US Exit Strategy for Afghanistan. What are the Implications for Pakistan

April 9, 2011

Talks & Interviews

Ahmed Rashid

: Ahmed Rashid, the acclaimed author of ‘Taliban’, ‘Jihad, The rise of militant Islam in Central Asia’ and most recently ‘Descent into Chaos’ was invited by the Centre for Public Policy & Governance (CPPG) on the 4th of February 2010 to deliver a talk on “US Exit Strategy for Afghanistan. What are the Implications for Pakistan?”

Rashid began by quoting the United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki Moon, stating that the situation in Afghanistan was very dire and would become irreversible if it deteriorated any further. The Taliban had expanded to the predominantly non-Pushtun areas of the North and West of the country in the past 12 months and were now a countrywide movement with shadow governors in 33 out of 34 provinces. The movement’s military capacity could be judged by a more coherent use of technology, and better weaponry and communication, which perhaps was an outcome of their working relationship with Al-Qaeda, IMU, Pakistani Taliban and the Punjabi Kashmiri groups. They could attack Kabul at will, had started attacking UN and aid agencies and their enhanced urban gorilla capacity could be judged by the attack on the CIA centre killing six operatives.

Rashid argued that the Americans had made three major mistakes in the early years after the fall of the Taliban. One, they had no future vision for Afghanistan in mind and the nation building agenda including economic, institutional and indigenous Afghan security apparatus was missing. Second, it was only after the insurgency began in 2003 that the nation building agenda was given attention, still the American involvement and emphasis on Iraq in terms of money, troops, and resources had by then relegated Afghanistan to a step-child status in the so called “War on Terror”. Third, America failed to recognize that most of the Taliban and Al-Qaeda leadership had taken refuge in Pakistan. While it pressured the Musharraf regime to go after Al-Qaeda, killing, arresting and handing over non-Afghans to the Americans, the Afghan Taliban were left alone due to a lack of American interest and as a potential reserve for Pakistan Army in case things went bad in Afghanistan.

The consequences were tremendous, somewhat contradictory and multiple. First, the Afghan people were not won over because the indigenous economy was never revived, an outcome of slow recognition that roads, electricity and water were basic pre-requisites. Second, aid money was wastefully spent to the effect that Afghanistan had yet to reach economic levels of the pre 1979 Soviet invasion. Third, concentration towards infrastructure did eventually pick up speed but by then a growing insurgency and insecurity had become a hurdle to the efforts of building dams, water irrigation channels and roads. Finally, the security situation was mismanaged. There was insufficient number of troops till 2007 because of an American commitment to Iraq; initially most of the Europeans were reluctant to send troops and later they decided to treat Afghanistan as a peace keeping mission resultantly, a full scale insurgency grew stronger. This lack of commitment to take the Taliban head on coupled with the incoherence of divided responsibilities disillusioned the Afghan public and restricted their support to Western presence especially when Taliban were seen to attack them at will. Thus while the last nine years had led to a lot of infrastructure development, the indigenous economy remained in shatters.

“Pakistan’s real national interest included development of the country, education, health and putting the economy on a sound footing rather than using extremism for an eternal conflict with India.”

Discussing the American plan, Rashid stated that the US President Obama had inherited a policy disaster in Afghanistan and his current plan suggested a military surge of some 30,000 troops taking the total number of foreign troops to 137,000 by late summer of 2010. This military surge was limited to about 18 months with regional focus on the South and East where Taliban were the strongest and was meant to secure population centres to carry out development tasks. To succeed, this plan depended on a reformed and modernized Afghan government in Kabul, while the reality was that corruption, drugs and low credibility vis-à-vis the election fiasco had failed to effectively impart Western aid or military services. Thus, while Obama’s strategy hinged on an effective partnership with Kabul over the next 18th months, the onus of the surge, both civil and military was going to fall on Western forces rather than on the Karzai government. Moreover, domestic political compulsions with congressional elections in 2010 and presidential elections in 2012 had compelled Obama to specify a date for drawing down of American troops in the summer of 2011. The crucial challenge was, if huge investment of 11 billion dollars on Afghan army and police, with projected collective strength of 400,000 by the end of 2011 could take over the security responsibilities against a trained, well equipped and a committed country wide Taliban force numbering about 25-30,000.

