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Tag Archives | Afghanistan

Threading the needle

What the U.S.’s “Apolo-jee” to Pakistan really means.

There is jubilation among Pakistan’s social media commentators on the apology (hereinafter referred to as “apolo-jee”) apparently tendered by the U.S. to Pakistan on account of the deaths of 24 Pakistani soldiers last November at the Salala checkpost near the Pakistan-Afghanistan border.  If these narratives are to be believed, then the U.S. has, after months of resistance, accepted culpability for the murder of the Pakistani soldiers and apologized to the Pakistani government for its transgression.

Moreover, little David, financially bankrupt and increasingly running out of room to maneuver, stood up nonetheless to Goliath; and would you believe it, Goliath backed down.  It’s a beautiful little tale, and one that will no doubt leave many teary-eyed.  But really, what did the U.S. say today that it hasn’t said on several occasions since November 26, 2011?

U.S. Secretary of State Hilliary Clinton’s office released this statement to the press:

This morning, I spoke by telephone with Pakistani Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar.

I once again reiterated our deepest regrets for the tragic incident in Salala last November. I offered our sincere condolences to the families of the Pakistani soldiers who lost their lives. Foreign Minister Khar and I acknowledged the mistakes that resulted in the loss of Pakistani military lives. We are sorry for the losses suffered by the Pakistani military. We are committed to working closely with Pakistan and Afghanistan to prevent this from ever happening again.

As I told the former Prime Minister of Pakistan days after the Salala incident, America respects Pakistan’s sovereignty and is committed to working together in pursuit of shared objectives on the basis of mutual interests and mutual respect. [U.S. Department of State]

Let’s examine this “apolo-jee,” shall we? First, a reiteration of a regret does not an apology amounting to acceptance of culpability make. Second, apparently, both Pakistan and the U.S. acknowledged the “mistakes” made that resulted in the loss of Pakistan’s military lives.  But whose mistakes? Vague. Third, “we are sorry for the losses suffered by the Pakistan military”? Losses? What losses, and suffered where? The Pakistani armed forces have a rich and storied history of suffering losses, as anyone in India can tell you.  Pakistan’s own politicians, military officials and commentators are quick to remind the world that it has lost 40,000 of its finest supporting “America’s War.”  Sec. Clinton’s statement is, therefore, hardly an apology for Salala.

Furthermore, Sec. Clinton’s statements say nothing that the U.S. has not already said about the incident. NATO’s secretary general expressed “regret” a mere two days after the Salala incident.  The outgoing U.S. ambassador to Pakistan regretted the incident too.  In fact, various Obama administration officials had “regretted” the incident about 20 times.  All these apologies were summarily rejected by Pakistan. So pray, why is regret #21 the charm?

The fact of the matter is, Pakistan had put itself in a position whether it could neither back down from a costly confrontation with the U.S., for domestic political reasons, nor continue to impede the U.S., given its economic condition. Both Pakistan and the U.S. had previously attempted to arrive at a settlement, but these negotiations proved inconclusive due to Pakistan’s demand for both an apology, and transit fee of $5,000 per truck that crossed its territory.

Now, if this was a “soft apology,” today’s statement certainly did not say “we’re sorry we killed your soldiers.”  And per the New York Times, Pakistan has agreed to keep the transit fee at its current rate of $250 per truck.  So Pakistan is 0-for-2 in its demands to the U.S., but has nonetheless opened up its on-land supply routes to NATO.  Still feel like David won?

Quite simply, Pakistan had ratcheted up the rhetoric to a point where it couldn’t climb down without losing face. The U.S. had two options — allow Pakistan to continue to squirm, or work out an arrangement with Pakistan to re-open on-land supply routes.  It chose the latter, allowing Pakistan’s civilian and military leadership to step back from the brink without suffering yet another humiliating surrender at the hands of the U.S. Pakistan, for its part, was more than revealed.

If any further clarity was needed, the conspicuous absence of any Difa-e-Pakistan Council crazies, whose leaders had previous organized mass protests and even written an “open letter” to Pakistan’s parliamentarians urging no compromise on reopening supply routes, provides us enough context to the apology that never was.

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General rhetoric

Gen. Kayani finds himself in a very unenviable position.

