by Asif Haroon Raja
The US and Afghan governments have arrived at a conclusion that Mullah Omar led Quetta Shura (QS) which influences Southern Afghanistan and Sirajuddin Haqqani led Haqqani Network (HN) which influences eastern Afghanistan are entirely controlled by ISI since the leadership of these outfits is sheltered in Quetta region and in North Waziristan (NW) respectively. They suspect that the ISI is playing a double game by using them as proxies to keep Afghanistan destabilized so as force the US to quit by an early date. They also feel that Pakistan wishes the Taliban to regain power so that not only Indian influence in Afghanistan is curtailed but its western border becomes safe again.
Karzai regime, Obama administration, Pentagon and ISAF are all going through bouts of disillusionment and despondency after the murder of Burhanuddin Rabbani and rising tide of Taliban offensive. They are disenchanted with the process of secret negotiations with emissaries of Taliban who had given them high hopes but in the end most turned out to be imposters. They feel they have wasted precious time and resources but achieved nothing. Neither could the Taliban be divided nor could any high-profile leader be won over. Under the depressing circumstances the possible options open to USA are either to convince Pakistan to kill or capture the prominent Taliban leaders and eliminate their safe havens; or else to woo and win over the leaders of either HN or QS, or both.
The US believes that if a breakthrough is achieved on any front, it will greatly help in dividing and weakening the Taliban power and it will become easy to deal with the other piecemeal with full force. In their reckoning, divided Taliban would be compelled to come to terms with US peace formula. The US after failing to make any headway in Helmand Province in Southern Afghanistan, both politically and militarily, switched over its political efforts towards HN in Eastern Afghanistan in 2011, particularly after Pakistan promised to mediate and arrange a meeting with Sirajuddin. The latter didn’t out rightly shun the US overture of peace in return for share in power during his meeting with US officials in UAE, but made it clear that no headway could be made without the blessing of Mullah Omar who was their undisputed supreme commander.
The US which was still pinning high hopes was flustered when series of lethal attacks took place in and around Kabul in quick succession, each one deadlier than the other. In sheer panic, outgoing Admiral Mullen not only blamed HN but also ISI. He hurled this accusation not on the basis of inquest and evidence, but entirely on the feedback of Afghan National Directorate of Security, RAW and CIA. They assumed that since the meeting was arranged by ISI, both were closely knitted and HN had become a ‘veritable arm’ of ISI. Since the outburst of Mullen on 22 September, the US is stuck with HN and views it as the most dangerous entity.
August and particularly September were worst months for ISAF and Karzai regime. Even October saw three fierce attacks in Kabul and Kandahar, of which attack on a convoy in Kabul on 29 October was the deadliest killing 17 including 13 American soldiers. Shell-shocked by these incidents, the US officials are bawling like spanked kids and complaining at the top of their voices that without ISI’s support, the HN could not have smacked them and that too so audaciously. Bruce Riedel led the band of whiners. Other Pakistan bashers who joined the anti-Pakistan orchestra were Stephen Cohen, Ted Poe, John McCain, Lindsey Graham, Carl Levin and several others.
When the temperature touched the boiling point, ever-smiling Hillary Clinton landed in Islamabad accompanied by top military brass in an effort to smooth out the crisis. Besides cajolement, she carried some sticks with which she gave a message that if Pakistan didn’t behave it would be up against extremely difficult times and the US would be forced to take a unilateral action. When Pakistan leadership refused to be brow beaten and gave a stern reply that it would do only that much which was within its capacity and in own national interests, she and other US leaders hastened to clarify that the US had no intention of ground offensive against Pakistan. ISI was also given a clean chit. Amidst mixed signals, the US notched up the heat by carrying out forward deployment of its troops in Khost Province and started an operation and sealed the border between Khost and NW.
Imitating Gen Kayani’s four-staged strategy of ‘clear, hold, transfer and build’; the US military command also came out with a somewhat matching phrase of ‘fight, talk and build’. While Pak Army has successfully gone past all four stages in Swat, it is still stuck with holding stage in other critical regions of Bajaur Agency, Kurram Agency, South Waziristan and Mohmand Agency. It is anxiously awaiting the materialization of stages of ‘transfer to civil administration and rebuilding of destroyed infrastructure’ that are to be undertaken by civil government. As far as ISAF is concerned, it started the fight in October 2001 and is still fighting with no end in sight. It can talk and then build only when it decisively gets out of the fighting stage.
