David Petraeus, United States commander in Afghanistan, is set to beat the historic record of Douglas MacArthur by two-and-a-half years. That’s the time it took for General MacArthur to fulfill the vow “I shall return”, which he made when leaving the Philippine Islands in March 1942.
Petraeus will re-enter the war zone almost overnight following his departure from Afghanistan this month. As soon as he arrives in Langley, Virginia to lead the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), Petraeus will don civvies and, figuratively speaking, head straight for the Hindu Kush.
Petraeus is leaving Afghanistan as a dissatisfied general who failed to win his last war. He couldn't achieve the turnaround he managed in Iraq and his legacy in Afghanistan is unfinished and tantamount to just about staving off defeat. No general would want that on his record.
Petraeus' final legacy, however, is still to be made. The US counter terrorism strategy unveiled by White House adviser John Brennan last Wednesday shifts the focus to eliminating terrorists through sophisticated military technology and means without having to commit substantial troops on the ground.
Therefore, Petraeus made a hugely significant statement on Monday, which he carefully timed for his last Fourth of July in uniform. He said the focus of the Afghan war will shift in the upcoming months from Taliban strongholds in the south to the porous eastern border with Pakistan where al-Qaeda affiliates and a range of militant groups presently hold sway.
He went on to explain: "It's a shift of intelligence assets. It's a shift of armed and lift helicopters and perhaps the shift of some relatively small coalition forces on the ground and substantial Afghan forces on the ground." Petraeus claimed the strategy has evolved from the previous phase of military operations under his command.
Indeed, the shift actually began on February 15 - roughly three weeks into the detention of the ace US operative Raymond Davis by the Pakistani security agencies in Lahore - when the coalition forces summarily began a process of withdrawing from combat positions in the Pech valley in the eastern Afghan province of Kunar bordering Pakistan. The US claimed at that time that the withdrawal was part of a plan to shift the forces to more populated areas; it was completed over the next two months.
Several Afghan army units deployed in Kunar also moved out at the same time. Unsurprisingly, various insurgent groups almost instantaneously moved into the security vacuum. They included both Afghan and Pakistani Taliban, Hizb-i-Islami, Lashkar-e-Taiba and various al-Qaeda affiliates. Suffice to say, by a curious coincidence, within a few weeks of the release of Davis in end-March, a "low-intensity war" began across the Durand Line that separates Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Militant groups using Kunar as safe haven began attacking Pakistani security forces across the border. Pakistan complained that in cross-border attacks, militants killed 56 Pakistani paramilitary soldiers and tribal police and injured 81 personnel in June alone. In turn, the Afghan Interior Ministry says nearly 800 rockets have been fired since early June, killing 12 women and girls and 30 men. Some 55 have been wounded, and 120 houses destroyed.
Pashtun sentiments are turning against Pakistan. There have been public demonstrations in Asadabad, capital of Kunar. A top Afghan police general in Asadabad offered his resignation over the government's response to the attacks. A prominent parliamentarian from Pashtun-dominated Nangarhar province, Fraidoon Momand, called on President Hamid Karzai to cut ties with Pakistan "because its non-stop shells have killed many innocent civilians".
The anger among Afghan Pashtuns is bound to have its resonance among Pashtuns inside Pakistan and a vicious cycle of hostilities could begin. On Sunday, over 300 militants crossed into Pakistan and attacked a Pakistani checkpost, the sixth cross-border attack in a month. The Pakistani army spokesman Major-General Attar Abbas has been quoted as saying, "For quite some time we have been highlighting that there are safe havens across the border. Something should be done about these."
Interestingly, a Voice of America report highlighted the grave implications of the situation on Monday:
"Contributing to the tension is that the border - the so-called Durand Line - has been disputed since its creation in the 19th century by British rulers. Ethnic tribes that still hold on to the dream of a unified Pashtun nation refuse to recognise what they call an ‘arbitrary line’.”
But many village elders in the area, who are also ethnic Pashtuns, are becoming increasingly angry with the attacks and warn they could take up arms against Pakistan if it continues."
‘Asymmetrical’ war lasting years
Essentially speaking, the US and Afghan force withdrawal in Pech has pitted the Afghan militant groups against the Pakistani forces across the Durand Line in an "asymmetrical" war. The Pakistani military is obviously annoyed that the US and Afghan forces withdrew just like that and are simply standing by, watching the fireworks.
Karzai has adopted a selective approach. He is raising the matter at the political and diplomatic level with Pakistan but has ordered the Afghan forces not to fire in response to the shelling from Pakistan. Clearly, he refuses to give Pakistan an excuse to stage a "hot pursuit" against the insurgent groups based in Kunar. But to be fair to the Kabul government, it has little or no control over the border areas.
The rising curve of the "low-intensity war" has alarmed the Pakistani military leadership. Pakistan began troop deployments at the weekend in the strategic Kurram Agency, which is an escape route for militants from North Waziristan to the Tora Bora mountains. A major operation is getting underway involving artillery and air power. But it is easier said than done. One of Pakistan's most perceptive commentators on the Afghan problem, Rahimullah Yusufzai wrote on Tuesday:
The lack of government control in the border areas across the Durand Line in both Afghanistan and Pakistan has enabled the militants to set up bases and operate with impunity ... The cross-border raids in Pakistani territory and the retaliatory strikes by Pakistan's security forces have caused tension on the border and inflamed passions, particularly in Afghanistan ... However, large-scale military actions also cause civilian deaths, displacement and economic losses. Around 4,000 families have already been uprooted in Kurram Agency, adding to the number of internally displaced persons from South Waziristan, Mohmand, Bajaur and other places waiting to be compensated and rehabilitated ... The long conflict facing Pakistan has created problems that will take years to resolve.
The big question is whether the looming crisis will prompt Pakistan into comprehensive rethink on its Afghan policy. Without doubt, the fundamental contradiction in the Pakistani policy is surging - making a distinction between the "good" Taliban and "bad" Taliban. The nexus between the two and their mutual support is coming out starkly into the open across the tribal agencies on the Durand Line. Pakistan is truly becoming a victim of terrorism.
The Pakistani policy objective of placing its "strategic assets" in power in Kabul once the US forces withdraw increasingly seems a chimera even as its military gets bogged down in a Pashtun quagmire on the Durand Line. The Daily Times commented, "Pakistan's dual policy towards the Taliban can unravel the whole game plan for which Pakistan exposed its land and people to grave risks, whose diminishing returns and serious damage are becoming apparent now."
To be sure, this is a curious turn to the Afghan endgame. How much of this is a brainchild of Petraeus and how much is due to fortuitous circumstances is a matter best left to future military historians to weigh. For the present, Pakistani military desperately needs some help from the coalition forces across the border in Afghanistan.
That is where Petraeus' "offer" to shift the locus of the war to the east would come as a relief to Pakistan. But Petraeus said the shift would only occur through a period of months - most likely after the current "fighting season". Which means that Pakistani forces will be facing the music in the near term.
What would interest the US most is whether under the immense pressure building up along the Durand Line, Pakistan would finally do what Washington always wanted it to do - commence military operations in North Waziristan. In political terms, Pakistani military's preoccupation with the security of the Durand Line gives the US the respite to accelerate its direct talks with the Taliban leadership.
Beyond all that, of course, lies the US wish list for the Pakistani military - hand over Taliban chief Mullah Omar politically and decimate the Haqqani network militarily. Indeed, from his cabin in Langley, Petraeus will be closely monitoring the “pilgrim’s progress” and choreographing his own final legacy in the Afghan war.