There is palpable anger in the streets of Islamabad, Lahore and Karachi over U.S. airstrikes that killed 24 Pakistani troops last Saturday.  The most powerful man in Pakistan, Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kiyani has been forced to swing into damage control mode.  Pakistan’s first haphazard response to the attacks involved closing NATO supply lines and demanding  that the U.S. vacate Shamsi airbase (allegedly used to conduct drone strikes in K-P).  It then withdrew itself from the Bonn conference on Afghanistan.  Then there was a vague attempt to block the BBC and other “Western channels” from broadcasting in Pakistan — a strange threat at best, and one that is unlikely to hurt anyone, except possibly, listeners of the BBC in Pakistan.

Today, Gen Kayani apparently “upped the ante” by declaring that his troops would respond with “full force” to any future aggression by NATO or the U.S.:

“Be assured that we will not let the aggressor walk away easily,” the army chief said in a message for the troops and added that he had “clearly directed that any act of aggression will be responded with full force, regardless of the cost and consequences”.

He believed that the attack could have been retaliated effectively had the communications network not broken down. “Timely decision could not be taken due to breakdown of communication with the affected posts and therefore lack of clarity of situation at various levels, including corps HQ and GHQ.”

Gen Kayani further clarified that the troops could respond on their own, when attacked, without waiting for orders from the command. “I have full trust in your capabilities and resolve,” he stressed. [Dawn]

But this is all meaningless rhetoric for several reasons.  First, Pakistan is not the victim that it is claiming to be, but in fact the aggressor.  It has been reliably reported that it was Pakistan, not the U.S., that fired first, presumably in an attempt to aid the Taliban, which had come under siege from U.S. Special Forces.  This, of course, is not a new occurrence.  The Long War Journal catalogs at least eight occasions of unprovoked cross-border shelling by Pakistani troops in Mohmand Agency since September 2011.

Second, if the Pakistanis could have hit back at NATO or U.S. forces, they would have.  The fact that they didn’t indicates that they couldn’t.  Upon being initially challenged by the Pakistanis, U.S. Special Forces called in close air support from NATO, which proceeded to decimate the aggressors.  This is not an issue of a breakdown in communication between corps HQ and GHQ.  When you’re under attack and taking casualties, you don’t need “permission” from your Chief of Army Staff to defend yourself.

Third, bravado notwithstanding, how can the Pakistani army realistically “respond with full force, regardless of the cost or consequences?” Does Gen. Kayani not expect the U.S. to respond in kind to Pakistani military action? Is Pakistan really that stupid to get into a fight with the U.S. or NATO and trigger an uncontrollable chain of events?

The truth of the matter is that the proverbial noose around the neck of the current Chief of Army Staff is tightening since the humiliation of the Abbottabad raid in May.  Pakistan’s inability to respond to the recent “act of aggression” puts Gen. Kayani in a very unenviable position.  And the more that noose tightens, the more erratic Gen. Kayani’s actions will get.  There are already many Yahyas in Rawalpindi to Kayani’s Ayub. And as a restless nation bays for blood, Kayani is capable of attempting to placate them with little else than bellicose rhetoric.

Given the rather delicate situation that he finds himself in, Gen. Kayani in actuality should be praying for zero confrontation with NATO or U.S. forces in the short-term, rather than welcoming it. For should he find himself in a Salala-like situation in the near future, he might discover that the cost of backing down from another military confrontation with the U.S. outweighs its apparent benefits.

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Don’t feed the Cookie Monster

Forget Pakistan and move on.

I came across this article in Foreign Policy by Teresita and Howard Schaffer entitled “Afghanistan, Pakistan and Kashmir: A grand bargain?”  Ambassadors Teresita and Howard Schaffer are true paragons of the U.S. foreign policy community and have extensive experience in the subcontinent (indeed, Mrs. Schaffer is fluent in Hindi and Urdu).  However, and as someone with tremendous respect for their contributions, I found some of  the recommendations in the article surprising.

The article calls for a review of U.S. strategic options with Pakistan and postulates a “grand bargain,” which essentially involves “giving” Pakistan what it wants in Afghanistan, but on two pre-conditions: first, making Pakistan responsible for preventing terrorism emanating from Afghanistan (yes, only Afghanistan), and second, getting Pakistan to agree on a settlement on Kashmir on the present geopolitical lines.  In all fairness, the article both recognizes the challenges inherent in such a plan, and accepts that the likelihood  of such a bargain coming to fruition is rather low.  However, there are elements in this “grand bargain” that I find either disturbing or infeasible.

