LONDON — The recent visit by U.S. Special Envoy to Afghanistan Richard Holbrooke to South Asia comes at a time of growing unease in the region and underscores the Obama administration’s efforts to formulate a new strategy for winning the Afghan war.
The Taliban and al-Qaida in Afghanistan continue to make gains despite the efforts of the U.S. and North Atlantic Treaty Organization forces stationed there. The situation in Pakistan is precarious with ever-increasing swaths of Pakistani territory falling under the Taliban’s control. Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari has gone on record to suggest that his country is fighting for its very survival. Meanwhile, tensions between India and Pakistan remain high following the terrorist attacks in Mumbai last November.
Washington’s sense of frustration with President Hamid Karzai’s leadership in Afghanistan is at an all-time high. The Karzai government remains highly corrupt and inefficient, thereby allowing various insurgent groups to fill the resulting leadership vacuum. Holbrooke, a strong critic of Karzai, had his work cut out in Kabul.
There are plans to add more than 30,000 additional U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan this year, bringing the U.S.-NATO force total to nearly 90,000 troops. Yet in the absence of greater contributions from NATO allies, it remains unclear how much impact this “mini-surge” will have on the ground.
But the real trouble is emanating from Pakistan’s tribal areas, where insurgents have found safe haven. From their sanctuaries in the Federally Administered Tribal Area and Baluchistan they are wreaking havoc on the Western troops fighting in Afghanistan. No improvement in the security of Afghanistan is possible without progress in the control of the Pakistani border areas.
The Pakistani government, meanwhile, has acquiesced to the demands of the radical Islamists and allowed the imposition of Islamic law in the Swat Valley region, once a popular tourist destination. This is a dangerous concession to the Islamist extremists as it provides them with a haven from which to launch attacks on U.S. and NATO forces, and could embolden them to demand the imposition of Islamic law in other areas. Holbrooke has made it clear that he considered the insurgents’ victory in Swat a common threat to the security of the United States, India and Pakistan.
The U.S. would like Pakistan to effectively counter the insurgents and control its border areas, but Pakistan needs stable ties with India to accomplish this task. The Pakistani Army has been blackmailing Washington by suggesting that it would have to shift troops from the western frontier to its border with India since New Delhi increased pressure on Islamabad because of the Mumbai attacks. But this stance is becoming increasingly difficult to sustain as Pakistan’s own future is falling into question under the Islamist onslaught.
In his testimony to the Senate Intelligence Committee, U.S. Director of National Intelligence Adm. Dennis Blair said, “Pakistan’s law and order situation is dismal, threatening affecting even Pakistani elites, and violence between various sectarian, ethnic and other groups threatens to escalate.”
Pakistan wants the U.S. to expedite the new multibillion-dollar aid package and seeks greater defense and intelligence cooperation, but growing indications are that aid to Pakistan will be tied to its performance in the war on terror.
During his visit, Holbrooke mounted enough pressure on Islamabad for it to concede after weeks of obfuscation and denial that the plot for the terrorist attacks on Mumbai was at least partially hatched in Pakistan. This is the first time that Pakistan has acknowledged a role in the decades-long sustained terror campaign against India.
The Obama administration seems to have made a decision to promote civilian control over Pakistan’s army, which the U.S. has been relying on to suppress militants in Pakistan’s border regions, in a bid to reorient its policy toward the region. It’s a long-term project, however, and it’s not clear if there is enough patience in the corridors of power in Washington for such a long-term policy shift to succeed.
India and the U.S. share a common interest in the stabilization of Afghanistan and Pakistan as well as in containing the security threats that emanate from the turbulent territory between the Indus River and the Hindu Kush.
Holbrooke’s recent visit is a signal that greater cooperation between India and the U.S. might be in the offing as the U.S. unveils a new strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan in coming weeks.
Harsh V. Pant teaches at King’s College London and is the author of, most recently, “Contemporary Debates in Indian Foreign and Security Policy.”
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