Stop this Faustian bargain
How gun-toting Islamists are expanding their hold on western Pakistan has been laid bare by Islamabad’s US-condoned peace agreement, effectively ceding the once-pristine Swat valley as a Taliban mini-State. The Taliban’s sway on territory on both sides of the British-drawn Durand Line shows that the Afghanistan-Pakistan (Af-Pak) border no longer exists in practice.
Less obvious is the Obama administration’s interest to seek a political deal with the Taliban behind the cover of a US troop ‘surge’ in Afghanistan. Its approach seems simple: if you can’t defeat them, buy them off. Having failed to rout the Taliban, Washington is now preparing the ground to strike a deal with the Taliban leadership, but from a position of strength. That is why the surge has begun.
Outwardly, President Barack Obama is bolstering the war in Afghanistan while seeking to end the other one in Iraq. In reality, he is seeking to replicate in Afghanistan his predecessor’s experiment in Iraq, where a surge was used as a show of force to buy off tribal chiefs in the Sunni badlands. The Taliban leadership — with an elaborate command-and-control structure oiled by Wahhabi petrodollars and proceeds from the $720-million opium trade — has been ensconced for long in Pakistan’s Quetta area.
The very day Obama announced the surge last week, he acknowledged there can be no military solution. Even as US officials expand contacts with the Taliban, General David Petraeus, the Centcom chief, is openly looking for ways to win over Taliban commanders. His boss, Defence Secretary Robert Gates, has gone one step further to say Washington could accept a Swat-style agreement with the Taliban in Afghanistan.
The scourge of transnational terrorism cannot be stemmed if attempts are made to draw distinctions between good and bad terrorists, and between those who threaten their security and those who threaten ours. But, unfortunately, that is what the Obama administration is itching to do, first by drawing a specious distinction between al-Qaeda and the Taliban, and then seeking to illusorily differentiate between ‘moderate’ Taliban (the good terrorists) and those that rebuff deal-making (the bad terrorists).
Worse yet, Obama is following in his predecessor’s footsteps by taking friends and allies for granted. Several decisions — to induct 17,000 more troops, set up local Afghan militias in a country already bristling with armed militiamen, and open lines of communication with the Taliban — have been taken without prior consultations with partners, including North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (Nato) and India, which has a massive $1.2-billion aid programme in Afghanistan. It is as if the Richard Holbrooke mission and this week’s Af-Pak conference in Washington are intended merely to market decisions already made.
To arrest further deterioration in the Afghan war, the US military needs to focus less on al-Qaeda — a badly splintered and weakened organisation whose leadership operates out of mountain caves — and more on an increasingly resurgent Taliban that openly challenges Nato forces and terrorises local populations. Yet, unmanned US drones have targeted senior figures from al-Qaeda and other insurgent groups holed up in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (Fata), but not the Taliban leadership operating with impunity from Baluchistan, even though most drone aircraft reportedly fly out of the Baluch, CIA-run Shamsi airfield. US ground commando raids also have spared the Taliban’s command-and-control in Quetta.
Even as the CIA’s covert war was expanded this month to take on Pakistani Taliban commander Baitullah Mehsud — now a major thorn in the side of the Pakistani military establishment — the Afghan Taliban’s ISI-backed core leadership in Quetta has been left unscathed so that the US can potentially pursue a deal with it. The CIA-ISI ties actually are expanding to cover new missions. And the CIA has even coordinated India-Pakistan intelligence exchanges over the Mumbai terrorist strikes.
Created by the ISI and midwifed by the CIA in 1994, the Taliban rapidly emerged as a Frankenstein’s monster. Yet the Clinton administration acquiesced in the Taliban’s ascension to power in Kabul in 1996 and turned a blind eye as that thuggish militia, in league with the ISI, fostered narco-terrorism and swelled the ranks of the Afghan war alumni waging transnational terrorism. With 9/11, however, the chickens came home to roost. The US came full circle when it declared war on the Taliban in October 2001.
Now, desperate to save a faltering military campaign, US policy is edging to come another full circle as Gates and Petraeus seek to use the surge to strike deals with ‘moderate’ Taliban (as if there can be moderates in an Islamist militia that enforces medieval practices). If the US were to conclude a political deal that rehabilitates the Taliban chief, the one-eyed Mullah Muhammad Omar, and his top associates, it would be a powerful vindication of the Pakistani military’s role in rearing the Taliban and Lashkar-e-Tayyeba as force multipliers vis-à-vis Afghanistan and India. Indeed, it would buoy up its long-running asymmetric war against India by terror.
A surge-and-bribe experiment is unlikely to yield a ticket out of Afghanistan for the US military. The Af-Pak tactical gains Obama is seeking will come at strategic costs. The notion that attacks against America can be prevented not by defeating terrorism but by regionally confining it is preposterous. Terrorism cannot be boxed in hermetically in the region that already is the wellspring of global terror. Before he moves too far to retrace his steps, Obama must rethink his Af-Pak strategy and resist the temptation to pursue narrow, short-term objectives.
Brahma Chellaney is a strategic affairs specialist.