The Pakistani army may or may not decide to take power once again in Islamabad. Off and on, for decades, Pakistan has been ruled by its military, usually with American support or acquiescence. During the 1980s, General Zia ruled Pakistan, after seizing power in a coup d’etat against President Bhutto, later hanging him, and he Islamicized Pakistan, squashing the country’s secular tradition, then cooperating with the CIA and Saudi Arabia in the 1980s jihad against the USSR and its Afghan allies. In the 1990s, General Musharraf seized power, and he ruled for more than a decade, overtly and covertly supporting the Taliban’s rule — and, after 2001, the Taliban-led insurgency. To this day, for reasons of state, Pakistan’s army continues to support the Taliban.
A new round of political upheaval has been triggered in Pakistan, with the Supreme Court’s decision to void the National Reconciliation Ordinance (NRO) that provided a get-out-of-jail-free card to key civilian leaders of Pakistan. Included among those leaders are its utterly corrupt president, Asif Ali Zardari, and several top officials, including the minister of defense and the minister of interior. Those ministers, and others, have been told by the authorities not to leave town, i.e., they are forbidden to travel abroad, and pressure is on Zardari to resign.
If Pakistan has any hope of breaking the military’s stranglehold on power, that hope rests in the civilian parties, including Zardari’s Pakistan People’s Party — the party of the late President Bhutto and his daughter, Benazir, Zardari’s late wife, who was assassinated on her return from exile — and the more religious-centered Pakistan Muslim League (N) of the Sharif brothers, including Nawaz Sharif, a former prime minister. Neither the PPP and the Muslim League, however, are true mass-based political parties. Instead, they have become vehicles for the personal and political ambitions of the corrupt families who control them. By default, the leadership of the democratic, civilian movement in Pakistan has fallen instead to the lawyers’ movement and to the courts, but it’s hard to see how those forces could emerge as a credible political movement that could lead the country. In Pakistan, nominally a democracy, actual democrats are few and far between, and it will take a long time for any of Pakistan’s political parties and movements to put down roots and grow into true democratic parties. Meanwhile, it isn’t clear that the army will allow that to happen.
Will the army take over? Right now, most analysts suggest that the army can bide its time, sitting back and watching the civilians flounder, confident in the knowledge that they can seize power at any time.
What does this mean for President Obama’s Afghanistan policy?
Having committed 100,000 US troops to the war, the Obama administration finds itself in a quandary. Its own generals have acknowledged that the war cannot be won militarily. They know that success in Afghanistan, even as they define it, depends on a political settlement. And they know that the Afghan insurgency — and its three interrelated commands, i.e., the Taliban in Quetta, the Hekmatyar party, and the Haqqani group — is sheltered in Pakistan, whose leaders support and/or tolerate them. Out of frustration, and aware that the United States cannot neutralize the Afghan insurgency as long as it has bases and logistical support in Pakistan, the Obama administration is putting the squeeze on Pakistan, threatening to bomb insurgent command centers in Quetta, a populous city of nearly one million, and pounding its fist to demand that Pakistan halt its support for the insurgents.
The danger for the United States in this strategy is that Pakistan has a stranglehold over US forces in Afghanistan. If the United States tries to push the Pakistani military too hard, it can respond by interfering with, reducing, or — in extreme circumstances — cutting off US supply routes through Pakistan to US forces fighting the war in Afghanistan. There’s precedent for this. Not too long ago, Pakistan briefly cut off the US supply chain. And, especially with the coming addition of 30,000 US forces, the United States will be even more dependent on Pakistan for day-to-day supplies, including food, fuel, and armaments. (The vast bulk of US supplies travel overland from the port of Karachi, through Pakistan, and over the treacherous mountain passes to US bases in Afghanistan.
In other words, the US war in Afghanistan against the Taliban is hostage, logistically, to the Taliban’s main allies, the Pakistani military.
It isn’t clear what the Obama team is thinking. Perhaps they believe that the civilian government in Islamabad, which is somewhat less pro-Taliban than the military, and somewhat more open to a political deal with India, Pakistan’s arch rival, can somehow change Pakistan’s policy of supporting the Taliban and other terrorist groups, such as the fanatics who attacked Mumbai and the myriad Kashmir-oriented terror groups that Pakistan supports. But because the Pakistani army, and its intelligence service, the ISI, holds most of the cards, that’s not too likely. Perhaps they believe that they can force the Pakistani army to capitulate, in part by threats of US military assault on Quetta and other insurgent strongholds, but there’s no indication that will happen.
