Brahma Chellaney says that India is indeed ‘the sponge that protects us all’ from terrorism emanating from Pakistan. The new President’s strategy is compounding the Af-Pak problem
One of the most striking things about the larger Asian strategic landscape is that India is wedged in an arc of failing or troubled states. This harsh reality is India’s most glaring weakness; its neighbourhood is so combustible as to impose a tyranny of geography. Today, Pakistan’s rapid Talebanisation tops India’s concerns. After all, the brunt of escalating terrorism from Pakistan will be borne by India, which already has become, in the words of ex-US official Ashley Tellis, ‘the sponge that protects us all’.
As Pakistan has begun to sink, top US intelligence and security officials have made a beeline to India for discussions, including the new CIA director Leon Panetta (who came to New Delhi on his first overseas visit), the FBI director Robert Mueller, the joint US chiefs of staff chairman Mike Mullen and the administration’s special envoy Richard Holbrooke. The fact that President Obama, in his first 100 days, has helped put together $15.7 billion in international aid for Islamabad shows that the United States will not allow Pakistan to become a failed state.
The real threat is of an Islamist takeover of Pakistan. Yet Obama’s strategy on Afghanistan and Pakistan (or ‘Af-Pak’ in Washingtonese) inspires little confidence. Throwing more money at Pakistan and keeping up the pretence that the badly splintered and weakened al-Qa’eda poses the main terrorist threat risks failure.
The Af-Pak problem won’t go away without a fundamental break from the American policies that helped create this terrifying muddle. The US military can never win in Afghanistan, or even secure a ticket out of that country as Obama wants, without first dismantling the Pakistani military’s sanctuaries and sustenance infrastructure for the Taleban and other state-reared terror groups such as Lashkar-e-Taiba (the group who carried out the Mumbai atrocities) and Jaish-e-Muhammad. As Bush’s national security adviser Stephen Hadley pointed out just before leaving office in January, ‘You can’t really solve Afghanistan without solving Pakistan.’
Yet to mend a broken policy on Pakistan, Obama is doing more of what helped to create the failure — dispensing rewards upfront. He has set out to make Islamabad the biggest recipient of US aid in the world without having first defined benchmarks for judging progress. It was under his predecessor, however, that Pakistan began raking in a terrorist windfall. The Bush administration plied Islamabad with sophisticated weapons, which Pakistan wanted to match India’s arsenal, and more than $12.3 billion in funds, even as the origins of almost every major terrorist attack in the world were being traced back to Pakistan. Now, when Pakistan is most vulnerable to international pressure, including to a threat to place it on the US list of state sponsors of terror, Obama refuses to exercise leverage to bring it to heel.
No less strange is another reality: for years, the Taleban’s entire top Afghan leadership has been holed up in Quetta, in Pakistan’s Baluchistan province. Mullah Muhammad Omar and other members of the Taleban’s inner shura (council) have received protection not just from the Pakistani intelligence, but also from the CIA, which has not carried out a single drone attack in or around Quetta. Washington is trying to keep open the option of cutting a political deal with them. As Obama himself has put it, ‘There’s got to be an exit strategy.’ It’s no wonder that even as the Taleban’s sway in Pakistan spreads, the US defense secretary Robert Gates declared in Krakow that the United States ‘would be very open’ to an agreement in Afghanistan similar to the one Pakistan made with the Taleban which ceded control of the Swat Valley to the Taleban. All this is music to the ears of the Pakistani military and its offspring — the Taleban.
The scourge of transnational terrorism cannot be stemmed if attempts are made to draw distinctions between good and bad terrorists, and between those who threaten others’ security and those who threaten ours. But, unfortunately, that is what the Obama administration is doing, first by drawing a specious distinction between al-Qa’eda and the Taleban, and then seeking to split the Taleban into the Afghan Taleban and Pakistani Taleban. US forces have been directed to go after the Pakistani Taleban, led by Baitullah Mehsud, even as the CIA tacitly shields Mullah Omar and company. Similarly, the United States treats Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s Hezb-e-Islami as good terrorists and has offered a deal to Hekmatyar, while American forces target another Afghan private army that is led by Jalaluddin Haqqani and his son. It is troubling for India that Washington continues to pretend that terrorist safe havens exist only along Pakistan’s western frontier. To this day, no senior US official has admitted that terrorist sanctuaries are present along Pakistan’s border with India.
The Obama policy also does not face up to another reality: Pakistan’s political border with Afghanistan has ceased to exist in practice. The so-called Durand Line — a British colonial invention that left the large Pashtun community divided into two — now exists only on maps. Its disappearance is irreversible. How then can the US expect to prop up the Pakistani state within political frontiers that, in part, no longer exist? In fact, the writ of the Pakistani government has ceased to run in nearly half the country. With the state withering away in the Pashtun and Baluch lands, the jihadist-infiltrated military establishment and its infamous Inter-Services Intelligence agency have chosen to cede control to proxy militant groups.
The Obama team rejects the Bush administration’s institution-building approach in Afghanistan as an attempt to create ‘some sort of Central Asian Valhalla’. Yet it has unveiled $7.5 billion in civilian aid for an increasingly radicalised Pakistan to win hearts and minds there — a Valhalla even more distant. The attempt to get the Pakistani military to focus on counterinsurgency — through a $3-billion ‘Pakistani Counterinsurgency Capability Fund’ — misses the point that what Washington calls insurgents remain prized proxies for the Pakistani generals. The premise that a US military ‘surge’ in Afghanistan can be used, Iraq-style, as a show of force to cut deals with Taleban commanders is equally flawed. This surge-and-bribe approach doesn’t account for the fact that the Afghan militants, with cosy sanctuaries across the borders, have more leeway than their Iraqi counterparts. The new strategy also ignores the reality that the Pakistani generals have little incentive to lend genuine co-operation at a time when Obama has not hidden his Afghanistan exit strategy. The generals and the Taleban just need patiently to wait out the Americans to reclaim Afghanistan.
Unwittingly, Obama’s strategy may end up repeating the very mistakes of American policy over the past three decades that have come to haunt US security and that of the rest of the free world. In seeking narrow, tactical gains, the Obama team risks falling prey to a long-standing US policy weakness: the pursuit of short-term objectives without much regard for the security of friends. It must abandon its plan regionally to contain rather than defeat terrorism, or else an Islamist takeover of Pakistan is inevitable.