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The Afghan state is losing ground

Ikram Sehgal
At a well-attended panel discussion recently in Washington after the Af-Pak Review by President Barack Obama, the question and answers about Afghanistan and Pakistan required some plain talking. The feedback should be interesting for those concerned with planning the next moves not only in the US administration but all those deeply concerned about the region.

One question was obvious: “The Pakistani army is not fighting the Taliban and President Obama is running out of time because next July he has to reassess that strategy. There are reports, although denied, that there are plans for US ground troops to go into Pakistan for operations against the Afghan Taliban. What are the dangers or benefits of this strategy?” My answer: “The Afghan Taliban do not exist in Pakistan. Al-Qaeda does in the form of the Tehrik-e-Taliban-Pakistan (TTP). This is an entity which is totally separate from the Afghan Taliban.” Gilles Dorronsoro went to great lengths to explain that “US boots on the ground inside Pakistan will be a total disaster. I don’t think any Pakistani government will be able to sustain that without reacting. For starters, they will stop all supply routes – a precedent for that passive way has been set recently. Secondly, if they fight back, that will be a greater disaster. The US should reassess its policy towards Pakistan.”

Bob Dreyfuss of The Nation made more of a statement than a question. “It seems to me almost like Pakistan’s saying that it wants to find the terrorists is like OJ (Simpson) saying he wanted to find his wife’s killer. Maybe I am missing something here, but obviously Pakistan has spent a quarter of a century building terrorist groups and supporting them across the border. Let us call facts as facts – Pakistan is in the terrorism business?” My answer was categorical, “Wrong, absolutely wrong! What you are saying is that the ISI, served 90 per cent by the Pakistani army, is funding terrorists to have its own personnel killed. Can you imagine giving silver bullets to kill your own family members? This is nonsense! Pakistan was never in the terrorism business but it was in the business of supporting the freedom fight in Kashmir. Somewhere along the way the lines blurred, and that was wrong. Pakistan has made great sacrifices and lost many army officers in the fight against militants, so Pakistan is definitely not supporting terrorism. With so many army officers having been killed, it is nonsense to suggest that Pakistan is in the business of supporting terrorism.”

Gilles Dorronsoro added to what I had said. “The Pakistani army lost control of some groups. The Afghan Taliban [are] not fighting the Pakistano army, they are very quiet in Pakistan, especially in Quetta where [their] leadership is, or was thought to be, but that is a bit complicated. Drone attacks or US ground troops in Pakistan are not going to solve the problem in Kandahar.”

The next question followed the same thought process. “What about the threat outside of the Afghan Taliban – i.e., the Haqqani network. What is their strength?” Gilles Dorronsoro took that on. “The idea that the Haqqani Network is outside the Afghan Taliban is wrong. Did we see in the last ten years any military clash with people separately working for Haqqani? They are part of the larger strategy, but you cannot distinguish where it starts. People close to the Haqqani group are basically targeting specific people in Afghanistan and there is nothing to indicate that there is any pressure on them by the Pakistani army, they are under no strategic threat from Pakistan.” I clarified: “The Haqqani Network has never acted against mainland Pakistan. However, some militant groups from the TTP have sought refuge with them, sooner or later the Pakistani army will have to act. At the moment the army is really stretched. Besides that, they need far more helicopters because there are very few roads, and these too are almost inaccessible.”

“Could you comment about the success or lack of efforts to build up the Afghan security forces?” My answer was: “Let me tell you first that the Afghan National Army (ANA) has never fought the Taliban. Personnel of the ANA deserted during the Soviet era instead of fighting the Mujahideen, and they are not fighting now. Look at the desertion rate in the Afghan police and the ANA. Then if you look at their casualty rates, which I think is a good indicator of their taking part in battle, this too is not more than 100 killed in the last 18 months.”

Gilles Dorronsoro said: “Many who join the ANA are non-Pakhtuns because Pakhtuns are just not joining the army, with one or two exceptions among the tribes. You can build an army without a state but it is a bit risky. The Afghan state is losing ground and also losing control in the countryside. Officers are human beings and then there are political affiliations. What we are seeing now is that Karzai is acting like a godfather and creating networks of people as he wants to put the militia inside the army. The army is not going to be a strong coherent one with this kind of culture. As far as the Afghan police is concerned, they cannot do the counterinsurgency job, they are just not equipped to fight the Taliban.”

Ambassador Thomas H Pickering, former US under-secretary of state, asked: “Giles mentioned three or four times about the negotiations scenario and Ikram Sehgal mentioned on one occasion, perhaps a little more elliptically than he would like, that the Taliban would be back in charge. For Giles: What will be the outcome of a negotiation scenario? And for Ikram Sehgal: You said that there are some 33,000 Pakistani troops in North Waziristan and they are currently under attack; what are you going to do about it? Nothing? Make a deal with them? Or drive them back?”

Gilles Dorronsoro answered: “There should be a kind of political deal between Afghanistan and outsiders with the USA as a go-between. It is the 2001 process again with the Taliban. Here the idea is that we let Afghanistan do the job and you stay in the background and when needed you enter the negotiations at the end.” I added: “I am one of those who believe that we should not have gone into Waziristan in 2003 without having adequate forces. We got a bloody nose and were forced to agree to a peace agreement which was ludicrous. The Pakistani army is now responding to every attack very adequately. Ultimately we will have to deal with the problem, but in order to do so we must have adequate forces and adequate equipment which includes a lot more helicopters to allow us more mobility. You cannot have peace treaties with people like that.”

(Transcript of a question-and-answer session at the South Asia Centre of the Atlantic Council in Washington DC. The panel consisted of Gilles Dorronsoro, visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Ikram Sehgal, chairman Wackenhut Pakistan and Shuja Nawaz, director, South Asia Centre.)

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