Pakistan Sees An Alternative Endgame in Afghanistan

  • Share
  • Read Later
Aamir Qureshi / AFP /Getty Images

Pakistani troops patrol in South Waziristan along the Afghan border.

For Pakistanis, the phrasing may have been delicate but the message of the Obama Administration's Afghanistan-Pakistan review was clear: Washington is not satisfied with Pakistan's efforts against al-Qaeda militants hiding in the Tribal Areas, or its failure to deny the Afghan insurgency sanctuaries on its side of the border. The five-page summary of the Administration's assessment that was released publicly even included concerns about the stability of nuclear weapons in the region. Nine years after Pakistan became Washington's key frontline ally in its war on terrorism, the two sides have yet to align their priorities — but Pakistan's military leaders may be trying to interest Washington in a workable endgame.

A senior government official speaking on condition of anonymity says President Obama's suggestion that Pakistan's progress has been slow underscores lingering mistrust. "We would have preferred if the U.S. government had spoken of joint failures and problems on the Afghan side of the border as well," says the official. In fact, Pakistan sees the review as having sanitized U.S. failures in Afghanistan, while casting blame on Pakistan.

The strategy review does acknowledge some progress, pointing out that Pakistan has taken action in six of the seven tribal areas along the border. "That's a very diplomatic way of saying they have failed to go into North Waziristan," says a senior Western diplomat. Sometimes described as the world's most dangerous place, North Waziristan is home to the most lethal militant elements operating not just in Afghanistan, but also in Pakistan. The Haqqani militant network uses it as a launching pad for attacks on U.S. and NATO troops across the border, while an assortment of groups active in Pakistan are either headquartered or sheltered there. And the U.S. has for months been trying to get Pakistan to send troops into the area.

Pakistan has agreed in principle to mount an offensive there, but insists that it will do so at a time of its own choosing. "There is little prospect of an offensive at least before February," says Talat Masood, a retired general and analyst. "Indeed, in the winter, it won't be able to hold the ground at night, they would need two and a half divisions. And they have to consolidate the areas they've already cleared [of Pakistani Taliban] in Swat and South Waziristan. There is a worry that they may lose ground there." And while Washington complains of a porous border, the Pakistanis would like to see U.S. troops do more to fortify its Afghan side.

Skepticism of the U.S. review isn't confined to its assessment of Pakistan's progress. "The strategy review boasts about gains made in Afghanistan, but says that they are 'fragile and reversible'," says Mushahid Hussain, a prominent Pakistani politician. "What does that mean? We saw what happened in Marjah and Kandahar. The Americans are looking for a scapegoat in Pakistan for a strategy that has failed in Afghanistan."

On a visit to Washington shortly before the strategy review was released, Pakistani Army Chief General Ashfaq Kayani gave President Obama a 14-page document detailing Pakistan's concerns in the region. "It was the clearest enunciation in writing of Pakistan's core national security interests," says politician Hussain, who has seen the classified document. "It laid out Pakistan's interests in Afghanistan," he adds, "saying that we seek a stable and peaceful Afghanistan — not necessarily a friendly Afghanistan." The suggestion is that Islamabad will settle for less than the restoration of a Taliban-dominated proxy government in Kabul.

The document also acknowledges India's regional role and interests, but argues that it should not pursue these at Pakistan's expense. Pakistan, if the logic of the document is pursued, appears to be preparing for a settlement in Afghanistan that would accommodate competing regional interests. Until now, it has angrily denounced what it sees as a Northern Alliance-dominated regime in Kabul under Indian sway, and accused New Delhi of using its consulates in Afghanistan to back armed Baloch separatist groups attacking Pakistan.

General Kayani is said to have repeated familiar arguments for delaying an offensive in North Waziristan, but the unspoken reason for hesitation is the fact that the militant group there that Washington most wants the Pakistanis to tackle is the potent Haqqani network — a longstanding ally of Pakistani intelligence.

The Pakistanis also believe Washington is adjusting its own position: Whereas it has previously set the preconditions for talking to the Taliban — renunciation of al-Qaeda, laying down arms, and accepting the Afghan constitution — Pakistan's generals today believe these are now end goals rather than preconditions for talks. Indeed, they believe the endgame has begun, and are encouraged by the reaffirmation of next summer as the starting date for a drawdown of U.S. troops — although they oppose General David Petraeus' emphasis on escalating military action.

Pakistan's security establishment seeks to be the principal interlocutor with militant groups in any deal. "The Pakistani military leadership," says retired general Masood, "would prefer some sort of an understanding with Haqqani, so he can share some power in a post-withdrawal government. But Washington doesn't want to speak to the Haqqanis, deeming them irreconcilables." Yet U.S. officials have told their Pakistani counterparts that Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar isn't interested in talking to the Americans. "Mullah Mohammad Omar is believed to be supremely confident of his chances," says Masood. "If he is willing to talk, it would be to the Pakistanis." And that's where Pakistan senses an opportunity to help the U.S. end the war.