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Endgame in Afghanistan: A Pakistani Perspective

April 9, 2011

Talks & Interviews

Moeed Yusuf

: Mr. Moeed Yusuf, South Asia Advisor at the United States Institute of Peace delivered a talk titled “Endgame in Afghanistan: A Pakistani Perspective” on March 18, 2011 at the Centre for Public Policy & Governance.

Moeed Yusuf began by laying his argument that Pakistan and the United States had started out with inherent internal divergence of interests in Afghanistan. Pakistan had been supporting the Taliban before 9/11 and was worried about two aspects. One, given its political and ethnic links with Afghanistan, it feared an internal backlash, as well as a reaction inside Pakistan if military was sent into tribal areas. Second, Pakistan wanted to avoid a two front situation with greater Indian influence in Afghanistan through the Northern Alliance. Additionally, it could not afford a solution in Afghanistan which left out the Pashtuns because that would have destabilized Pakistan’s Pashtun belt. Looking back, both these concerns came true. Pakistan reluctantly sent its military into tribal areas but not in the numbers requested by the US while Indian presence in Afghanistan increased through investments and four consulates. Pakistan reacted by trying to do as little as possible to appease the US without creating an internal backlash- it struck peace deals rather than conducting a major military operation.

“Pakistan faced a serious dilemma because even if it did not support America it still had to deal with the terrorism problem.”

T hus the often quoted Pakistan’s double game which encompassed getting as much money as possible from the Americans while doing little. Pakistan did not do enough to please the Americans because it did not want to undermine its own security as enhanced military force would have led to a bigger backlash. But a more worrying aspect was the double game played with the Pakistani people by Pakistan’s strategic establishment, as deals with the US were struck behind closed doors while a very different message was given to the Pakistani people (For example, Drones are terrible and we want to stop them yet we will give America a base to fly them from. We don’t want American money if the terms are humiliating, yet we want as much money as possible. We don’t want Raymond Davis in the country yet our embassy will give visas). Similarly America also played a double game. It never made a case for how much Pakistan had done instead providing a sense that Pakistan needed to do more. It argued that no legal, ethical or moral boundaries were broken as Drones were only killing militants. Thus there was no transparency in this opaque relationship as both sides consciously kept the public out. Yusuf argued that a non-transparent model was no longer feasible as it would lead to multiple crises similar to the Raymond Davis affair.

Assessing the current situation, Yusuf stated that although Pakistan had developed a rentier relationship with the US, still both Pakistan and the US were playing out realpolitik to further their own interests. Pakistan faced a serious dilemma because even if it did not support America it still had to deal with the terrorism problem, while it also needed to show sensitivity to Iranian and Chinese suspicions on America gaining a foot hold in the region.

Yusuf argued that the policy under Obama had matured by a movement away from excessive military force and by discussing options towards policy convergence between Pakistan and America; He identified three basic pillars of Pakistan’s policy. One, it wanted relative stability in Afghanistan as anarchy meant a new wave of human spillover leading to major economic consequences and large ungovernable spaces (reverse Strategic Depth) which militants could use against Pakistan. Two, with the realization that benefits of American presence in Afghanistan could not be undone; Pakistan was vehemently opposed to the Afghan Taliban returning to power as in the 1990s because this could only happen with a prolonged civil war and additionally, because it would lead to the empowerment of Pakistani groups with same ideology. Three, Pakistan had a serious interest in seeing Haqqani, Hizbe- Islami and other Afghan Taliban groups going back to Afghanistan and vacating FATA as Pakistan could not take on the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) wholeheartedly because it co-habited as well as had linkages (tactical if not strategic) with these groups.

“…saw a growing Pak-US convergence in the broad narrative encompassing a stable Afghanistan, a broad based government with satisfactory Pashtun representation and a negotiated settlement rather than a military solution.”