Christine Fair, a South Asia specialist formerly with the RAND Corporation, believes that if greater pressure is put on Pakistan, it will lash out. “There’s not a lot of evidence that Pakistan conciliates. It’s a neurologically insecure state, and in the past they’ve tended to respond to pressure with asymmetric warfare,” she says, meaning support for Islamic insurgents and terrorism. The Pakistani army hates the United States, she says, and by going after the Taliban the United States is “going after Pakistan’s strategic assets.” In response, Pakistan might well decide to cut off the US supply chain, after which the whole US war effort in Afghanistan would collapse. “Pakistan knows this!” says Fair. And by sending even more troops into Afghanistan, the United States has made itself more, not less, dependent on the good graces of the Pakistani army, she says.
That’s why it’s critical for the United States to seek a political deal with Pakistan, and with its Taliban allies. Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, both of which support the Taliban and both of which are nominally US allies, can persuade the Taliban to make a deal. For Pakistan, such a deal would have to protect what it sees as its vital interests in Afghanistan, most of which revolve around preventing the expansion of India’s influence there.
Despite Obama’s foolish policy of escalating the war, and despite the dangerous pressure on Pakistan militarily (including the reported threat to attack Quetta), there are some reports that the United States is quietly engaged in an unofficial dialogue with the Taliban, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia. By promising to start withdrawing US forces from Afghanistan in July, 2011, Obama has started down the road to true negotiations. For most of the Taliban, if not its most incorrible extremists, what they want is a timetable for a US withdrawal, plus a greater share of power in ruling Afghanistan. That’s Pakistan’s key interest as well. As I wrote in The Nation special issue on Afghanistan in October, in an essay called “How to Get Out”:
“The president should encourage the convening of an international Bonn II conference involving the UN, the major world powers and Afghanistan’s neighbors–including Iran, India and Pakistan–to support the renegotiation of the Afghanistan compact. At the table must be representatives of all of Afghanistan’s stakeholders, including the Taliban and their allies. In advance of that, the United States should join other nations and the UN to persuade President Karzai, his main electoral opponents and other Afghan politicians to form a coalition that would create an interim caretaker regime until the establishment of a more broadly based government.
“At the same time, the United States must launch a diplomatic surge aimed at persuading, cajoling and bribing Afghanistan’s neighbors to support the effort, including Taliban supporters, such as Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, and opponents, including Iran, India and Russia. Obama must recognize that Pakistan is a key part of the problem, not the solution: the Afghan Taliban are not a formless, leaderless group. They are an arm of Pakistan’s army and its intelligence service, the ISI, and they have an address: Rawalpindi, the garrison city that is the headquarters for the Pakistani military. The message of the world community to the Pakistani military must be clear: Pakistan’s legitimate interests in Afghanistan will be recognized, but Pakistani support of terrorist groups, whether aimed at Afghanistan or Kashmir, is simply not acceptable.
“As a central part of the diplomatic effort, Obama must strongly encourage Pakistan and Saudi Arabia to bring key elements of the three interlinked insurgency movements–the Taliban, the Hezb-i-Islami of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and the Haqqani network–to the bargaining table. Elements of those groups that opt not to participate are unlikely to present more than a nuisance challenge to the government in Kabul, if cut off from Pakistani support. China, Pakistan’s ally, which has a vital interest in Central Asia, should be willing to use its influence in Pakistan to make sure Islamabad and Rawalpindi are on board.
“Similarly, Obama will have to work to get Iran, India and Russia to help persuade the remnants of the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance (mostly Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazaras) to make room in Kabul for an enlarged Pashtun role, including the Taliban, in what could become a stable power-sharing arrangement. The ongoing US-Iran talks can be a useful forum to reach agreement between Washington and Tehran on common interests in stabilizing Afghanistan.
“Last, the United States must take the lead in creating a global Marshall Plan to help Afghanistan rebuild its war-shattered economy, build a passable infrastructure and establish the rudiments of a national government. The United States must be realistic about what it can accomplish–and what it cannot. It cannot remake Afghan society, change its cultural mores, modernize its religious outlook, educate its women or reshape the tribal system that prevails in its rural villages. It can break Al Qaeda and, as it exits, leave behind at least the possibility that Afghans will begin to create a sustainable society. But it must recognize, above all, that what it leaves behind won’t be pretty.”