Cloaking the retreat

The Pakistani army manoeuvres for the next round

Having to prepare for an unlikely war with India is an excellent excuse to mask the Pakistani army’s total defeat—at the hands of the Taliban—in Swat, Bajaur and the Waziristans. If not for the tensions with India, General Kayani would have had to answer uncomfortable questions as to why after one whole year of “operations” in Swat, for instance, that picturesque tourist paradise is now entirely under Taliban rule.

The alacrity with which the Pakistani Taliban were presented as patriots in the common war against India, even before the Mumbai siege was brought to an end, suggests a deal whereby the army surrendered people and territories in the Frontier to the Taliban, and in return, secured promises of safe passage and an end to attacks on its interests elsewhere in Pakistan. [See silencing a dead whistleblower]

Maulvi Omar, a spokesman for the Pakistani Taliban, welcomed the government’s decision to withdraw some troops from the tribal areas. “We will not attack the convoys of army withdrawing from tribal areas as it is a good development,” he said, adding that the Taliban would help defend Pakistan against any aggression. [WP, emphasis added]

An outbreak of military hostilities would have been more convincing—and would perhaps have helped bring pressure on India to yield ground to Pakistan on bilateral disputes. But even without it General Kayani has successfully fooled the Pakistani people with this manoeuvre. And he might have even changed the tenor of the relationship with the United States. Why? Because there are two possibilities: First, the United States will understand that it has no choice but to solicit the Pakistani army’s support if it wishes to fight on in Afghanistan. (The Khyber squeeze makes this point a little less politely.) And that this will bring back the good old al-Faida times where US money will keep Pakistan afloat and the military-jihadi complex well taken care of.

Second, the United States will find that since it is impossible to fight on in Afghanistan under these circumstances, it will head for an exit. Since the world will fear nuclear weapons from falling into the hands of al-Qaeda and Taliban, Pakistan will continue to receive foreign assistance and kid gloves even after this. It can then make arrangements for a return to the good old 1990s where it controlled Afghanistan and prosecuted the proxy war in Jammu & Kashmir (whose inhabitants had lost faith in the Kalashnikov)

At this point, it is unlikely that the incoming Obama administration would take the second option. So the question for US Defence Secretary Robert Gates and General David Petraeus is whether they will be satisfied with their success being circumscribed by General Kayani.

23 thoughts on “Cloaking the retreat”

  1. Pak army build-up is just a sham. The military leadership is playing to the gallery, knowing very well that Indian leadership is tied down and is unable of any offensive. This posturing will be projected as their might and preparedness that repelled any “evil” designs on the part of India. On the other hand, Indian Govt. is busy running around “Aaj Ki Taaza kabar” like a news paper boy.

  2. What about a third option- whereby the US involves other international powers,including and especially India, to engage the Taliban and other terror elements (LeT etc) in surgical strikes inside Pakistan? What can Kayani do, if these strikes are couched as ‘actions to support Pakistan Army in their War on terror’?

  3. Meanwhile, the UN has just announced it will launch an investigation into the assassination of Benazir Bhutto, which the Pakistani military also likely had a hand in.


    As you may recall, the US similarly sponsored a UN probe into the assassination of Lebanon’s Rafiq Harriri by Syrian military intelligence to put them on the ropes after they car-bombed him.
    The US may be doing the same thing again, to put Pakistan’s shifty military under pressure and bring them to heel.

  4. ‘Surgical strikes’ is probably the most abused phrase these days. ‘Strategic relationship’ had that honor until recently.

    If US is capable of identifying such targets easily, one wonders what they are waiting for. Some planetary alignment perhaps? Surgical strikes are possible only after US and Pakistan negotiate, Pakistan decides who should go and appropriately tips US of the targets. People who think India can do it have a good sense of humor.

    anyway, we have to give it to Pakistanis. They have planned things almost clockwork. Kayani’s arrival, establishing a phony civilian govt, mumbai attack, moving or threatening to move troops out of the western frontier have all gone according to plan.

    In few months we’ll know how much Pakistan extracts out of Obama to resume service. I suspect Obama will make statements about Kashmir (mediation? plebiscite?) pretty soon.

  5. The world community believes that India is unofficially willing to accept the LOC as the defacto border. Any attempt at mediation by the US will try to extract more concessions from India. Therefore India should strongly and frequently assert its claim on all of Kashmir, prior to Obama’s inauguration. This will prevent Obama from trying to use Kashmir as a bargaining chip with Pakistan for its war on terror. India will never secede any part of Kashmir, but doing this will prevent any undue friction with the next president. Our alliance is still in its infancy, and must be handled carefully.

