Pakistan and the “AfPak” strategy

Shaun Gregory
28 May 2009

The shape of the United States's new "AfPak" strategy is now clear. For Washington, the most serious problems posed by Afghanistan and Pakistan - the Taliban, al-Qaida, and associated tribal militants - arise from the Pashtun regions of both countries. Behind the rhetoric, the decision has therefore been taken to contain the violence to these areas. Shaun Gregory is professor in the department of peace studies at the University of Bradford, northern England, and head of the Pakistan Security Research Unit there. He is the author of Pakistan: Securing the Insecure State (Routledge, 2008)

Also by Shaun Gregory in openDemocracy:

"Pakistan on edge" (25 September 2006)

"Pakistan: farewell to democracy" (29 October 2007)

"Musharraf: the fateful moment" (16 November 2007)

"Pakistan's political turmoil: Musharraf and beyond" (27 August 2008)

"The Pakistan army and the Afghanistan war" (25 November 2008)

"Mumbai: Pakistan's moment of opportunity" (3 December 2008)

The car-bombing targeted against police and intelligence headquarters in Lahore on 27 May 2009 which killed at least twenty-four people - the latest in a series of attacks on the city, including on Sri Lanka's cricket-team and a police academy in March - shows how difficult the task will be. This larger strategic effort in turn has three parts:

* using military force to push back and weaken the insurgents to the point they can be contained by the Afghan and Pakistan armies

* stepping up nation-building efforts to win the battle for people's hearts and minds

* empowering the respective state structures to manage their own affairs consistent with western interests. 

On the Afghan side of the border the implementation of this policy is led by the United States. The combination of the military "surge" by Nato and the International Security Assistance force (Isaf), and the estimated 500,000 foreigners present in Afghanistan in nation-building roles, holds out the prospect of meaningful progress.

On the Pakistan side, however, the United States exists at one remove. The endemic insecurity revealed by the Lahore bomb (responsibility for which is claimed by Hakimullah Mehsud of the "Pakistan Taliban") indicates the scale of its task. Washington is reliant on implementing policy through the blunt tool of the Pakistan army - an army which does not share the US or Nato's strategic objectives for Afghanistan. On the contrary: for Pakistan, the Afghan Taliban remain the only players in the region able to advance its objectives: realising the end of the Hamid Karzai regime, forcing a significantly pro-Pakistan element into the Afghan government, and reversing (and in due course eliminating) growing Indian influence in Afghanistan.

The United States has therefore applied huge economic and military-aid pressure to push Pakistan's president (Asif Ali Zardari) and its chief-of-army-staff  (General Ashfaq Kiyani) towards meaningful military operations in Pakistan's Pashtun areas - operations Zardari and Kiyani are now selling as an unambiguous commitment to rooting out the terrorists and militants. The central question which consequently arises is whether this does signal the decisive shift in Pakistani thinking that the US and western governments have been pressing for. 

The lesson of Bajaur

A part of the answer to this can be found in the ruins of Bajaur, the northernmost agency of Pakistan's Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). In the wake of the Marriott Hotel bomb-attack in Islamabad in September 2008, the Pakistani army launched military operations in Bajaur: the first serious and large-scale operations in the FATA.

The army, fearing casualties and uncertain of the loyalties of some of its soldiers, used air-strikes, helicopter-gunships, and artillery to pound militants' positions and to raze many villages and towns to the ground. In late February 2009, after more than five months of fighting, Major-General Tariq Khan helicoptered journalists to one such flattened town; there he declared that the Taliban had been defeated in Bajaur and that the rest of the FATA would be in Pakistan's hands by the end of 2009. Western diplomats, anxious to support Pakistani actions, heralded the holding of Bajaur as an important signal to militants elsewhere in the FATA and as a base from which the Pakistan army could expand operations against militant strongholds elsewhere in the agency (see "Has AfPak strategy led to civil war in Pakistan?", Times of India, 24 May 2009).

By late May 2009, three months later, the Pakistan military, from a few heavily fortified bases, continues to claim that it is winning its campaign. But in reality the army has not taken the offensive into other parts of the FATA; it has singularly failed to hold Bajaur; and the Taliban is back in de facto control of the agency.