“American involvement and emphasis on Iraq in terms of money, troops, and resources had by then relegated Afghanistan to a step-child status in the so called “War on Terror”

Karzai government had been trying and did succeed in engaging Taliban for a dialogue; however, Karzai was unsuccessful in persuading the West to do the same. The current American strategy with exit in mind had an enhanced focus on the Taliban. The surge would attempt to divide the Taliban through a reintegration strategy, which wheels away Taliban fighters through amnesty, compensation and resettlement. In addition, a reconciliation strategy would support strategic dialogue between the Afghan government and presumed Taliban leadership (Quetta Shura including Mullah Omer). This process had started with talks in Saudi Arabia, but would require the international community to fulfill the following points articulated by Dr. Saeed Shafqat at the beginning of the talk:

1. Convince Afghanistan’s neighbors to sign on to a reconciliation strategy with the Taliban led by the Afghan government
2. Allow Afghanistan to submit a UN Security Council resolution to remove Taliban leaders from the list of terrorists drawn up in 2001
3. Pass a UN Security Council resolution giving Afghan government a formal mandate to negotiate with the Taliban
4. Have NATO and Afghan forces take responsibility for the security of the Taliban and their families on their return to Afghanistan
5. Provide adequate funds for staffing and training to an Afghan led reconciliation body
6. Encourage Pakistan military to assist NATO and Afghan security forces in providing security to returning Taliban and their families, and additionally allow necessary cross border support from international humanitarian agencies
7. The Taliban be provided with a neutral venue such as Saudi Arabia or elsewhere, where they could hold talks with Afghan government and NATO
More importantly, facilitation by various countries including Pakistan would be needed for Afghan government to eventually work out a compromise with the Taliban through either a power sharing agreement, coalition government or a Loya Jirga. Rashid argued for an inclusive dialogue, castigating Karzai for not including non Pashtuns – the Tajiks, Uzbeks, Hazaras leaders in the Saudi talks last year. He stressed that the talks seen as solely between Pashtuns increased perceptions of Pashtun hegemony inside Afghanistan furthering chances of civil war of the 1990s, when neighboring countries supported warring sides inside Afghanistan. Thus it was important that non- Pashtuns were a part of the talks along with Pakistanis, Iranians and Americans.
Focusing his attention on Pakistan, Rashid argued that Pakistan was in a mess deeper than anything it had faced earlier, elaborating that all earlier crises were restricted to the ruling elite: civil-military, intra-civil arbitrated by the military or intra-military, leading to economic downturns and social upheavals without effecting the broader population of the country. But the crises today were multifold including economic and political, further exasperated by Baloch and Pashtun insurgencies. A momentous economic crisis continued with neither Pakistanis nor foreigners willing to invest in the country, a civilian leadership perceived as corrupt restricted instilling investor confidence and more importantly, a corrupt and incompetent Pakistani bureaucracy lacked the necessary trust of the ‘Friends of Pakistan’ to guide the country’s economic imperatives. Pakistan was also going through a political crisis between the judiciary, political government and the army further hurting the chances of resolving the economy or terrorism issues. The Baluchistan issue could have been dealt with politically a few years ago by negotiating the share of Sui revenues and other resources but instead military involvement had escalated the Baloch insurgency.
“Afghan people were not won over because the indigenous “economy was never revived”
The Pakistani Taliban insurgency in Khyber Pakhtoonkha was an outcome of the State’s Afghan and Kashmir policies. During 1994-2001, an estimated 80,000 Pakistanis of all ethnic groups went to fight or train in Afghanistan aided and abetted by the military, which encouraged formation of Lashkar and Jaish (a nome de guerra for militant groups) at the time. Pashtun tribesmen trained in ISI run camps. Tribal forces fought against the Northern Alliance alongside the Taliban throughout the 1990s in a civil war termed Jihad, with Iran India and Russia supporting one side and Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, the other. After 9/11, as Afghan Taliban leadership and significant number of Al-Qaeda escaped into Pakistan hosted by young tribesmen who had been fighting for and along side them for years, there was a natural symbiosis of the existing residue. This led to an accelerated radicalization of Pakistani Pashtuns as Al-Qaeda’s ideology and finances compensated for the lack of development, education and economic opportunities in FATA. Thus in the eight year process, the tribesmen became very rich because Al-Qaeda paid well for their hospitality and a Pakistani Taliban went from owning a mule, to six horses, to a jeep, to 10 jeeps, to becoming a militia commander and eventually to a Pakistani Taliban commander.