  6. If Obama tries to meddle in the Kashmir dispute, then it would be India’s turn to bring troops to the border. It hasn’t done so yet, and could play that card, if pushed.

    Like I said, it would be more useful for the US to support the UN probe into the assassination of Benazir Bhutto, in which the military may have had a hand. Revelations from such an inquiry could certainly create a rift between the army and the Pakistani public.

  7. At this point I think it would be best to do two things; wait till Obama becomes President, and then immediately offer sending aid and perhaps troops to Afghanistan. Maybe then the US can rely a little less on Pakistani forces, although their support will still be important.

  8. If NWFP of the Islamic Republic of had been de facto ceded to Taliban, what prevents Gen. Petraeus from executing a “surge” in Talibanistan? What is US’ interest in propping up a broken Islamic Republic of Pakistan in the post-Soviet era? On the contrary, every significant world power, with the possible exception of China, should have an interest in nurturing a vibrant India.

    If he were half as smart as I think he is, President-elect Obama will not waste his time playing games in South Asia. His priority – probably the only focus during his first term – will be to revitalize the US economy. He got elected pretty much on this singe issue, and he will be gone in four years if he failed to show significant accomplishment on this front. And, India will be an excellent ally in his endeavor, as it will in in its interest to be so.

    The Islamic Republic of Pakistan is a distraction that will be left to India to manage, perhaps with a little help from Secretary of State Clinton.

  9. Jay,

    India will never secede any part of

    No point in you & me saying that; next govt have to say that.

  10. Two days before in an interview to CNBC-TV18, Brahma Chellaney was saying that the United States is trying to come to a deal with the Taliban under the shadow of a troop surge. Not only him, but many analysts have an opinion that the US will probably come to a deal with Taliban so that the US withdraws and the Taliban joins the govt and sends the Al-Qaeda members out of Afghanistan. And Barak Obama has already said that he will seek negotiation even with Cuba and Iran. So it is highly probable that the new administration will adopt a new approach regarding Afghanistan. Even President Karzai seems to be aware of this and so his administration was making demands to the Americans that the troop surge occur in places which are most affected by the Taliban. It would be a lost opportunity and a big blow for India and a new life for Pakistan if the Taliban ever comes to power in Afghanistan with American blessings. Will the paralytic coalition at center do anything to pre-empt this nightmare situation?

  11. Shaan,
    You’re forgetting that Obama the campaigner is not necessarily the same as Obama in office, where the compulsions of pragmatism are higher. He has retained GatesIII, much to the chagrin of his liberal supporters, which shows some pragmatism and caution. While I see the US fatigue in dealing with the dysfunctional Afghan govt, I personally don’t feel that striking deals with Taliban will bear fruit in the long run, as the Talibs are notorious for going back on their word. Look at the lousy results of all the “peace treaties” signed between Pak and the militants. Simultaneously, the Northern Afghan minorities would be wary of any US rapprochement with Taliban, and would likewise be looking to strike separate deals that safeguard their own interests.

    If the US moves towards deals with Taliban that dilute the strength of the Central govt, then our own interests might end up being sacrificed, because such Talibs won’t be ruling out support for jihad in Kashmir, even if it’s clandestine support. In case of future Kandahar hijackings, what would we do? It might then be better for us to hedge our own bets by reinforcing closer relations with the non-Talib Northern Afghan factions.

    Some have suggested that we should put our own troop presence into Afghanistan, despite the alarm that would cause in Pakistan. I’m thinking that we at least ought to radically increase our number of military advisors embedded with local troops, even if they have to sport beards and portable rugs. The US concept of joint patrols consisting of both US and Afghan troops sounds very sensible, as per their experience in South Korea. The local component allows the intimacy of contact with the civilian population, while the foreign component can ward off any penetration of corruption which local troops can be prone to.

    I wonder why the Soviets never implemented joint patrols during their occupation? I’d think that would have worked much more effectively.

  12. the Brits are the one who have enrolled NATO & mooted this strategy of some sort of power sharing between Karzai & the Taliban, although the Taliban has not yet taken the bait but Karzai a little while ago had offered the olive leaf to them, but the recent announcement of additional troops by USA seem to suggest that they are not yet in a mood to abandon Afghanistan…

  13. Guys – it is highly presumptuous to assume that US will deal with Taliban. They will most certainly want to replicate the Iraqi model i.e. partnerships with independent tribes and their leaders. I know precious little about the tribal fabric of Afghanistan but it appears to be structurally independent of the jehadist network. If that is truly the case, US will have options of dealing with non-Taliban tribes. A strong tribal network, it will be argued, can trump an extremist group like it did in Iraq.

