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Mainstream, Vol XLVIII, No 11, March 6, 2010

US is Not Opting to Lose the Afghan War

Saturday 6 March 2010, by K. Subrahmanyam

The London Conference in which India felt it was marginalised, the sudden crackdown by the Pakistanis against the leadership of Quetta Shura whose existence they had denied all this time, the detention of 124 militants, the spate of anti-Taliban articles and pronouncements in the Pakistani print and electronic media and the glowing certificates from high-level US officials on Pakistani cooperation with US strategy—all this has persuaded the Indian strategic community that the Obama Administration has decided to make use of the services of Pakistan to partly neutralise and partly buy up the Afghan Taliban and leave Afghanistan at the mercy of Pakistan in 2011, when the American forces plan to withdraw from Afghanistan. This is not an unreasonable conclusion. But professional intelligence assessors will need to look at alternative scenarios which may fit in the same set of facts.

On February 2, US Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair told the Senate Intelligence Committee in his annual threat assessment:

Islamabad’s conviction that militant groups are an important part of its strategic arsenal to counter India’s military and economic advantages will continue to limit Pakistan’s incentive to pursue an across-the-board effort against extremism…. Islamabad has maintained relationships with other Taliban-associated groups that support and conduct operations against US and ISAF (International Security Assistance Force) forces in Afghanistan… It has continued to provide support to its militant proxies, such as Haqqani Taliban, Gul Bahadur group, and Commander Nazir group….The Al Qaeda, Afghan Taliban, and Pakistani militant safe haven in Quetta will continue to enable the Afghan insurgents and Al-Qaeda to plan operations, direct propaganda, recruiting and training activities, and fundraising activities with relative impunity.

There was no hint in the report that the Pakistani Army was about to reconsider its policy towards the Afghan Taliban. The account of a joint operation by US agencies and ISI in the arrest of Mullah Baradar in February tends to indicate that the Americans were there first and therefore the Pakistanis had to go along with them. If the Pakistanis were acting on their own initiative, they would not have allowed the Americans to be present. It would also indicate that the Americans have enough personnel and equipment within Pakistan for the task of terrorist monitoring on their own, independent of Pakistan. This is very much a matter of bitter criticism by the Pakistani media.

Pakistan has ensured that Baradar and other leaders will not be handed over to the Americans by arranging for the invocation of a court order. There is a high probability that the Pakistan Army is trying out on the Americans the very successful deception plan they carried out in 2001. They joined President Bush’s war on terror not to cooperate in the destruction of the Al-Qaeda and Taliban but to save them. Thanks to that, the Al-Qaeda and Taliban are today hale and hearty, fighting the American and ISAF forces. After the 9/11 plot was hatched and executed under the direction of a Pakistani, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, Pakistan with the use of the Lashkar-e-Taiba, has been able to pose terrorist threats to the US (so far unsuccessfully) and to the UK (one successful London transport attack and other major unsuccessful plots). That in turn has enabled the Pakistan Army to milk the US taxpayers for billions of dollars in both civil and military aid. It is likely that the present Pakistani anti-Taliban, anti-militant crackdown is intended to deceive the Americans and save the Taliban, Al-Qaeda and LeT, as they did in 2001. In the process, they may hand over a few Taliban, Al-Qaeda and LeT people to the Americans and provide intelligence to get a few killed in drone strikes but attempt to save the bulk of these assets to be used to reoccupy Afghanistan after the Americans leave, as they are convinced they will in 2011.


The US must understand that Pakistan needs to use terrorism not only against India but against the US as well to extort the billions they have been getting. Some argue they can oblige the US by getting the Taliban, Al-Qaeda and LeT into a long hibernation—and relying only on the nuclear blackmail they can extort money from the US. But nuclear blackmail needs active terrorists to threaten that those weapons may end up in their hands. Therefore active terrorists are crucial to Pakistan’s strategy to extort money from the West. One cannot rule out the possibility that the US and the West may fall into the Pakistani trap.

Yet another possibility is that the US may be aware of this but goes along to lull their suspicions and to reduce the resistance to coalition forces in Afghanistan. Once the surge forces reach the Durand Line, US capabilities within Pakistan are stepped up and drone attacks are intensified on the jehadi groups, they are bound to retaliate on the Pakistan Army and cities—and at that stage the Pakistan Army will have no alternative but to fight the jehadis in earnest in cooperation with the US.

Four alternative scenarios are possible. First, the US outsourcing the Taliban neutralisation and buying to Pakistan willingly. This is the one popular with our strategic establishment. Second, the Pakistanis are sincerely cooperating with the US. This is perhaps the least likely scenario. Third, the Pakistanis trying out a second deception on the US successfully, with as adverse consequences as happened in the seven years of Bush gullibility. The deception proceeds halfway and the US wakes up to it resulting in confrontation between the US and Pakistan. Last, the US is aware of the deception and has its counter-plans ready. Pakistan has a history of being over-confident and launching misadventures and coming to grief as the history of the 1965, 1971 and 1999 wars against India and their own terrorists turning against them prove.

It is not realistic to expect the US to disclose its assessment of Pakistani moves and its own strategy to counter them. The latest US Quadrennial Review says: “The first (objective) is to prevail in today’s wars.” This is the first time this objective has appeared in a QDR. It goes on:

We now recognise that America’s ability to deal with threats for years to come will depend importantly on our success in the current conflicts.

The US has not allowed itself the option of losing this war. The Indian intelligence community should consider all these inputs in assessing the situation in the next six to eight months in the Af-Pak area and on that basis derive its assessment of likely Pakistani and US moves. That will help to formulate Indian responses to them.

(Courtesy: The Indian Express)

The author is the seniormost defence analyst and security expert in the country.

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