America had its own three pre-conditions for peace negotiations. First, it did not want Al-Qaeda (AQ) in the region and was desperate for a guarantee. Second, it wanted the Taliban to lay down arms which was a deal breaker. Third, it wanted all parties to accept the constitution though was flexible. Assessing these conditions, he argued that no country could give a guarantee on AQ as even the Taliban (considered a Pakistan proxy) did not give into any strategic issue during the 1990s. In the absence of a guarantee, America would keep 20,000 troops and 5 bases against the AQ threat (American opinion was split between Pentagon wanting bases and Obama wavering). But the Afghan mindset irrespective of ethnicity would not accept this long-term American presence and neither would Iran and Russia. He also disagreed with the military surge meant to weaken the Taliban enough to negotiate on American terms. He argued that this was devoid of local context because if it did work, the Afghans rather than coming to their knees would instead buy time to fight another day while regional states including Pakistan, Iran, China and Russia would not allow an overwhelming Taliban defeat. However, if the surge did not work then the Taliban considering themselves successful would not want to negotiate.

As the end game neared, Yusuf saw a growing Pak-US convergence in the broad narrative encompassing a stable Afghanistan, a broad based government with satisfactory Pashtun representation and a negotiated settlement rather than a military solution. However a fair amount of divergence existed in the tactical sphere. To preserve its interests, Pakistan had to ask itself what leverage it enjoyed among stated insurgent groups because it seemed that these groups actually leveraged the ISI rather than the ISI leveraging them. Could Pakistan bring these groups to the negotiating table if America left out few of its preconditions? He argued that America did not have unlimited time to plan out its strategy because its lack of initiative would compel regional players to act as could be seen from Karzai’s recent visits, Pakistani Prime Minister’s visit to Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan President’s visit to Pakistan.

Yusuf favored a Regional Framework for bringing peace and stability to Afghanistan provided its neighbors agreed on ‘non-interference’. He contended that it could mean a huge economic potential for Pakistan if Pakistan was prepared to look beyond the security lens. Although Pakistan had lost a lot of goodwill among the Afghans by playing one group against another, and it was criticized for being hegemonic and excessively interfering, the Afghans still had a longing for Pakistan because of the geographical link as most Afghans had no concept of the Durand Line and went to Peshawar instead of Jalalabad for medical treatment. Yusuf argued that Pakistan had to change tact and offset India through constructive means rather than creating a nuisance value. Pakistan had to accept Indian presence in Afghanistan, acknowledge India’s right to further its interests under international rules ($1.2bn investment) and realistically assess the Indian factor by accepting that there were 4 and not 44 Indian consulates in Afghanistan. Instead Pakistan should only concentrate on India’s illegitimate activities and had two options for a response. A tit for tat strategy was unfeasible because of Pakistan’s internal insecurity. A better option was to open a dialog with India and tell them pointblank of what was not acceptable. He argued that India was aware of its limits in Afghanistan and knew that it couldn’t outfight Pakistan in Afghanistan. Pakistan however needed to generate a counter narrative to convince the world of its legitimate concerns in Afghanistan as currently Pakistan was considered a universal bad boy. But this required an internal consensus and credibility of the Pakistani State, which was even lacking internally. Introspection was required as the real problem was internal corrosion which outsiders could take advantage of. Pakistani leadership had to convince its people that what they were doing was in Pakistan’s interests.

“…no solution had worked for Afghanistan unless the Afghans themselves came up with it and a regional framework provided Afghans that needed space.”

