The sovereign can no longer say, "You shall think as I do on pain of death;" but he says, "You are free to think differently from me, and to retain your life, your property, and all that you possess; but if such be your determination, you are henceforth an alien among your people."

(Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, 1835)

Wednesday, 24 March 2010

Progress in Pakistan?

This article from the Christian Science Monitor, which coincides with the vist of Pakistani army chief Ashfaq Kayani to Washington, suggests that Pakistan has finally started to take effective action against Al Qaida and Taliban militants based in its territory, from which they launch attacks against international forces in Afghanistan.

On the surface, this assertion appears to be true. The sustained military campaigns against militant strongholds in northwestern Pakistan last year have been followed up by the recent arrests of almost half the Quetta Shura, notably Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the alleged commander of Taliban operations inside Afghanistan.

However, if you scratch the surface then some important questions have to be raised about Pakistan's efforts.

Firstly, as regards the arrests of seven members of the Quetta Shura: last week Kai Eide, until recently head of the United Nations mission in Afghanistan, criticised the arrests on the grounds that they brought the 'secret' Dubai talks between the UN and the Taliban to an abrupt halt.

Question - did the Pakistani authorities simply make a tactical blunder? Or was the ISI removing Taliban leaders they no longer controlled in order to replace them with people they can control?

Both of those possibilities rest on the assumption that Eide's statement is true but, even though a number of his recent public statements seem to be an attempt to defend his performance as head of UNAMA, I can think of no reason why this wouldn't be the case. Be that as it may, given the track record of the ISI, I think we can be excused a certain degree of cynicism when analysing their actions. In other words, I remain to be convinced that these arrests truly reflect progress, beyond a marginal (and temporary) disruption of Taliban operations in Afghanistan.

Secondly, the CSM article cites Pakistan's moves against al Qaida operatives in the border areas as proof of Islamabad's (or Rawalpindi's) new-found vigour in assisting international forces. As hopefully most people have figured out by now (except the CSM apparently), the counter-insurgency campaign in Afghanistan has little to do with al Qaida. More ominously, in the early years of the international presence in Afghanistan (2001-2004/5), a clear modus operandi of the ISI emerged: they would win international (primarily American) support and extract financial and material rewards by moving against al Qaida strongholds in FATA, for example. All the while, they continued to actively arm, train and support homegrown militants in the region of Quetta, which the latter would use as a springboard for their operations in Afghanistan. In other words, hand over the Arab jihadists, keep the Americans sweet and continue to support the Pashtun Taliban as part of Pakistan's ongoing geostrategic game.

I have no inside knowledge as to whether or not this continues to be the case - although the fact that, as highlighted in the article, Pakistan now wants something in return (ie. a civilian nuclear deal, just like India's) could point to a repetition of the same pattern. I would merely point out that for Pakistan to truly support international efforts in Afghanistan would require an unprecedented seachange in the deeply entrenched mindset(s) of the Pakistani military and intelligence community, not to mention an equally unprecedented degree of civilian control over the machinery of the State. The arrest of a few guys along the border doesn't prove anything.

NB: For an in-depth - and startling - analysis of Pakistan's policy towards and actions in Afghanistan, see 'Descent into Chaos' by Ahmed Rashid.

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