Cyril Almeida’s column in today’s Dawn suggests that we pray for the success of Obama’s plan for Afghanistan. According to Mr. Almeida’s thinking, there are two forces at work in the United States. There is General McChrystal whose military agenda closely aligns with the military agenda of Pakistan. And there is President Obama’s advisor Rahm Emmanuel whose only agenda is politics. And if things do not look good, you can bet that it will be Rahm Emmanuel who is telling Obama to turn his back on us.
We kind of know what Obama’s new strategy for Afghanistan means for that country: he’s squared the differences between two of his generals. Gen Stanley McChrystal will get most of what he asked for (though it’s worth bearing in mind that he apparently asked for half of what he thought he needed). ‘Gen’ Rahm Emmanuel has got his war plan for politics back home.
McChrystal gets the first shot: he has 18 months to see what can be achieved from the COIN bible, FM 3-24. Meanwhile, back in the US, watching the poll numbers like a hawk will be White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emmanuel.
The Democratic Party will go into the mid-term elections next year with a comfortable majority in the two houses of Congress, so Emmanuel can take the risk of alienating the anti-war camp in the party base then. But July 2011, the date when Obama has suggested the troops may start to return home from Afghanistan, is when the big show begins, the US presidential election season.
If things are still going badly in Afghanistan at that point, you can bet your bottom dollar that ‘Gen’ Emmanuel will unleash his legendary anger until he gets his way and the US scampers out of Afghanistan.
Here in Pakistan, we should all be praying that Gen McChrystal succeeds and Emmanuel is kept on a leash.
Here’s why. Cut through the rhetoric and public posturing of American officials and you begin to see an understanding of the situation in Afghanistan and Pakistan that is perhaps not as removed from the Pakistani security establishment’s view as many may think.
First, Pakistan has argued vehemently that the insurgency in Afghanistan is self-sustaining and that while it may get some support from tribal badlands along the Pak-Afghan border, the contribution is not decisive.
And guess what? McChrystal himself agrees: ‘While the existence of safe havens in Pakistan does not guarantee Isaf failure, Afghanistan does require Pakistani cooperation and action against violent militancy, particularly against those groups active in Afghanistan,’ he wrote in his now-public assessment of the situation in Afghanistan.
Strikingly, in the two short paragraphs devoted to Pakistan in the section ‘External influences’, McChrystal also thought it fit to point out this: ‘Nonetheless, the insurgency in Afghanistan is predominantly Afghan. By defending the population, improving sub-national governance, and giving disenfranchised rural communities a voice in their government, [the Afghan government] — with support from Isaf — can strengthen Afghanistan against both domestic and foreign insurgent penetration.’
For those predisposed to focusing on differences and disagreements, this may not mean much, but in terms of a counter-insurgency strategy in which no side gets all that it wants, it isn’t all doom and gloom.
Second, the US dislike of Pakistan’s prioritisation approach to fighting militants here isn’t necessarily fatal to relations between the two countries.
This is what McChrystal has written: ‘The major insurgent groups in order of their threat to the mission [in Afghanistan] are: the Quetta Shura Taliban (QST), the Haqqani Network (HQN) and the Hizb-i-Islami Gulbuddin (HiG).’
None of those groups have been the focus of counter-terrorism or counter-insurgency operations by the Pakistani security forces and that remains a source of a good deal of tension between the US and Pakistan.
But we need to zoom out a bit. Here’s what Obama said on Tuesday: ‘Our overarching goal remains the same: to disrupt, dismantle and defeat Al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and to prevent its capacity to threaten America and our allies in the future.’
Add to this the fact that ‘stability’ is a key concern of the Americans in Pakistan and you really have three broad clusters of militants that the US is worried about in this region: the Afghan-centric Taliban (the cluster of the so-called Quetta shura and the Haqqani and Hekmatyar networks), the Pakistan-centric Taliban (TTP and its affiliates) and of course Al Qaeda.
Pakistan is seriously fighting two of those clusters: the Pakistani Taliban attacking the state and Al Qaeda. Despite the occasional prickly American statements about Pakistan ‘knowing’ where Al Qaeda leaders are, few would seriously argue that Pakistan has any interest in keeping Al Qaeda active in the region.
So two out of three isn’t a terrible situation, and the Americans know this. Moreover, they know something about our limitations in attacking the third group, the Afghan-centric militants.
First, there is the problem of opening too many fronts simultaneously and overstretching the security forces. Second, there are some very real questions about the so-called Quetta shura. Does it exist in the shape and form the Americans claim? And if it does, what exactly can Pakistan do about it?
To the extent that Afghan Taliban are hiding out in Balochistan, they are doing so in the refugee camps that have been there for years. Do you bomb the camps or send in troops? Why not just pack up the camps and send the refugees back to Afghanistan, where the Afghan and American forces can deal with them, instead?
And to those Americans obsessing over Pakistan’s lack of action against the Afghan Taliban, why not throw their own commander’s words back at them — ‘the existence of safe havens in Pakistan does not guarantee Isaf failure’?
So the McChrystal phase of Obama’s new strategy in Afghanistan should not lead to an immediate worsening of relations between the US and Pakistan.
But if it doesn’t succeed — not least because of the narrow window McChrystal has been given to produce results — we here in Pakistan should be very worried about the Rahm Emmanuel phase.
McChrystal’s plan is the last chance saloon. If it fails, the Americans will only see a few very unsettling things in the region from afar: an unstable Afghanistan with the Afghan Taliban resurgent; a Pak-Afghan border that is the stamping ground of all kinds of militants, headlined by Al Qaeda, and the source of ‘reverse strategic depth’ for penetration into Pakistan proper; and a nuclear-armed Pakistan beset by perennial political instability, racked by militant violence and paranoid about Indian designs in the region.
Bomb ’em, squeeze ’em, bury ’em — whatever the Americans will choose to do then, it won’t be pretty and it definitely will not enhance Pakistan’s interests or stability.
Few anywhere have reacted with confidence that the McChrystal phase will work. So if you’re a Pakistani who believes in miracles, now is the time to be fervently praying for one. Because chances are you won’t want to see what the Emmanuel phase will look like.