The talk was followed by a lively Q&A session. Answering a two part question, one, if he considered Afghanistan to be invincible; two, in case of an American failure what did he think of Afghanistan being split into two with Pashtun areas left to Pakistan?, Yusuf answered that the problem was not of Afghanistan’s invincibility but instead of America’s thinking that victory was possible. If America had understood that outright victory was not possible five years ago, we would not be in this mess. He stated that a division of Afghanistan was a nightmare scenario for Pakistan and was already happening in some ways. However, the territorial integrity of Afghanistan was not under discussion by any one including the non-Pashtuns. There was consistency in this aspect of American strategy– coming from Generals McCrystal and Petraeus who had exploited the Shia-Sunni divide in Iraq and used a similar Pashtun- non-Pashtun divide model in Afghanistan. Nonetheless, the most viable government in Afghanistan was when everyone (ethnic group) had their own sphere of influence while Kabul had a symbolic representation. Pakistan’s major advantage had been that Afghanistan’s supply routes went through it but still Pakistan needed to work for a broad based government.

Answering a question regarding the importance of Al- Qaeda and approach towards other militant groups in the Afghan-Pakistan war theatre, Yusuf stated that AQ’s strength was fairly lean at around 500 and its capacity degraded because of Drone attacks and shifting of personnel to Yemen and Somalia. But AQ was no longer an Arab o rganization and had instead become truly universal. Additionally, one needed to be careful in discussing militant groups as all could not be taken in unison; however they all had links at different levels and invariably used Pakistani territory for training. Financing and master minds of some attacks did come from AQ but it was not a wheeler dealer of all groups. There was a huge political economy around this insurgency and hundreds of freelance militants conducted operations at night while doing their normal day jobs. The approach had changed such that the military surge did not go after leaders because splinter groups were far more radical as could be seen in the case of Lashkar-e-Taiba’s (LeT), which did not splinter and thus could be roped in. While Pakistan’s will and capacity to tackle existed for the TTP but the capacity was probably not there for LeT as it could lead to an internal rupture. He thus agreed with specific approaches to deal with different groups as long as conceptually the strategy was to finish militancy.

“…legality of Drone attacks was never raised by Pakistan at an international forum meaning that Pakistan was complicit in allowing it to happen.”

Answering a question if America had other interests in Afghanistan or was it only after Al-Qaeda, Yusuf stated that no superpower had ever come to a country and set up bases only to ‘civilize’ people. All countries operated based on their interests and the only thing that mattered was who won the game. The US base in Herat was Iran specific and its long term presence may be China specific which also explained why India was currently in its good books. Although Pakistan’s strategic interests diverged from American presence, Pakistan could not do much because its internal costs for taking on the US were too high. Instead it needed to make the best use in this situation. Among other key players for peace in Afghanistan, Iran supported the Northern Alliance; Russia could be a spoiler while Saudi Arabia looked towards Pakistan to ensure its minimal interests.

Answering a question if the US policy of Drone attacks could be adopted by any country considering itself under attack, he stated that a UN resolution provided legal immunity to American invasion and presence in Afghanistan. However legality of Drone attacks was never raised by Pakistan at an international forum meaning that Pakistan was complicit in allowing it to happen. He thought that Pakistan was saving the International Law argument in case of a rupture between the US and Pakistan.

“Pakistan however needed to generate a counter narrative to convince the world of its legitimate concerns in Afghanistan as currently Pakistan was considered a universal bad boy.”

Professor Sajjad Naseer contested the arguments presented by Yusuf and asked the final question. He raised the point that if the inherent divergences that had existed after 9/11 still did? While the US had lost economic and military strength over the last couple of years, it still had power but not control, and though double games were played by both, Pakistan had lost out because it was a weak State. But more importantly with Afghanistan without a credible political centre, wouldn’t it be difficult to negotiate a settlement and additionally to bring together 6-7 actors for a Regional Solution? Yusuf agreed that inherent divergence still existed, but argued that convergence was an outcome of both sides realizing their constraints and limitations while America’s major mistake from 2003-2007 was to underestimate the importance of India factor for Pakistani Policy Makers. Furthermore, he said that no solution had worked for Afghanistan unless the Afghans themselves came up with it and a regional framework provided Afghans that needed space.

“Introspection was required as the real problem was internal corrosion which outsiders could take advantage of.”

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