Implementing Af-Pak Strategy Is the Hard Part

With the strategic review for U.S. goals in Afghanistan and Pakistan now complete, the administration of President Barack Obama must shift to the more difficult task of choosing and – even more daunting – implementing policies that seek to quell the militant insurgencies in both countries, says a new report from a think-tank known to be close to the administration.

While the establishment of a civilian government last year was a positive sign, some situations have worsened, especially in Pakistan, the focus of the Center for American Progress’s (CAP) new report, "Meeting the Challenges in Pakistan" [.pdf].

Based on the findings of a CAP delegation that traveled to Pakistan in April, the report called the past six months a "tumultuous period" for the world’s only nuclear-armed Muslim country.

The troubles were reinforced this week.

On Wednesday, the day the report was released in Washington, a car bomb set off by insurgents near an intelligence office in Lahore killed as many as 30 people.

While a battle continues to rage between Taliban fighters and the Pakistani military in Swat, near the lawless northwest border regions with Afghanistan, Wednesday’s bombing was a reminder that Islamist militants can strike throughout the country – even as far east as Lahore, known as a cultural bastion.

On Thursday, the Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack and issued a warning for people to evacuate four large cities in anticipation of more strikes, which a Taliban commander told Pakistan’s Dawn newspaper were in response to the military’s offensive against the insurgents who had taken control of the Swat Valley, a tourist destination.

The warning was followed by two blasts the same day – one in Peshawar and one in Dera Ismail Khan.

The recent widespread violence will likely raise Pakistani objections to broad U.S. involvement. Already, some Pakistanis are criticizing the army’s offensive around Swat as a U.S.-driven policy and the U.S. unmanned drone attacks from Afghanistan into Pakistan have angered the Pakistani population – many of whom see the violence as part of the U.S. war – as well as their elected officials.

Those attacks are likely to continue with the appointment of Lt. Gen. Stanley McChrystal to head U.S. forces in Afghanistan. McChrystal headed special operations during the U.S. "surge" strategy in Iraq; his unit was responsible for targeted strikes against insurgents.

But the CAP report implies that the Pakistani objections may come from what it calls a "trust deficit" built by years of a "transactional" relationship between the two countries – where real dialogue occurred only when it was convenient and important to the more powerful U.S.

CAP mentions that Pakistanis often cite U.S. abandonment of the region after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan was brought to an end with robust U.S. involvement.

One way to bridge the gap, says CAP, is more aid for people displaced by fighting with insurgents, for which Congress gave $110 million this month. CAP cites the quick aid response to Pakistan’s devastating 2005 earthquake as having built some trust.

Another example of the lousy bilateral relationship, cited often in the CAP report, was the strictly "war on terror"-based approach of the George W. Bush administration. Little focus was put on building institutions or development, and the roughly $10 billion of aid that went to Pakistan – then under military dictator Gen. Pervez Musharraf – was almost entirely of a military nature.

CAP maintains the importance of fighting terror, but says that a better way to go about it would be to strengthen the judiciary and police forces of Pakistan, which CAP calls "more effective weapons [than the military] in countering terrorist networks."

In the report, CAP reemphasizes its last assessment of the situation – that a broader, permanent U.S.-Pakistani relationship, at first taking the form of a signed "bilateral strategic framework," is needed – and also insists that a regional dialogue is needed in order to bring stability to both Pakistan and Afghanistan.

The broad relationship, says CAP, should include "security, military, intelligence, diplomatic, economic, educational, and cultural affairs."

The regional dialogue is aimed at allowing Pakistan to focus its resources on the insurgency by alleviating tensions with its traditional rival, India. The Pakistani army’s tunnel vision has raised doubts in the U.S. about the powerful institution’s ability to act against the Taliban and allied groups, most recently raised in the immediate lead-up to the campaign in Swat.

Though the army did indeed launch its offensive and is expected, with its firepower advantage, to force the Taliban back, it appears to remain greatly focused on India, which could interfere with its long-term commitment to battling the insurgency.

As such, the report says that "the Obama administration should also reengage in regional diplomacy that seeks to revive dialogue between Pakistan and India, including a discussion of Kashmir." There may be hope on that front, if reported secret talks can be rekindled between the newly elected leaders of India and the Pakistani civilian government.

According to an article published in March in the New Yorker magazine, several years of secret "back channel" negotiations had occurred between India and Pakistan, which were, at one point, "so advanced that [negotiations had] come to semicolons," as one Pakistani official put it.

But neither side had softened up their populations for a deal, and Pakistani instability delayed talks, which were then cut off after Musharraf’s fall from power.

But the instability that initially postponed progress has worsened, and indications are that Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari’s government lacks strong popular support. His government was recently challenged by a protest movement by the opposition leader Nawaz Sharif – hardly an ideal situation to sell a deal to the Pakistani populace.

The CAP report also mentioned other players that should be included in a regional dialogue, listing Russia, China, and Iran. But that may be problematic on a timetable that can be useful to Pakistan, which is currently considered very much in crisis.

"Resetting" strained relations with Russia and the first comprehensive U.S. attempts to engage Iran in decades are both moving at a snail’s pace.

Analyst and journalist Ahmed Rashid, in a Washington Post op-ed about the need for at least one year of unconditioned aid to Pakistan – which the CAP report rejects by calling for "transparency" and "careful oversight and accounting mechanisms" – wrote that "tomorrow may be too late. Pakistan needs help today." That notion could easily apply to regional dialogue as well.

And diplomacy also stands another challenge in Pakistan. A Wednesday report by McClatchy newspaper company said that the U.S. is planning to build a network of embassy and consular offices, most notably a complex in Islamabad that costs nearly as much as the heavily-fortified embassy in Baghdad, Iraq – a highly unpopular, massive compound that is regarded as a sign of imperial largesse.

"[The embassy is] for the micro and macro management of Pakistan, and using Pakistan for pushing the American agenda in Central Asia," Khurshid Ahmad, a Pakistani parliamentarian, told McClatchy.

The increased presence due to a "diplomatic surge" could also be aimed at better U.S. intelligence on the tribes and militant groups that straddle the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.

A May 24 report in the Boston Globe said that the U.S. was launching a similar "intensive effort" at intelligence on Afghan tribes in order "to determine whether some can be broken off through diplomatic and economic initiatives."

(Inter Press Service)

Author: Ali Gharib

Ali Gharib writes for Inter Press Service.