The Friday Times; Dec 24-30, 2010; Vol XXII, No. 45
The fact is that the US has been unable to secure Afghanistan; even its Ink Spot Strategy has been half-hearted and without much consequence
A story in The New York Times says “Senior American military commanders in Afghanistan are pushing for an expanded campaign of Special Operations ground raids across the border into Pakistan’s tribal areas”. While agreeing that it is “a risky strategy”, the reporters think it reflects “growing frustration with Pakistan’s efforts to root out militants there”.
Meanwhile, the ISAF spokesperson has rubbished the report as false. Rear Admiral Gregory Smith, Deputy Chief of Staff for Communication for the International Security Assistance Force, was reported as saying from Kabul that “There is absolutely no truth to reporting in The New York Times that US forces are planning to conduct ground operations into Pakistan”.
The specific area of concern for Washington is North Waziristan. Just days ago, US ambassador to Pakistan, Cameron Munter, talked about North Waziristan, but said that the decision to launch an operation in the area would be taken by Pakistan itself. He also acknowledged the degree of difficulty and the fact that consolidation in areas already under the control of Pakistan Army has stretched Pakistani forces.
Much the same has been said about a possible operation in NWA by US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen in several statements over the last six months. The US President Barack Obama himself has, at least publicly, been praising Pakistan’s efforts and arguing that Pakistan’s stability is a crucial factor in winning the war in Afghanistan.
Equally, however, the US wants Pakistan to go into NWA, sooner rather than later. There are at least two not-so-hidden assumptions in the US argument: the NWA is the centre of gravity (COG) of Afghan insurgency; once the Haqqani network is taken out through an operation in that Agency, the backbone of the Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan will be broken and voila!
Both assumptions are wrong. The insurgency does not have a defined COG; there are multiple COGs and command lines are much more diffused than anyone is prepared to accept. There is already much dispersal of the leadership and the fighters because of drone attacks. Dispersal and delegation of operations also provide Taliban the flexibility they require to retain their asymmetric advantage over foreign troops in Afghanistan.
Secondly, even if, let’s assume, some leaders of the Haqqani network are taken out and their fighters killed in the low hundreds (a very high estimate given that they are unlikely to give pitched battles), the network presents only one dimension of the insurgency. The American idea that packing the punch against the Haqqani network – assuming that the network would offer itself as a concentrated target for the convenience of any superior force – would signal to others to come to the negotiating table is unlikely to happen.
In this game Pakistan will be the loser. NWA is a place that does not just house the Haqqani network; it also has Haji Gul Bahadur, elements of the relocated Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan, multiple Punjabi groups and remnants of Al Qaeda. Currently, these groups are geographically confined and to that extent isolated. If Pakistan goes after them, it will have to face multiple, negative consequences.
One, the US wants Pakistan to go into NWA primarily to take out the Haqqani network which, let’s be clear, is no threat currently to Pakistani forces stretched because of fighting elements hostile to it. That situation would not obtain once the network knows that the Pakistani forces are coming after it. Its obvious strategy would be to link up with elements hostile to Pakistan and operating only against Pakistani interests. Two, elements hostile to Pakistan will get reinforced by such a link-up.
Three, while use of force will make the various groups join hands, it will fail to translate into utility of force for the simple reason that the groups would disperse and spread out instead of offering themselves as a concentrated target for a superior force. That makes sense also because rather than losing too many men in pitched battles, they will disperse while retaining some fighters to engage advancing columns in combination with the use of area denial weapons like anti-personnel mines, anti-tank mines, IEDs and booby traps.
This means that while they will try to slow down the advance and extract a heavy toll of advancing troops, they would not need to employ the bulk of their forces that are likely to extricate with the first signs of an impending operation.
Pakistan would then be left with two negative fallouts: future operational linkage between the Afghan Taliban and the TTP and other assorted hostile groups; dispersal of these groups into other areas where they would lose themselves in urban populations and most definitely resort to urban terrorism as reprisal. The Haqqani network could relocate to other tribal and settled areas of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa as well as move into Afghanistan.
An operation against the Haqqani network will also activate other Afghan Taliban against Pakistani security forces which are already battle-stressed fighting the Pakistani groups affiliated with Al Qaeda. This means opening another front, currently dormant.
Given all these negatives, the obvious question is: does this tactical move add up to a larger strategic picture? The answer is no. There’s enough evidence that Washington itself is deeply divided over how exactly to proceed in Afghanistan. Neither is it clear on what its end-strategy is. The war is getting unpopular and the US-Nato-Isaf forces are not winning. At the same time both Obama and his commander in Afghanistan, General David Patraeus, want some kind of win which can be sold at home. Obama needs the second term and Patraeus, with his political ambitions, would like to be the winning general. They are in a bind.
Second, while the US has, in theory, come round to the idea of dialoguing with the Taliban, it has no idea who to talk to. Efforts to find dialogue partners have failed because the US has still to convince those Taliban leaders who matter. No one of any consequence is prepared to talk to Washington.
If there is no strategic plus, and if it can be determined that going into NWA would further destabilise Pakistan and securing the area would, at best be a pyrrhic tactical win, then it becomes clear that the US is totally confused about the situation. Obama cannot stress the vital imperative of stabilising Pakistan and then ask Islamabad to take measures that will decidedly induce greater instability within Pakistan.
The fact is that the US has been unable to secure Afghanistan; even its Ink Spot Strategy has been half-hearted and without much consequence. Large swathes of territory within Afghanistan are controlled by the Taliban and NATO forces have to pay the Taliban to secure their supply routes. Of course no one in the US is prepared to acknowledge that. The selling point is to focus on Pakistan and, currently, on North Waziristan. That may make good domestic politics, but falls woefully short of what is required to secure Afghanistan.
The writer is Contributing Editor of The Friday Times