US-NATO Strategic Gambits and Implications for Pakistan.
Withdraw or not to withdraw?
After nearly a decade of political and military engagement, hundreds of billions of dollars in expenditure, and the loss of tens of thousands of lives, the United States and its NATO partners are ready to conclude their nation-building adventure in Afghanistan. As the cost of fighting continues to drain the coffers of an already stressed US economy, war weariness and frustration have shifted American public sentiment about the mission in Afghanistan. Relations between the US and the Afghan government have soured, as the Afghan President, Hamid Karzai, continues to grapple with damning corruption allegations and a serious crisis in leadership legitimacy. It is becoming painfully apparent that the international community has invested billions of dollars into creating a corrupt, mafia-like government, which it can no longer effectively control or reign in. The majority of Americans now feel that the war in Afghanistan is a futile effort.
Faced with these realities, the policy discourse has quickly shifted to reframing the Afghan mission to "transition to Afghan rule", and devising an exit strategy. But the fact of the matter is that despite desperately wanting to get out of Afghanistan, there is no consensus among analysts or decision-makers on how to leave. The recent NATO Lisbon Conference has set a target date of 2014 for the complete withdrawal of foreign forces, while the US plans to reduce its forces beginning in just a few short months.
With building the momentum for troop withdrawal, the US has struggled to find a set of objectives that are achievable within this relatively short timeframe. In a striking change of tone, the idea of a negotiated settlement with the Taliban has gone from taboo to mainstream.
Importantly, American foreign policy is not made by a single mind, and should not necessarily be interpreted as a coherent rational calculation of state interest. Rather, it is determined by the push and pull of many interests within a large bureaucratic machine, which is well known for being slow to change course and wrought with contradictory objectives. Foreign policy decisions are the product of reconciling disparate ideas and institutions, multiple and competing foreign and domestic policy priorities, and a gamut of misinformation, confusion, and bias.
As the new Congress prepares to take control of the House of Representatives, there is concern that a stronger Republican presence in government may delay or frustrate the process of troop withdrawal, thus prolonging the US commitment. However, even with a noisier and more bellicose House, it is highly unlikely that Afghanistan will remain a priority for longer than the scheduled US and NATO withdrawal dates. The Afghan war has surpassed Vietnam as the longest war in US history, and the conflict has no foreseeable conclusion in the near future. Partisanship is also more likely to result in policy stalemate rather than in decisive action, as decision-makers get bogged down in the debate and the filibuster. Regardless of this partisan bickering, the US priority over the next four years will be to withdraw troops, cut a deal, and find a way to appear triumphant.
Under no circumstances is the US willing to admit military defeat; however, the current discourse suggests that Democrats and Republicans alike are actively searching for a new definition of "victory". The necessity to save face has challenged decision-makers to reframe the mission on less challenging terms, so that the Americans don't appear to be withdrawing under duress. More modest objectives - goals that can be achieved within a 2-4 year timeline - are now under consideration.
Despite this shortened timeframe, international security and counter-terrorism remain a top priority in the US. President Barack Obama has recently re-focused the war effort on disrupting and destroying terrorist networks in the mountainous region at the Pak-Afghan border, which are suspected to provide a safe haven for transnational terrorists that pose a threat to the international community. These are the security concerns that the US cannot effectively ignore, despite the calls for withdrawal.
Nonetheless, the US government is becoming increasingly aware that securing these ungoverned spaces from transnational terrorists will require a negotiated peace settlement with local Taliban groups. However, due to the Taliban's ongoing success on the battlefield, the US has perceived its current bargaining position in a prospective settlement to be relatively weak.
Implications for Pakistan
The recent surge, the targeted assassinations of Taliban leaders using unmanned predator drones, and the pressure on Pakistan to engage in direct military action against local insurgents in FATA are all designed to reduce Taliban's bargaining position in future peace talks. The goal of these actions is to beat Taliban into compromise and undermine their relationship with Pakistan in a future political arrangement.
If these strategies are successful, Pakistan will lose its credibility with the Taliban, and the Taliban will have less negotiating power vis-a-vis the Afghan government. Without a sponsor state or ally, the Taliban will have far less bargaining power in a potential settlement. Pakistan, too, would have fewer cards at the table.
Pakistan's inclination to move against the Haqqani network in North Waziristan is the latest in a series of military engagements against FATA-based insurgents, each of which has stretched Pakistan Army and threatened the country with protracted civil war. This new phase of military intervention threatens to push Pakistan to the brink, and it fails to resolve the deep and lasting security problems in Afghanistan, which will linger on long after the American withdrawal. Most significantly, if Pakistan agrees to wage another war in FATA, it must be prepared to deal with the consequences of these choices in the future negotiation process.
The political future of Afghanistan remains highly uncertain, and the choices Pakistan makes will have a decisive impact on the outcome. If Pakistan acquiesces to American pressure and engages in a military offensive in North Waziristan, it risks triggering a much more enduring civil conflict, which could plague the region for decades after the US troop withdrawal is complete. The US foreign policy apparatus has demonstrated that it is neither equipped nor qualified to responsibly determine the future of Afghanistan and its neighbors. If Pakistan becomes embroiled in a new civil war in the FATA, it will not only risk losing its hand in the forthcoming negotiated process, but it also gambles with its very survival. However, if the Pakistani Army and intelligence community can draw upon its diplomatic talents, rather than just brute military force, it has the opportunity to take a lead role in a meaningful peace settlement, which is considerate of the long-term security of Afghanistan and the region as a whole.