The real measure of what has been achieved is the hundreds of thousands of civilians displaced from the region by the fighting. They have paid the price of this army "success" with the destruction of their homes, businesses, schools and clinics; as a result many of them feel as much antipathy to the Pakistan army as they do to the Taliban. Moreover, in these three months Mullah Fazlullah's Tehrik-e-Nifaz-e-Shariat-e-Mohammedi (TNSM, a core part of the Pakistan Taliban) has consolidated its hold of the Swat district in the North West Frontier Province (NWFP); forced a "peace deal" with the Zardari government; and moved outwards from Swat into the Buner and Dir districts, thus moving closer to Islamabad and to the strategically important Karakoram highway (see Patrick Cockburn, "Where the Taliban roam", Independent, 6 May 2009).   Among openDemocracy's many articles on Pakistan:

Ehsan Masood, "Pakistan: the army as the state" (12 April 2007)

Ayesha Siddiqa, "Pakistan's permanent crisis" (15 May 2007)

Anatol Lieven, "At the Red Mosque in Islamadad" (4 June 2007)

Maruf Khwaja, "The war for Pakistan"  (24 July 2007)

Ayesha Siddiqa, "Pakistan after Benazir Bhutto" (28 December 2007)

Fred Halliday, "The assassin's age: Pakistan in the world" (28 December 2007)

Maruf Khwaja, "Pakistan: dynasty vs democracy" (9 January 2008)

Irfan Husain, "Pakistan's judgment day" (22 February 2008)

Irfan Husain. "Pervez Musharraf: the commando who couldn't" (19 August 2008)

Paul Rogers, "Pakistan: the new frontline" (18 September 2008)

Paul Rogers, "The AfPak war: three options" (25 February 2009)

Paul Rogers, "A three-front war: Iraq, AfPak...Washington" (20 March 2009)

Nadeem Ul Haque, "How to solve Pakistan's problem" (24 April 2009)

Paul Rogers, "Pakistan: sources of turmoil" (30 April 2009)

Anatol Lieven, "Pakistan's American problem" (6 May 2009)

These developments - an affront to the Pakistani state, and a threat to Chinese interests which flow along the Karakoram, and the source of intense US pressure - combined to force Islamabad once again to act. The military operations now unfolding in Buner, Dir and Swat bear all the hallmarks of the Bajaur operation: air-strikes, helicopter-gunships and artillery dominate; villages and towns are being destroyed; and the United Nations estimates that more than 1.3 million people are fleeing the violence.

When taken together with all those previously displaced in the FATA and NWFP, at least 2 million internally-displaced persons (IDPs) may be in search of shelter, clean water and food. A relatively small number of inadequate camps has been put together by the Pakistani state and the UN to deal with them; much more is needed.

Two key decisions

Against this background Pakistan is steadily approaching two critical moments of decision.

The first is that President Zardari has committed Pakistan to extending these military operations into the FATA. In particular this will mean incursions into North and South Waziristan, the stronghold of Baitullah Mehsud's Tehrik-e-Taliban-Pakistan (TTP, another section of the Pakistan Taliban) and the base of Jalalluddin's Haqqani's "Afghan Taliban" network. This is also the area widely considered as "Al-Qaida Central". If this happens, it would signal a seismic shift in Pakistan's role in the "war on terror" and an equally seismic shift in its relationship with the Afghan Taliban (see "The Pakistan army and the Afghanistan war", 25 November 2008). 

In conducting large-scale military operations against the TTP and al-Qaida and its associates in North and South Waziristan, the Pakistan army would be making a move it has singularly failed to make in the eight years of the "war on terror". It would also confound the widely disseminated view that the army has neither the capability nor the motivation to act against these groups. This notion has, arguably, already been punctured by the air-lifting of Pakistani commandos to the Peochar valley in Swat, reportedly to surround the leadership of Mullah Fazlullah's TNSM.

