Afghanistan and Pakistan: Can terrorism be eradicated?

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One of the most difficult problems facing U.S. President-elect Barack Obama, when he takes office next January, is how to deal with the terrorist threat from inside Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Obama has said that he will send more forces to Afghanistan and indicated during his campaign that he would not hesitate to use them if necessary to attack terrorist targets in Pakistan.

Will a surge in Afghanistan lead to the sort of improvements in security that the U.S. troop surge in Iraq seems to have achieved? It may help, but the view of the military on the spot seems to be that the insurgency cannot be simply and speedily defeated by a military victory. The mountainous terrain of Afghanistan provides innumerable places for guerrilla forces to hide. Moreover the Taliban can force the local tribes to cooperate with them by threats and Draconian measures against elements opposed to their return to power.

The Afghan government in Kabul under President Hamid Karzai is weak and lacks an effective civil service to enforce its decisions. The president is regarded as ineffectual but there is no obvious successor in waiting. The Afghan Army has been strengthened, but its loyalty and that of the Afghan police force, where corruption is said to be endemic, is questionable.

In the provinces the warlords still hold considerable sway and are reluctant to take orders from Kabul.

The allied forces lack coherence and NATO countries have been generally unwilling, with a few exceptions, to increase their commitments to Afghanistan and to allow their forces to serve in the most dangerous areas. Karzai rejected the appointment of Lord Ashdown as coordinator of the allied effort in his country apparently fearing that Ashdown’s determined efforts might undermine his authority.

The situation in Afghanistan is complicated by the fact that an increasing part of the world’s supply of opium is grown in Afghanistan. Some progress has been made in some areas in weaning farmers off the growing of opium poppies, but the price that opium fetches in world markets means that the temptation to grow poppies is too great for many of Afghanistan’s poverty stricken peasants.

Some have suggested that the best answer to the problem would be for the Western powers to buy up the opium crops and either use them for the legitimate supply of pain killers or destroy the crops. The problem with this proposal seems to be that it would encourage rather than discourage the growing of opium poppies.

As in all insurgencies, the battle is not one that can be won by armed men and weapons. It is, as the popular saying goes, one for the hearts and minds of the local people. This means not just bringing them greater security or even providing them with basic necessities such as water, electricity and improved communications, important though these are. They have to be persuaded that the alternatives to Taliban rule are better. This means improved schools and medical services as well as facilities for leisure.

But none of these measures will work unless greater care is taken to prevent incidents in which innocent women and children are killed and injured when attacks are made on Taliban targets. These incidents provide valuable propaganda for the insurgents.

It seems inevitable that there will need at some stage to be talks and probably negotiations with Taliban leaders. But neither the Afghan government nor the allies seem to think that the time is yet ripe for discussions.

The temptation on both sides is to continue to argue for delay. No one wants to be accused of being weak and starting premature talks, which have to be concluded without agreement.

The problem posed by the ability of the Taliban to find refuge in the wild areas on the Pakistan side of the frontier is a serious complicating factor. U.S. attacks on such terrorist camps inevitably antagonize Pakistan opinion, which is already strongly anti-American despite the fact that the Pakistan economy is highly dependent on American assistance.

The reputation of the present government of Pakistan is low, corruption is rife and democratic institutions at best fragile. The Pakistan intelligence services are reputed to have close links with the Taliban. They see India and Indian control of the larger part of Kashmir as the main threat to Pakistan. The problems posed by Pakistan are complicated not only by the fact that Pakistan has developed nuclear weapons but also by the history of Pakistan’s nuclear contacts with such regimes as those in Iran and North Korea. The Kashmir issue has festered for over half a century bedeviling relations between India and Pakistan.

There is not much that Japan can do directly to help to find a solution, but the Japanese government should declare its renewed support for American efforts to bring peace to Afghanistan and should be willing to increase its assistance to both Afghanistan and Pakistan.

It will be very difficult for the new U.S. president to find solutions to the problems that the world faces in Afghanistan and Pakistan, but we must hope that new thinking and new personalities on the American side may enable progress.

Hugh Cortazzi, a former British career diplomat, served as ambassador to Japan from 1980 to 1984.