She came, she saw, she confounded: Clinton in Pakistan
Secretary of State Hillary Clintonâs recently concluded visit to Pakistan hasÂ left us none the wiser about how the United States and its allies willÂ end theÂ AfghanÂ war.Â In her public comments, she spoke of actionÂ âover the next days and weeks Â not months and years, but days and weeksâ.Â She promisedÂ the United States wouldÂ tackleÂ Taliban militants in easternÂ AfghanistanÂ in response to a long-standing Pakistani complaint that Washington had neglected the regionÂ whenÂ it decided to concentrate its forces in population centres inÂ southern Afghanistan in 2010 (remember âgovernment in a boxâ?). She called, in return, forÂ cooperation on the Pakistani side of the border toÂ âsqueeze these terrorists so that they cannot attack and kill any Pakistani, any Afghan, any American, or anyone.âÂ Between the two countries, they would tackle the Afghan Taliban, the Haqqani network and the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), or Pakistani Taliban. But squeeze them to what end?Â To weaken all but the hard-core leadership of the Afghan Taliban and the Haqqani network so thatÂ they agree to lay down arms and rejoin the political process in Afghanistan? Or to entice them into serious negotiationsÂ through which they mightÂ be offered a share of power in Kabul, or accommodated in a âsoft partitionâ of Afghanistan (an idea deeply unpopular among Afghans) which leavesÂ them in control of the south and the east? As Pakistani columnist Ejaz Haider wrote in Pakistan TodayÂ just before Clinton arrived, the current U.S. policy looks aÂ bit like the dialogue between Alice and the Cheshire Cat. âÂWould you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?Â asked Alice. ÂThat depends a good deal on where you want to get to,Â said the Cat. ÂI donÂt much care whereÂÂ said Alice. ÂThen it doesnÂt matter which way you go,Â said the Cat.â True, Clinton stressed the need for a peace process to reachÂ a political settlement in Afghanistan.Â But that idea has been on the diplomatic agendaÂ for nearly two years. ByÂ the second half of last year, we were hearing that the United States had endorsed talkswith all of Afghanistanâs main insurgent groups, including the Haqqani network. By January this year, western countries saidÂ there would be no preconditions set for insurgentsÂ entering peace talks â only end-conditions that they sever ties with al Qaeda, renounce violence and agree to respect the Afghan constitution.Â InÂ February, ClintonÂ stressedÂ the need for negotiationsÂ in a landmarkÂ speech to the Asia SocietyÂ which coincided with reports the United States had begun direct talks with the Taliban. In other words, we have heard a lot aboutÂ talk about talks without any explanation as to why these have achieved so little so far (some blame U.S. militaryÂ strategy, others Pakistani interference, others Taliban intransigence, others poor Afghan governance).Â Â Â And the danger is that as long as these talks about talks continue withoutÂ yielding results,Â all parties to theÂ Afghan conflictÂ arm themselves up inÂ readiness for an escalating civil war. True,Â ClintonÂ admitted in public during her visit to Islamabad that the United States hadÂ heldÂ a preliminaryÂ meeting with representatives of the Haqqani network. ButÂ we already knew that.Â Â Â According to The Washington Post, U.S. officials metÂ Ibrahim Haqqani, the brother of the groupÂs patriarch, Jalaluddin Haqqani, in a Gulf kingdom in August.Â The meeting was arranged by the head of Pakistanâs Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency,Â LieutenantÂ GeneralÂ Ahmed Shuja Pasha, who also attended, it reported. But that meeting does not seem to have gone well. It wasÂ followed by anÂ attack on the U.S. embassy in Kabul which the United States blamed on the Haqqani network and which prompted outgoing chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen to describe the group as a âveritable armâ of the ISI. Clinton has made clear the U.S. strategy will continue.Â â Weâre going to be fighting, weâre going to be talking and weâre going to be building,â she told reporters in Afghanistan.Â And even if that carries aÂ ring ofÂ âif at first you donât succeed, try, try and try againâ, that is no reason to dismiss it out of hand. However much the United States and its allies areÂ looking for a way out ofÂ the Afghan war,Â pressure is alsoÂ mounting onÂ Pakistan. WashingtonÂ is stepping up efforts to bring supplies to Afghanistan through Central Asia â Clinton flew from Pakistan to Uzbekistan and Tajikistan â thereby reducingÂ U.S.