Signaling a new approach to the long war in Afghanistan, the new US administration announced a comprehensive new strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan on 27 March. Pakistan which expected a tougher strategy by Obama has reasons to cheer it.
As part of the new strategy, the US plans to raise the level of its combat troops in Afghanistan to the level of 60,000 by the end of summer. With the new Af-PAK strategy which the US will present to NATO at its 50th anniversary summit in April, the US also plans to rope in other powers of the region including Russia, China and Iran. While it would be premature to judge how a wider coalition would impact regional security, a series of announcements made recently by the US administration suggest that the new strategy is merely an extension of the old strategy.
Measures such as tripling economic assistance to Pakistan to a figure of US$US7.5 billion and the increase in military aid to US$2.8 billion, both spread over the next five year period, as also carrying out future drone attacks inside Pakistan’s territory only after consultation with Pakistan’s government, point to a softening of the war on terrorism.
As indicative of further softening, the US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recently announced that the new US administration had dropped the cliché ‘war on terror.’ However, with ‘war on terror’ removed from the lexicon of US new Af- Pak strategy, the US will be required to coin a new phraseology to justify its continued military presence in Afghanistan.
Clearly, the US new strategic assessment of Pakistan is seriously flawed if it is based on the assumption that Pakistan will outlive the gestation period to fully capitalize the economic and military assistance over the next five years. Given the extent to which Islamic radicalization has taken over Pakistan and Taliban with its presence felt in cities like Lahore and Peshawar, it can be safely argued that Pakistan will self-destruct sooner rather than later.
Pakistan is largely dependent on foreign aid to sustain its economy and to that extent ‘war on terror’ is a blessing in disguise as far as Pakistan is concerned. On the pretext of fighting Taliban, Pakistan received over US$10 billion dollars from the Bush administration, of which a large chunk went towards buying heavy military hardware like fighter jets and tanks which could be used against India. With another US$10 billion in the offing, there is little surety that Pakistan will not hoodwink the US again, although Obama has assured that future aid to Pakistan will be conditional to fulfilling its promises in the war on terror.
However, the larger question that remains is, why would Pakistan let the war on terrorism be over when it has helped it to fill up its empty coffers with hard cash and its military with sophisticated weapons? Buoyed by Obama’s largesse, Islamabad has stepped up its efforts to acquire drones which have turned out to be the most effective US weapon so far against the Taliban.
The US is just as desperate to retain Pakistan as a strategic asset as Pakistan is desperate to regain Afghanistan. The US will not let go of Pakistan and Pakistan will not let go of Taliban. Islamabad is banking on Taliban to help it regain its strategic leverage in Afghanistan which opens Pakistan’s gateway to the Middle East and the energy-rich Central Asia.
However, Pakistan’s duplicity in the war on terror is proving to be suicidal for Islamabad itself. Hypothetical though it might sound, the Taliban’s taking complete control of Pakistan is also a possibility. The Taliban defeated powerful Russian forces in the past and is today better organized and equipped. They are also believed to have sympathizers within Pakistan’s military establishments. Hence, it remains doubtful whether Pakistan army can really withstand a Taliban onslaught should it happen at some point of time in future.
With the hypothetical fall of Pakistan, the Taliban gets a bounty of not just over 60-100 nuclear warheads and missiles but also sophisticated fighter jets, tanks, submarines and so on. Clearly, Pakistan is the biggest threat to the world today. It has nearly failed as a state. However, despite its serious failings, it has not been declared a failed state so far. The key to stability in Afghanistan lies in Pakistan. The only way forward for the US from here would be to go full throttle at the war on terror and not see Pakistan as part of the problem but as the genesis of it. The US faces two choices: either it fights the enemy on its own soil or on enemy soil.