talk to the Haqqanis for peace while pressing Pakistan to act against them is also lame in the sense that for any negotiation to succeed, it is important to approach the insurgents and militants from a position of strength, which is not possible if the US and allied forces are under attack from all sides. This is what the US wants Pakistan to offer as a favour to a long-term ally and donor in security and development. What seems to be Pakistan’s dilemma is, at this point when the former bosses of the security establishment had made and executed the criminal decision of harbouring the Afghan militants who have become strong enough to occupy a major portion of Afghanistan once the US forces leave, that it seems suicidal to take on probable conquerors in the near future. Basic common sense says that it still could be made up if we seriously try to nip the evil in its full bloom while NATO forces are still here. If Pakistan is expected to take on the Haqqanis, NATO needs to gain control in the eastern Afghan provinces. Let’s not make Pakistan a scapegoat using morality that never was. And let Pakistan understand that time is running short if we want to make our way out of this cul-de-sac. Just do it, make friends with the Afghans who consider the Taliban their enemy. Be a friend to Afghanistan if you want strategic depth!