Many analysts of Pakistan have been dumbfounded to see confirmation that the Pakistan army and the Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) agency both knows exactly where these leaders are, and also has the means - without extensive US counterinsurgency training or re-equipment, which are not yet in place - to move against these groups. It begs the question why they did not do so years earlier. 

Perhaps even more important, Pakistani army/ISI operations in the "Waziris" will inevitably mean confrontation with the Haqqani network - the Afghan Taliban group widely understood to have the closest links with the Pakistan army through the ISI. It is also known to be the group - in the person of Jalalluddin's son Sirajuddin - which carried out the bombing of the Indian embassy in Kabul on 7 July 2008. The Pakistani military cannot engage this group without the volte-face revision of its Afghan strategy. 

The second critical (and interrelated) decision Pakistan faces - now being played out behind the scenes - is Pakistan's delayed private answer to the request being made by the United States to expand the US's unmanned "drone" operations into the Pashtun areas of northern Balochistan (to the south of the FATA and the NWFP). This area serves as a refuge for the Haqqani network, the TTP, and perhaps al-Qaida - a place of retreat in the event of any potential operations in the Waziris; but northern Balochistan is also the route of one of Nato's key logistic supply-lines.

Even more significant, the region is also the base of Mullah Omar and the Quetta shura - the "safe haven" from which Omar and the Afghan Taliban leadership have planned and organised the resurgence of the Taliban in Afghanistan (with the tolerance or support of the Pakistan army and ISI, depending on the interpretation of the evidence).

A decision to expand the drone strikes into northern Balochistan (from where, at the CIA base at Shamsi, the drones in fact already mainly operate) would in effect give the United States freedom of the skies over the region. This would directly imperil the Quetta shura and the Afghan Taliban, who presently operate with impunity from this area.

Thus, if the Pakistanis do grant the US the right to extend the range of the drone strikes - even after allowing for the civilian casualties that often ensue, and the danger that the move would be widely seen as a further capitulation of Pakistani sovereignty to the United States - the results could be significant:  enhancing US military effectiveness, allowing Nato to better protect its supply-lines, and weakening the Afghan Taliban (though, again, at the cost of Pakistan's own Afghan strategy).

In a vice

Pakistan cannot postpone indefinitely the two "crunch" moments: it must decide whether to expand its military operations into the rest of the FATA (above all in to the Waziris) and whether to allow the expansion of US drone operations into northern Balochistan. In this sense the dynamics unfolding in Buner, Dir and Swat - where things are not all going the Pakistan army's way despite its up-beat rhetoric - are simply the overture to the main performance the United States has come to require of the Pakistanis as their contribution to the "AfPak" strategy (see Anatol Lieven, "Pakistan's American problem", 6 May 2009). 

This is undoubtedly a difficult period for the Pakistan army and ISI (whose own building felt the effects of the Lahore blast on 27 May). The Taliban's return to strength in Afghanistan, a weakening in Nato's resolve, and the element of desperation in the US "surge" strategy (in the sense that there will be few options if it fails) together have huge implications for the Pakistani army's calculus: the thinking in army headquarters must be that Pakistani objectives in Afghanistan are within reach only if US pressure can be borne, the Afghan Taliban can be protected, and the Pakistan Taliban contained. 

In this tight position, the Pakistani army may - just - glimpse open sea. If the humanitarian situation were to deteriorate too severely in the FATA/NWFP, and international pressure for a cessation of the Pakistani assault grew as a result, this could provide a context for Pakistan to argue that it can no longer prosecute the war. This could in turn allowing it to ease the pressure from the US and abandon the commitment to an assault on North and South Waziristan.

Asif Ali Zardari and the Pakistani army could face unpopularity for precipitating a deeper humanitarian crisis in the FATA/NWFP at the US's behest - but this very situation could create space for them to continue to decline the expansion of US drone-strikes into northern Balochistan. The more the fragile political agreement in Pakistan in support of counterinsurgency operations frays, the more likely would be such an outcome. The Lahore bombing is another grenade launched into this delicate political and security picture. Pakistan's state will continue to play its reduced hand amid urgent and pressing circumstances.


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