By Mark Sedra
“Pakistan is the real prize”. That was one of the messages delivered by Bruce Riedel, a former CIA officer and the chair of President Obama’s interagency review of US policy toward Afghanistan and Pakistan completed in March 2009, in a lecture at CIGI on 29 April 2010. Citing Pakistan’s position as the world’s largest Muslim country, its record as a haven for radical jihadi groups, and its nuclear arsenal—the fastest growing in the world—Riedel left little doubt about the enormous strategic importance of Pakistan to the United States. It is mainly because of Pakistan that Afghanistan, once viewed as a strategic backwater, is now seen as vital to US interests. That and what he called the “ripple effect throughout the Islamic world” that a failure in Afghanistan would inevitably provoke.
Despite the strategic importance of Pakistan, US policy towards it has been erratic, ineffective and often undefined. As Christine Fair has stated in an upcoming paper to be published as part of CIGI’s Afghanistan Papers’ series later this spring:
“Ironically, while Pakistan, with its dedicated history of supporting terrorism from the safety of its nuclear umbrella and the presence of al Qaeda and Taliban sanctuaries in its territory, presents a far greater risk to U.S. national security interests than Afghanistan, it has become a secondary or even residual theatre.”
Riedel admitted that the US-Pakistan relationship has been like a roller coaster in recent years, with the US not always acting as “a reliable partner”. At times, it is not entirely clear whether Pakistan wants a stronger strategic relationship with the US, evinced by its move to slow and even halt the visa processes for hundreds of US government officials being deployed to Pakistan to implement projects funded under the Kerry-Lugar bill that will send $7.5 billion of aid to Pakistan over the next 5 years.
While Riedel lauded recent Pakistani efforts to step up pressure on the Pakistani Taliban, noting the thousands of Pakistani soldiers and hundreds of ISI officers that have died in military operations, it is clear that more could be done. For instance, Riedel was adamant that Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri are alive and still involved in planning and organizing terrorist operations on Pakistani soil.
In the wake of the failed Times Square bombing that has been linked to the Pakistani Taliban, the Obama Administration has begun talking tough about Pakistan’s role in curbing extremism. While Secretary of State Clinton admitted in a recent interview that the US has seen a “sea change in the commitment…from the Pakistan government” on counter-terrorism over the past year, she also said that the US wanted and expected more. She warned that if such an attack were successful in the future and could be traced to Pakistan, “there would be very severe consequences”.
Clinton is right that there has been better co-operation between Pakistan and the US. ISI and CIA officials are cooperating more closely and more US troops are being deployed to Pakistan to facilitate intelligence sharing and provide support to counter-insurgency and counter-terrorism operations. One of the most notable and contentious areas of increased Pakistani-US cooperation has been the escalating drone strikes in the tribal areas along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, which are now being launched from Pakistani rather than Afghan territory. Drone attacks have increased dramatically since Obama came to power from only seven in 2007, all of which missed their targets, to 50 in 2009 with some major hits. According to Riedel a sign that the drone operations are disrupting al Qaeda is the halt in December 2009 of Zawahiri’s biweekly taped address, a ritual that had been ongoing uninterrupted for three years. However, Riedel was quick to emphasize that drone operations are a tactic, not a strategy to address al Qaeda and Taliban militancy in Pakistan.
While some obvious progress has been made in improving Pakistani-US collaboration in combating the Taliban and al Qaeda, elements of the Pakistani security establishment continue to view the Afghan Taliban as a strategic asset and provide them with clandestine support. While Pakistani forces have fought hard against the Pakistani Taliban in places like the Swat Valley and South Waziristan, the Afghan Taliban has largely been left untouched, with the Quetta Shura operating relatively openly.
Why? Well, a lot has to do with India and Kashmir. The Pakistanis are adamant that the Indians are attempting to expand their influence in Afghanistan in an effort to open up a second front against Pakistan, a direct challenge to the Pakistani concept of "strategic depth". The Pakistanis will tell anybody who will listen that the Indians are using their string of consulates along or near the Afghan border area with Pakistan to gather intelligence and stir instability in Pakistan, providing, for instance, support to Baluch separatists. The upsurge in attacks on Indian assets and personnel in Afghanistan, including a bombing in February 2009 that killed a senior Indian intelligence agent and two Indian army officers, is a response to growing Indian influence in Afghanistan. The Pakistanis view the Afghan Taliban, who have been blamed for most of these attacks, as an effective tool to contain the growth of Indian influence. While Pakistan’s claims of clandestine Indian activity seem exaggerated, they have legitimate security concerns that must be recognized.
The bottom line is that Pakistan must be included in any peace settlement in Afghanistan. Any attempt to freeze the Pakistanis out will be met with interference, as the arrest of Taliban operational chief Mullah Abdul Ghani Barader demonstrated. While originally hailed as a major victory for the counter-insurgency and a sign Pakistan may be turning its back on the ‘double game’, it would subsequently emerge that Barader was engaged in direct dialogue with the Karzai regime on a potential peace settlement (circumventing the Pakistanis) and the arrest was intended to scuttle the talks and send a message to Karzai and the West.
A precondition for a stable Afghanistan will be some sort of regional settlement with the Pakistani-Indian regional conflict at its core. Riedel insists that President Obama is well aware of this and is working beyond the scenes to foster some sort of Pakistani-Indian rapprochement. The recent decision of the Indian and Pakistani governments to restart direct talks is an encouraging sign and may be a product of Obama’s quiet diplomacy. However, time is short for Afghanistan, as troop-contributing states like Canada and the Netherlands prepare to pull out by 2011 and the US determined to reevaluate its position in a year’s time. As usual Afghanistan will remain hostage to the vicissitudes of its difficult neighborhood.