The first element of this “grand bargain” involves accepting Pakistani hegemony in Afghanistan. Pakistan, not the civil administration in Afghanistan, will be empowered to undertake negotiations between Kabul and “whatever elements of the Taliban” to work towards a post-war settlement.  The article also envisages the U.S. accepting Pakistan’s demand of eliminating Indian involvement in Afghanistan.  Such logic should greatly concern New Delhi, which recently signed a “strategic partnership” with Afghanistan involving an enhancement of bilateral ties in education, economics and security. This article fails to explain why Afghanistan or India would ever entertain this, and how the U.S. and Pakistan feel they are in a position to transact such an arrangement without resistance from India and Afghanistan.

Next, in return for this “grand bargain,” the article recommends that the U.S. warn Pakistan that it would be held responsible for any act of terror originating from Afghanistan or Pakistan. The article doesn’t delve any further into how this fete is to be accomplished.  The Pakistanis have acted with an ascending sense of impunity in conducting sub-conventional operations in a region already dominated by U.S. forces.  If the U.S.’s strategy with respect to Pakistan’s proclivity for terror has failed to yield tangible results thus far, what other tools does the U.S. suppose it has to force Rawalpindi into compliance? And by the way, has the U.S. held anyone responsible for the discovery of Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad, Pakistan this past May?

The third component of this bargain pertains to Kashmir. According to the article, the U.S. would “tell” Pakistan that it would publicly call for a settlement on Kashmir based on existing demarcations along the LoC and “give India advance notice” of the announcement.

Advance notice! One wonders if the U.S. thinks that it is in a position to orchestrate such a grand settlement especially at a time when its own power is fading relative to other actors on the global stage.  The U.S. would do well to  imbibe an espresso shot of reality here.  Where is the appetite for such an arrangement in a rabidly anti-India Pakistan?  Pakistan’s political parties created an uproar just last week in  response to the inconsequential issue of granting India the status of “Most Favored Nation.”  For a nation bred on the notion that Kashmir is rightfully theirs, any compromise on the issue will elicit a response that Rawalpindi and Islamabad will be incapable of dealing with.

And while India in very broad terms would like a settlement based on turning the LoC into a permanent border, it is in no particular hurry to make the move.  India today is focused on restoring relative peace to Jammu & Kashmir; to that end, it has encouraged dialog between the Centre and political parties of all hues in the Valley.  However, an external reconciliation of Jammu & Kashmir is just not a priority.

The weak coalition in New Delhi does not have the political capital necessary to conclude on such a significant transaction, even if it wanted to.  Simply, Kashmir is a “core issue” for India, and as the U.S. has already realized, is one where India is demonstratively inflexible. If an impoverished India of the past managed to stave off U.S. pressure on Kashmir, what makes the U.S. think that an ascending India will do otherwise?  Any expectation that India will march to the U.S.’s tune merely on being told to do so, is very far removed from reality indeed.

In the end, if the U.S. hopes to move on from its engagement in Afghanistan and ensure that the country does not return to a pre-9/11 jihadi haven, it must stop encouraging Pakistan’s institutional irrationality.  This involves recognizing that U.S. and Pakistan’s interests are divergent, and that Pakistan isn’t the solution, but the problem.  Further, it must realize that even assuming Kashmir is resolved  by some miracle, this will not necessarily mean an end to Pakistan’s obsession with India.

Pakistan’s problem is not Kashmir, it is India and India’s existence.  Pakistan’s quest for “strategic depth” in Afghanistan — an agenda duly entertained in the article — is directly tied to its preoccupation with India. If there were no India, there would be no need for “strategic depth” in Afghanistan.  Therefore, how does India attain peace with Pakistan, when Pakistan’s definition of peace involves India’s dismemberment?  Questions for the Schaffers and the U.S. to ponder over.

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The Afghanistan endgame

Time for India to get its act together.

The United States Institute for Peace (USIP), along with the Jinnah Institute (JI), recently co-convened a project to study the perceptions of Pakistan’s “foreign policy elite” towards the Afghanistan endgame.  A summary of the discussions is available on USIP’s website (PDF), while detailed findings will be published soon.  A cursory review of the document tells us nothing new about Pakistan’s perceptions with regard to endgame scenarios in Afghanistan.  The document highlights three outcomes sought by Pakistan in Afghanistan — a “degree of” stability in Afghanistan, an inclusive government in Kabul, and limiting Indian presence to development activities.

