The year 2011 carries immense significance in terms of developments in the Af-Pak theatre. The year saw the killing of Osama Bin Laden (OBL) in a night raid by US special forces in Abbottabad on 2 May 2011. OBL’s killing followed announcements by various NATO countries, especially France, Canada, Germany and UK, to start gradual withdrawal troops from Afghanistan. This was spurred by an earlier speech on 22 June by US President Barak Obama to start pulling out US troops in July 2011, and completing a complete pullout by 2014. Coupled with this was a rapid deterioration in Pakistan-US relations, where intelligence and security cooperation is reported to be at an all-time low.
Similarly, there was a complete overhaul of the US team overseeing the US policy in Afghanistan. Leon Panetta succeeded Roberts Gates as the new US Defense Secretary, while General Petraeus was appointed as the new CIA head in place of Panetta. Meanwhile, a gradual handover of security responsibilities by NATO to the Afghan forces also commenced in July 2011.
All these developments are ominous for the Af-Pak theatre since they may prove to be the harbinger for a future course of action that the US and NATO may adopt towards the Af-Pak region. It seems there has been a visible shift in the mindset of policy makers in Washington and Brussels.
Firstly, greater emphasis is being placed on Pakistan as the “ground zero” of terrorism instead of Afghanistan, which was earlier perceived as the centre of gravity of terrorism. Statements by US policy makers and Congressmen that the short- and long-term terrorist threat to the US security emanates from Pakistan’s western border regions instead of Afghanistan points towards this direction. From a Pakistani perspective, NATO’s future orientation could shift from Af-Pak to Pak-Af.
Secondly, a gradual troop drawdown by NATO is pointing toward a shift from counter-insurgency (COIN) to counter-terrorism (CT) strategy. Former US Secretary of Defense, Roberts Gates, hinted at this transition when he stated in June 2011 that NATO’s mission “will be less and less COIN and more and more counter-terrorism.” While US and NATO troops were redeployed in late 2009 from eastern and southeastern Afghanistan to southern Afghanistan in order to undertake COIN operations in Helmand and Kandahar, there are reports that NATO is now contemplating to redeploy once more its resources – both human and material - to southeastern Afghanistan (Khost, Pakita and Paktika) which borders North and South Waziristan agencies of FATA region of Pakistan. NATO strategy therefore would rely heavily on neutralising terrorist entities holed up in the FATA region through intensification of drone strikes. While the US has not undertaken a ground operation in FATA so far due to Pakistani sensitivities, the US leadership is already making it clear that they will not desist from unilateral ground operations, if there is actionable intelligence regarding presence of high profile terrorist on the Pakistani territory. To ward off any adverse Pakistani reaction, NATO is already diversifying its logistics dependence on Pakistan by opening up more ground routes from Afghanistan’s north. According to reports, NATO dependence on Pakistan’s logistics route has dwindled from 90 percent in 2008 to 60 percent by 2011.
However, there are certain pitfalls that the western security alliance should guard itself against. Firstly, the US strategy from 2002 until 2008 focussed heavily on FATA, under which it maintained significant military presence in Afghanistan’s southeastern province. A heavy focus on eliminating al-Qaeda kept the US off guard against Taliban’s resurgence in Afghanistan’s southern provinces. Under the evolving strategy, NATO shift from south to southeast and lead them towards repeating the same mistake. While NATO claims that Taliban in southern Afghanistan are on the retreat, it could hardly be substantiated. It seems Taliban are adopting a new strategy of playing “cat-and-mouse” game by going into hiding and reemerging in the same area after the focus is taken off. Similarly, the Afghan security forces remain weak to counter a Taliban offensive if the former is put into action. The fact that a highly organised, trained and disciplined Pakistani security force has not been able to completely wipe out the Taliban in its multiple military operations in FATA and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) shows the potency of the Taliban insurgency. Similarly, a corrupt, inefficient and crude governance system in Afghanistan allows the Afghan Taliban to present themselves as an alternative to the corrupt Afghan government in power.
Similarly, Taliban is not a static phenomenon but remains fluid, since they have so far shown great resilience, mobility and adaptability. With the US shifting their focus on southeastern Afghanistan, the Taliban may try to find new sanctuaries in both Afghanistan and Pakistan, especially in northern Afghanistan and upper parts of FATA and KP to survive the NATO’s move. Already, Taliban and al-Qaeda have been able to establish semi-sanctuaries in Kunar and Nuristan provinces in eastern parts of Afghanistan, where they intend to reverse the fragile security gains both Afghanistan and NATO had made since 2008. By destabilising Kunar, Nuristan and the Malakand Division, Bajaur and Mohmand agencies of Pakistan, the Taliban and al-Qaeda want to create a strategic depth which could prove to be a rearguard if they are attacked by either NATO, Afghan or Pakistani troops in the future.
Similarly, NATO’s “fight and talk” strategy has not bore the desirable results it had hoped for. The Taliban and other insurgent groups remain unwilling to hold talks with the Afghan government and NATO. An emphasis on CT could weaken the existing leadership of the insurgent groups, but the latter have shown profound adaptability in filling up their ranks quickly and efficiently. In fact, the neo-Taliban are proving to be more hardliners in their approach, compared to the old guard so far. The NATO would be in a fix if this current CT policy also fails in the long run since they will lose whatever leverage they have gained in the battlefield against the insurgents so far. To quote a phrase, “you cannot win on the negotiating table what you have lost on the battleground.”
What has been absent so far in the entire discourse on a future political settlement of the Afghan imbroglio is NATO’s inability to engage Afghanistan’s neighbours in developing a regional outlook of the Afghan quagmire. So far, efforts have focused on bilateral engagements and lack a multilateral approach. While neighbouring countries seem to pursue conflicting interests in Afghanistan, they also share common concerns, such as US’ efforts to acquire military bases in Afghanistan on a long-term basis. Similarly, narco-production and its trafficking as well as spillover of the Afghan instability into the Middle East, South and Central Asia are concerns that are jointly shared by the regional countries. It is pertinent to mention that the conflict in Afghanistan was confined only within boundaries pre-September 2001, which has now spread to cover not only significant parts of Pakistan, but has also spread to Iran and Central Asia as well. Hence, their stakes in a future settlement in Afghanistan have become dire. It is imperative that the US and NATO should deepen their engagement with Pakistan, since it is only through joint and coordinated actions on both sides of the Af-Pak border which could help in weakening the Taliban as well as effecting a political solution to the Afghan conflict.
The withdrawal of NATO forces and a shift in strategy from COIN to CT could be viewed as the beginning of a new phase in Afghanistan, which is a departure from the status quo that prevailed since the signing of Bonn Accord in December 2001. These developments would have wider implications and could prove decisive in the success or failure of the international effort to stabilise the war-ravaged country.
By Alia Qaim:
The author is a graduate of University of Peshawar and London School of Economics (UK). She is currently pursuing her doctoral studies at University of London. Her dissertation focuses on the current insurgencies in the Af-Pak region.