Ahmed Rashid asserted that in 2003 he had warned against the rise of an indigenous Taliban movement but unfortunately the military paid little attention and even when it moved into FATA in the summer of 2004, this was in a half hearted way. Only with Swat and South Waziristan operations last year, did the army become more determined to deal with terrorism though it had yet to touch North Waziristan where Taliban leaders including Jalaludin Haqqani with close links to Al-Qaeda and the ISI, were living.
Unpacking Pakistan’s Afghan policy, Rashid critiqued Pakistan’s India focus driving its policy of “Strategic Depth”. He argued that Pakistan’s concerns regarding Indian involvement in Afghanistan were debateable as 67 countries were involved in Afghanistan and the Americans consulted countries with military presence before the Indians. In terms of investments, while India had an economic investment of $1.2 billion in rebuilding of Afghanistan, most European countries had a much bigger investment. He accepted that India’s possible interference in Baluchistan needed to be tackled, but disagreed with India’s need to use Afghanistan for it arguing that most of the Baloch leadership was living in Dubai and just like the Taliban, the Baloch could also receive ammunition through the Dubai-Makran route. Additionally Afghanistan was going to be heavily dependent on Western support for the next 15-20 years for its security forces and developmental aid, while India, still a developing country could not single headedly provide the needed billions of dollars. He thus suggested that Pakistan’s concern of being shut out while India ran Kabul were misplaced.
Additionally, Pakistan was particularly friendless in Afghanistan at this time as the Northern Alliance never liked it while the Pashtuns blamed Pakistan for dividing them and denying them development because of Taliban attacks. Still the current Army Chief had stated the same “Strategic Depth” position in Afghanistan as articulated by General Aslam Baig about 20 years ago but was rubbished by a lot of people at the time. If “Strategic Depth” meant that Afghanistan was going to be a heaven against India, this was completely misplaced as a country which could not even look out for itself could hardly provide for a retreating Pakistan Army. But if it meant a stable and secure Afghanistan, which was friendly to Pakistan, that was eminently possible, though it could only be done in partnership with regional allies.
“Pakistani Taliban insurgency in Khyber Pakhtoonkha was an outcome of the State’s Afghan and Kashmir policies.”
Though Pakistan had an incredible card to play considering the Afghan Taliban were based here with Pakistan military as the gate keeper, it was important that Pakistan did not overplay its hand and instead played a role in concert with other regional powers. Thus Pakistan needed to get over its Indian hangover and stop insisting on keeping India out of the regional grouping for the Afghan peace process as keeping India out of a regional settlement would be detrimental to Pakistan’s interests. He argued that even during the insurgency, Pakistan’s illegal trade with Afghanistan was $2 billion but in case of regional stability and Afghan reconstruction (at least a 20 year project), Pakistan could attract investment and become the main supplier for needed goods. It also provided an excellent opportunity for Pakistan to move beyond the Aid oriented economy to one based around the region as most goods manufactured in Pakistan were saleable in this region (Afghanistan, Iran, India) but not necessarily in Europe. Thus regional political stability was critical to Pakistan’s economic recovery. Fourth, an end to state’s sponsorship of extremism to counter India and instead using effective foreign policy measures to resolve the bigger issue of relationship with India. He argued that groups like Lashkar and Jaish, which had close links with the intelligence and military had to be dismantled irrespective of the status of