Pakistan’s foreign policy elites perceived U.S. strategy in Afghanistan to be inconsistent and counterproductive to Pakistan’s interests in Afghanistan and the region.  Hardly surprising, since Pakistan’s interests never converged with those of the U.S. in Afghanistan, a fact that has only recently become apparent to some in D.C.  It should also be clear that regardless of outcomes, Pakistan will continue to seek “strategic depth” — a euphemism for territory Pakistan hopes to use against Indian interests — in Afghanistan.  But what does mean for the U.S. and India?

Some home truths, first.  Since May 2, 2011 and the events that have followed, it is now clear that Pakistan’s ability to negotiate a favorable outcome in Afghanistan is significantly diminished.  Pakistan is more marginalized today than it has ever been since 2001 in influencing outcomes in Afghanistan.  Contrast this against the sense of being on the doorsteps of victory that prevailed in Rawalpindi 16 months ago.

The discovery of bin Laden “hiding in plain sight” in Abbottabad has left Pakistan with very few fans in D.C.  While the U.S. has always sought to lessen its reliance on Pakistan, these plans have gained significant momentum.  The so-called Northern Distribution Network (NDN) now accounts for about 65% of traffic to Afghanistan (contrast this to 2010, when 70% of the traffic was routed through Pakistan).  In addition, the U.S. is now in direct negotiations with the Taliban (“direct,” because they bypass Pakistani negotiators).

How fruitful these negotiations will be remains to be seen.  There are conflicting reports in the Pakistani press that indicate that negotiations have collapsed, while reports in the U.S. indicate otherwise.  Indeed, news reports now suggest that Afghan officials, fearful that direct U.S.-Taliban negotiations would undermine President Karzai, scuttled the talks.

But the realities in Afghanistan are that President Karzai is largely isolated and running out of allies.  Apart from the fact that relations with the U.S. are chilly, Mr. Karzai is also not a popular personality in Pakistan, and is increasingly isolated from his own people.  The security vacuum, particularly in southern Afghanistan, has claimed the lives of thousands of Afghan citizens and officials, including President Karzai’s half-brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai, and mayor of Khandahar, Ghulam Haider Hamidi over the past many months.  This security vacuum can only be addressed by helping Afghanistan protect itself and its citizens.  This means providing Afghanistan the necessary security assistance and training to allow the much-maligned ANA and local law enforcement units to play a larger role in defending the country.

It is also true that Pakistan, as a neighbor to Afghanistan, cannot be excluded from influencing  the endgame in Afghanistan.  And contrary to Pakistan’s protestations, neither the U.S. nor India would want Pakistan not to play a constructive role in shaping the future of its neighbor.  But given Pakistan’s historic involvement in Afghanistan’s internal affairs, its continuing support to Mullah Omar and the Haqqani network, and its quest for “strategic depth” in Afghanistan, Pakistan’s credentials are at best tainted, and are a cause for concern in India.

Further, Pakistan crying “Wolf!” over every real or imagined instance of Indian engagement in Afghanistan is a red herring.  Many of us have argued for an Indian military presence in Afghanistan and for India to train ANA personnel.  While India has trained some ANA officers, deploying a contingent of the Indian army appears remote now, given India’s preoccupation with  domestic political issues.  India has assisted Afghanistan in reconstruction and development efforts, even constructing the Zaranj-Delaram highway, which links Afghanistan with the Iranian port of Chabahar.  Of course, Pakistan’s Taliban proxies now control the highway.  It should be pretty apparent then that there is no way that New Delhi can accept Pakistan’s terms for Indian engagement in Afghanistan.

Whether Pakistan likes it or not, India must continue to engage with Afghanistan and transform its ties from merely the donor-benefactor relationship that currently exists.  New Delhi’s hesitance in forging deeper ties with Afghanistan haven’t hurt India as badly as it could have, because many of us have consistently underestimated Pakistan’s propensity and willingness to repeatedly shoot itself in the foot.

However, the U.S.’s plans to withdraw forces from Afghanistan beginning in 2014, and Pakistan’s waning influence in D.C. on Afghanistan-related issues present new opportunities to India that it must act on.  As the U.S.’s role in Afghanistan changes, so must too India’s.  India should be looking to expand ties with Afghanistan and transform the donor-benefactor relationship to one between trading partners.  Given the common threats India and Afghanistan face, deepening military and intelligence cooperation is equally important.  The question that needs to be asked is if New Delhi will take cognizance of these opportunities and act on them, or will it fritter them away, as it unfortunately has with so many countries in its immediate neighborhood.

 

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