The US can only open talks after it defeats the Taliban in their two strongholds. Since such an outcome is ruled out, the only option left is to agree to Taliban terms rather than dictating terms to them. Building phase would come only after peace is restored and not before. The three different facets are not mutually supporting but are in conflict with each other. Hence the very concept of this strategy is ambiguous and twisted. This strategy might have worked if it was applied in early years when the Taliban were in wilderness and had not bounced back. It is rather too late in the day to dictate terms since not only too much of blood of Afghans has flown in rivers of Afghanistan, the Taliban have blunted the onslaught and wrested initiative from the ISAF. The Taliban have forced the US to grudgingly give a timetable of withdrawal and to seek negotiations for peace. This by itself is a huge moral victory for the Taliban since the US had considered them worthless and below its dignity to talk to them.
The ISAF now intends to keep hitting hard the resisting militants till July 2012 by which time 30,000 American combat troops would have left for home. Thereon, freeze military prong and seek truce with Taliban with or without conditions. In the intervening period of eight months, it intends to make maximum use of drones astride Afghan-Western Pakistan border region coupled with ‘kill and capture’ raids with a view to eliminate as many high-profile and mid-level Taliban leaders and thus decapitate their fighting capacity. American troops will remain deployed in Khost region to weaken Haqqanis. Efforts to win over Mullah Omar and his Shura members based either in Quetta region or in Kandahar region will be accelerated. Haqqanis instead of Mullah Omar would be demonized.
The US military command is under the misperception that two troop surges had helped in pacifying south. Based on this analogy, bulk of withdrawing US troops in coming months will be from Southern Afghanistan. Helmand Province where three unsuccessful major operations were launched will be cleared of US presence and the charge given to British troops and ANA. The ANA is already being handed over districts and provinces in south and not a single one in the east which is hottest. Likewise, by December 2011 thinning out of foreign troops will also be done in Kandahar. The underlying idea is to strike hard Haqqanis in east and deal softly with Mullah Omar dominated Southern Afghanistan. Had HN fallen to US overtures, the US would have reversed its stratagem. It was probably this tactic lurking in the back of the mind of Gen Petraeus of not completely antagonizing Mullah Omar that he kept postponing the planned offensive in Kandahar.
The US intends to squeeze members of HN and make their lives difficult. Blacklisting of detained HN commander Mali Khan and freezing his assets in USA is a step in that direction. Apart from military operation in Khost, it is continuing to target suspected hideouts of HN in NW with drones. This is despite the fact that Sirajuddin has declared that he and his followers are no more living in NW and feel more secured in Haqqanis dominated regions in eastern Afghanistan. Since CIA has not been permitted by Pakistan to extend drone war to Quetta region where it suspects QS is housed, it will therefore endeavor to induce QS to voluntarily shift to Southern Afghanistan where security environment are relatively more conducive and spate of ISAF attacks has waned substantially since March this year. The US perceives that with HN and QS out of Pakistan, it would eliminate the influence of Pakistan over the two most powerful groups of Taliban and may in turn speed up the process of reconciliation. In other words, the US considers Pakistan a hindrance and not a facilitator. With this kind of mindset and trust deficit, things have become more complex and jumbled.
About the writer: Asif Haroon is a defence analyst and a columnist. Email: [email protected]
Brig Asif Haroon Raja an Member Board of Advisors Opinion Maker is Staff College and Armed Forces WarCoursequalified, holds MSc war studies degree; a second generation officer, he fought epic battle of Hilli in northwest East Bengal during 1971 war, in which Maj M. Akram received Nishan-e-Haider posthumously.
He served as Directing Staff Command & Staff College, Defence Attaché Egypt and Sudan and Dean of Corps of Military Attaches in Cairo. He commanded the heaviest brigade in Kashmir. He is lingual and speaks English, Pashto and Punjabi fluently.
He is author of books titled ‘Battle of Hilli’, ‘1948, 1965 & 1971 Kashmir Battles and Freedom Struggle’, ‘Muhammad bin Qasim to Gen Musharraf’, Roots of 1971 Tragedy’; has written number of motivational pamphlets. Draft of his next book ‘Tangled Knot of Kashmir’ is ready.
He is a defence analyst and columnist and writes articles on security, defence and political matters for numerous international/national publications.
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