The Asymmetrical AFPAK Summit

President Obama met in Washington met this past week in Washington with President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan and President Asif Ali Zardari of Pakistan to discuss their common interests in suppressing the insurgency along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border and, more specifically, aimed at eliminating either or both of the Taliban and Al Qaeda. The meeting ended with a pronouncement by Obama that the three had reached common agreement on the need to deal with their common menace and to devise and implement that common accord. In a scene reminiscent of of Yasirt Arafat and Menachim Begin in the Rose Garden in the 1990s, the two foreign leaders exited the new conference virtually arm-in-arm. It was lovely theater.

It was not, however, such lovely geopolitics. While there was a great show of comity and common cause evinced in the atmospherics surrounding the AFPAK Summit (the term AFPAK appears to have originated with General David Petraeus to describe his regional strategy for dealing with the region), there is much more tension and disagreement there than met the eye. The basic source of that asymmetry is between the dictates of American interests and those of the other two countries, layered upon Afghan-Pakistani long-time rivalry, suspicion, and even hatred. Turning the summit into a successful action plan may, in fact, resemble efforts forty years ago in Southeast Asia, where a similar asymmetry of objectives existed.

For one thing, the players do have distinctly different interests in what happens in the tribal regions on both sides of the border. For the United States, the interest is in depriving Al Qaeda of its current sanctuary inside Pakistan in the FATA (Federally Administered Tribal Area), and in an extension familiar from 2001, the prerequisite seems to be breaking Taliban control, since Al Qaeda in imbedded in the Pashtun regions which are also the breeding grounds of the Taliban. Since the Taliban (and other Pashtuns) ignore the Durand Line that is the boundary between the two countries, this can only be accomplished by simultaneously defeating the Taliban on both sides of the border (attack them on one side, and they simply move to the other). This translates into an overriding desire for a coordinated strategy whereby both Pakistan and Afghanistan move against the Taliban–with American assistance–preferably squeezing them along the border area in a kind of anvil and hammer strategem. It is such a commitment that the U.S. sought from Karzai and Zardari and what they at least rhetorically commited themselves to doing.

It is not as easy as that in fact for either country. The Afghan government would like to eliminate the Taliban, of course, since they are the major threat to their existence, but they face two problems. One is that they lack the military muscle to do so, and thus must rely on the Americans for that (which, of course, demonstrates their weakness and makes them appear American puppets to many Afghans). Second, they can only succeed by separating the Taliban from the rest of their Pashtun base, since the Pashtun are a near-majority in Afghanistan. The effort, in other words, must be viewed by Pashtuns as anti-Taliban but not anti-Pashtun if it is to succeed, and the Afghans have no real clue how to do that (neither do the Americans).

The Pakistani problem is somewhat more complicated. The Taliban,whom Zardari now says must be eliminated were, after all, basically created by the Pakistanis to cause trouble for the Afghans, and now their proteges have turned on them. The Pashtun are the largest minority in Pakistan at about 15 percent of the population, and their relationship with the central, Punjabi-based government has always been based on essential autonomy within their tribal regions: they do not bother the government, and it leaves them alone. What has changed is the increased militancy of the Taliban (trying to institute sharia law, for instance) and the demands of the Americans to root out Al Qaeda. The recent attacks in the Swat Valley by the Taliban simply amplify this problem but also demonstrate the other part of the Pakistani dilemma.

The other problem is military. Although Pakistan has the world’s seventh largest army, it is one designed to fight a conventional war against India on the plains, not a counter-insurgent war in trhe rough mountains of the tribal region. The Pakistanis have historically proven themselves inept at insurgency warfare, and they are likely to do so again in the current counter-offensive. This campaign, which pleases the Americans, of course, is likely to be embarassing to the Pakistani army, and given the penchant of the Pakistani military to involve itself in politics, that is not good news for Zardari.In this case, U.S. interests work at cross-purposes: the U.S. wants democracy to take hold in Pakistan, which would seem to dictate making nice to the military (which means not forcing them into more insurgent warfare), but it also wants increased military pressure put on the Taliban, which means antagonizing the Pakistani military, which is already none too fond of Zardari. Something has to give here.

All this drama takes place with a backdrop of long-standing tensions between Afghanistan and Pakistan that is part of the historical accident that those two political entities occupy the territory between Russia and India. Both are artificial states that, if allowed self-determination, would almost certainly crumble into a number of smaller “Stans”, and they continue to exist partly by trying to weaken the other as part of their strategy of survival. Moreover, both are terribly poor and corrupt, making reform efforts problematical at best.

This analysis does not resemble the smiley faced photo op at the White House last week. But the simple fact is this may be a mission impossible. The memlory of Laos and Cambodia in 1970 keeps drifting into my mind: in that case, U.S. policy dictated changing the status quo in those countries to keep them from being launching pads by the North Vietnamese into South Vietnam. Actualizing that policy created dynamics in both country that were disastrous both for those countries (the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia and a communist dictatorship in Laos) and for U.S. policy: the result was the worst of all possible worlds. Are we doing that again in Afghanistan and Pakistan? Maybe/hopefully not, but the possibility is there and cannot be ignored!

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