dialogue with India. These groups had been temporarily put on ice for 3-4 years owing to the peace process initiated by General Musharraf, their splinter groups were part of the Red Mosque, Swat, South Waziristan as well as the attacks on GHQ and the ISI headquarters. The Punjabi boys trained for Kashmir had linked up with the Pakistani Taliban to form a countrywide terrorist network, which could now carry out sophisticated urban terrorism at will. Giving the example of Nero watching Rome burn down, Rashid argued that Pakistan needed to change direction which was not possible without the political and military leadership accepting responsibility for sponsoring extremism for the last thirty years rather than blaming India, America and the rest of the world. This required a change in discourse that suggested a difference between good militants who fought India and bad militants who fought in Swat, Bajaur or South Waziristan. Additionally, Pakistan had to put its own house in order rather than blaming donors’ conditions as in the Kerry Lugar Bill especially when no other country (except Saudi Arabia gave up to $500million) had helped to salvage the Pakistani economy.
“A Pakistan dominated Afghanistan through “Strategic Depth” was neither acceptable to the Afghans nor to the neighbouring countries”
Summing up Rashid said that Pakistan needed to deal with the issue of American withdrawal in conjunction with negotiations with the Taliban, based on its own interests. Both successive military and political governments had failed to further Pakistan’s real national interest, which included development of the country, education, health and putting the economy on a sound footing rather than using extremism for an eternal conflict with India. A Pakistan dominated Afghanistan through “Strategic Depth” was neither acceptable to the Afghans nor to the neighbouring countries. Additionally Pakistan’s regional ambitions if based on its needs, resource base, current economic and social conditions, and ability did not s upport a conflict with India. If Pakistan wanted to face down India, it needed to do so diplomatically by building up trust with regional players. But unfortunately Pakistan was currently friendless in the region with Iran suspicious, Central Asians abhorring the policy of backing the Taliban and Russians carrying the old enmity due to backing of the Mujahedeen. This reality needed to be kept in mind as Pakistan played its cards to further its national interest’s in the future Afghan peace dialogue.
“Pakistan needed to change direction which was not possible without the political and military leadership accepting responsibility for sponsoring extremism for the last thirty years rather than blaming India, America and the rest of the world.”
The talk was followed by a lively question and answer session. Answering a question, “what kind of exist strategy could be discussed in the absence of legitimate political authority in Kabul and if the Americans would feel secure leaving Afghanistan with Al-Qaeda intact?”, Rashid argued that the reality was not just set in Afghanistan but also on the streets of Europe and America where majority of the public wanted to pull out troops. Thus America would draw down troops but keep troop presence for another 5-10 years. Additionally large armies were not needed to tackle Al-Qaeda, which would continue through special teams, drones and ground intelligence.
Answering another question regarding how Pakistan could disengage from Afghanistan especially when a divergence of views existed between civil and military leadership, Rashid stated that the definitional difference of National Security with military focusing on India and civil focusing on prosperity, heath etc. had been at the root of the civilmilitary argument. In the short term, Pakistan had to end its insurgencies before discussing economic progress and thus a countervailing voice to the militaristic Strategic Depth strategy was necessary for Pakistan to not overplay its cards and work towards a stable, peaceful and friendly Afghanistan in conjunction with other neighbours. While for the long term, continuation of the political process was the only option.
“…keeping India out of a regional settlement would be detrimental to Pakistan’s interests”
Ahmed Rashid presenting his books for the University’s library
In regards to the question if media was now a major hindrance in the reappraisal of the Strategic Depth strategy, Rashid agreed and stated that the new electronic media had been seized both by the military and political forces. Thus media was deeply politicised rather than objective, leading to creation of disinformation.