Â dependence on Islamabad/Rawalpindi even as Pakistanâs own deteriorating economicÂ health is making itÂ harder for it to risk losingÂ international and U.S. financial support. And moreÂ importantlyÂ IndiaÂ thisÂ month signed a strategic partnership agreement with Afghanistan â one unlikely to have been reached without U.S. approval â which gives India the capability,Â if not the intention, to put Pakistan under pressure onÂ both its western and eastern borders. Yet even as the United States doubles down, do also consider two quite different approaches, bothÂ of which have the merit of greater clarity but which are alsoÂ diametrically opposed. One of them I heard presented this month byÂ Amrullah Saleh, the Tajik former head of the Afghan National Directorate of Security (NDS)Â and a fierce criticÂ of talks with the Taliban.Â At a conferenceÂ organised by the Asia-PacificÂ Foundation in London,Â Â he arguedÂ there was no reason to believe Pakistan would be any more inclined to cooperate with the United StatesÂ now than it wasÂ when WashingtonÂ sent in more troops to Afghanistan. âWith that escalation, Pakistan did not cooperate. Why would Pakistan cooperate with de-escalation?â he said. Rather than rely onÂ Pakistan, he argued thatÂ the Afghan government must implement reformsÂ to restore the trust of theÂ Afghan people so they would at least have a state by 2014, when U.S.-led troops are meant to hand over responsibility for security to Afghan forces.Â And Kabul shouldÂ change its policy of talks with theÂ Taliban which had âblurred the narrativeâÂ for AfghansÂ about whoÂ they were fighting, looking instead at reintegrating all but the 200 or so in the inner circle of the insurgencyâs leadership.. But a scenario whichÂ led to a ceasefire and a political dealÂ which left Pakistan and what he called its proxiesÂ with control over eastern and southern Afghanistan would offer only âa temporary, deceptive, stabilityâ.Â The Taliban would remain militant in order to put pressure on Kabul and extort further concessions from the west. SuchÂ a deal might provide cover for a withdrawal ofÂ western troops, but would also lead toÂ âmassive civil strifeâ. The opposite approach is the one advocated by Pakistan, whichÂ â in somewhat unfortunately chosen wordsÂ - is to âgive peace a chanceâ.Â Articulated in detail in a report produced jointly by theÂ Jinnah Institute and the United States Institute of Peace,Â it aims for a negotiatedÂ settlement giving Afghan Pashtun a bigger say in the political process and possibly includingÂ the Afghan Taliban and the Haqqani network. According to this version,Â the U.S. position of fight, talk and build cannot work because the insurgents will not trust the Americans to negotiate sincerely as long as they reserve the right to use their very considerable force.Â OnlyÂ a ceasefire on all sides would pave the way for meaningful talks on a political settlement. The report, criticisedÂ to some extent within Pakistan, also notes what isÂ perhaps one of the trickiest issues in the whole approach to Taliban talks: thisÂ is not just about Afghanistan.Â Whatever PakistanÂ really wants to happen in Afghanistan, and whatever itÂ support itÂ does or does not give to the Afghan Taliban and the Haqqani network, it is alsoÂ dependent on them to keepÂ control of the Pakistani Taliban (TTP). According to this excerpt,Â those who contributed to the Jinnah Institute report questioned âtheÂ mis-perception that the Pakistani security establishment is unaware of the growing linkages between the Afghan Taliban and Pakistani militant groups.â âÂ However, they argue that while the current links remain limited, it is precisely the fear of these growing into full blown operational cooperation and coordination that prevents the Pakistani state from targeting Afghan insurgent groups on its soil. Moreover, the security establishment is able to take advantage of the present linkages between these groups from time to time by persuading the Afghan Taliban to pressure the TTP and other North Waziristan-based militants to curtail their activities.â Stretch that argument out further and you could make a case that Pakistan needs to getÂ a reasonable deal for the Afghan Taliban and the Haqqanis in Afghanistan if it wants them, inÂ return, to bring theÂ Pakistani Taliban to heel. So to get back toÂ Clinton and the Afghan settlement.Â We have three possible approaches, with various permutations.Â The oneÂ currently favoured by theÂ United States is toÂ keep fighting, to keep the door open for talks, and toÂ keep pilingÂ pressureÂ on Pakistan in the hope thatÂ it yields results.Â The second â as expressed by Amrullah Saleh â is toÂ take the idea of talks with insurgent leaders off the table altogether, end the confusion and build upÂ governance within Afghanistan in the years that are left before 2014.Â The third is to seek a ceasefire, so that in the absence ofÂ violence, talks might take place in a more conducive atmosphere. Any one of those approaches has its merits.Â Â But as long as all these conflicting ideasÂ remain out there, we will seeÂ a lot of differentÂ groups lining up toÂ argue with the Cheshire Cat.