    At a different level, Indian foreign policy is about to become harder with Obama administration and its “realist” underpinnings. This is exactly the thinking of 90s which his happy to let ISI and Paki army run covert operations in India as long as it doesn’t affect US citizens and soil. Since weapons and cash freebies have not solved Afghanistan (and can be argued has made US position weaker), latitude and support on Kashmir is exactly the kind of thing Obama administration could offer to Paki army in exchange for support against Al Q.

    Comments on this blog are overestimating the salience of India to US economic recovery. India has a lot of influence but not more than the people who want to win in Afghanistan.

  14. btw, does that dude Vir Sanghvi read INI? Saw a link from Retributions’s Twitter post, where he says very much the same things as on this post.

  15. It is yet to be seen whether Iraq model can endure — especially when 2/3 population is Shia, just like the Iranian giant sitting nextdoor (which US is on a collision-course with over its imminent nuclearization). Reunification of the Shiite/Persian sphere is inevitable.

    Regarding Afghanistan, Pak will not simply go back to status quo ante of pre-Taliban early 1990s, where Afghanistan was div’d up among the local warlords. As you may recall back then, that was when their Interior Minister Naseerullah Babar first decided to forge northward to revive a ‘new Silk Road’, by creating Taliban. Divided Afghanistan was one where every chieftain and warlord demanded tolls/payments/bribes/etc to allow passage through his particular turf. Oh, and don’t forget the opium trade, also a staple of income. The Afghans were most miserable of all during this period, which is why they welcomed Taliban with open arms. Pak hopes US will tire and leave, allowing it to set up shop again.

    GatesIII intends to try clear-hold-build, but I don’t see how that will work, given the porosity of the Durand Line, and the vulnerability of NATO supply lines through Pak, with 70% of supplies passing through Karachi alone.
    Just as Vietcong’s use of Cambodia and Laos forced US to bomb those countries, likewise Taliban use of Pak territory will render US efforts in Afghanistan meaningless unless it extends military action to Pak.

  16. Nitin – how did Taliban manage to defeat Pakistani army? Aren’t Taliban’s supply lines also through Karachi or some other part of Pakistan? Why could the army not shutter those down and get the win they wanted?

    This puts into question the ability of the army to control the jihadists. A good alibi to blame it on non-state actors.

  17. Manu,
    Why would Pak military want to see the Taliban defeated? That would only leave them shorn of any tools of power projection. Pakistan has always believed that the best defense is a good offense. Pak military would much rather play a doubletalking game of taqiyya with the US, and wait until it tires out and goes home in dejection and defeat. The fact that the American gringo tourists continue to gullibly accept this doubletalk only confirms to Pakistan that its strategy will work. As the War on Terror flounders, American aid to Pak is only increasing, not decreasing. So if Pakistan can continue to have its cake and eat it too, then there’s no incentive for them to change their ways.

  18. Sanjay,
    Your last post pretty much sums up what i wanted to say. The only thing that i dont agree with is the “gullible gringo” – the US pretty much knows that the pakis are double dealing here – it just does not have any good options at all and zero leverage on Pakistan as their supply lines to Afghanistan go through the region – but more than that the US dreads a situation where it has ZERO control over Pakistan or is forced to publicly and openly confront a nuclear armed state that tries very hard to be as irresponsible as possible – perversely it is this irresponsibility of Pakistan that is its strength – the more the US tries to coax it into co-operating against the Taliban, the more perverse the Pakis behave.

    Obama will not draw down troops from Afghanistan in his first four years in office. After 2012, he would probably make a move to draw down – in the mean time US forces will continue with the same futile strategy as it pursues now, only with more troops. But this charade is not going to end as long as Pakistan keeps playing its cards right.

    So by 2015 the US would reconcile to leaving Afghanistan behind after “power sharing” arrangements between Karzai and Taliban have been made. Of course a couple of years down the line, Karzai would be forced into asylum in the US and the Taliban’s return will be complete.

    The US will then ask Pakistan to “make sure” that another 9/11 doesnt happen – i think this time around the Taliban would be a little bit more clever and may actually comply with that request.As long as they are recognized as the sole authority in Aghanistan. Given that the US will be out of Iraq and Afghanistan, anti US sentiments will decrease a little bit as well.

    This is probably the best bargain the US can drive at that point when it is forced to leave.

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