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A Mutiny Grows in Punjab

A Mutiny Grows in Punjab

Mini Teaser: Securing Pakistan is far more important than “victory” in Afghanistan. And the U.S. counterinsurgency campaign is only stoking extremist flames in the Hindu Kush. Washington must pull back.

by Author(s): Anatol Lieven

In Iran, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s movement was able to seize control of a relatively powerful state apparatus and, equally important, to fuse religious ideology with extremely strong and popular traditions of Iranian nationalism. Pakistan as a whole possesses no such nationalism, and while Punjab and the military have held the country together, they have never been remotely powerful enough to impose Pakistani nationalism on the very different traditions of the other provinces. On the other hand, Pakistan is a much more developed and complicated country than Afghanistan, which the Taliban were able to conquer in the years after 1994, albeit in the teeth of strong resistance from the non-Pashtun ethnicities.

If the Pakistani state collapsed, the result would be not successful national revolution but a whole set of horrible local ethnic wars, in which much of the country would quickly be reduced from its present just-about-bearable level of existence to that of Somalia or the Congo. Once the current regime fell, it would be impossible to put it back together again because India would almost certainly make it its business to prevent Pakistan’s reconstitution by supporting local ethnic groups in their struggle for continued independence.

Deeply unpleasant though the choice is, the United States may have to accept a tactical setback in Afghanistan rather than risk strategic defeat in Pakistan. For if the picture drawn here is correct, then U.S. and British soldiers are in effect dying in Afghanistan in order to make the world more dangerous for American and British peoples.

AMERICAN AND British soldiers are dying in order to avoid the costs of failure: the negative effect this would have on America’s prestige in the world, on the reputation and morale of the U.S. and UK armed forces, and on the confidence of our extremist enemies. So, a humiliating scuttle from Afghanistan is not at all desirable. How to square this miserable and tragic circle?

A new U.S. strategy must recognize that it is essential to ease the pressure on Pakistan, above all by reducing those factors which are increasing radicalization in the country and weakening the status and strength of the Pakistani state and army. This should lead to a complete withdrawal of American forces from Afghanistan—as soon as possible. At present, Washington’s intention is to pull most ground troops out once the Afghan security forces are capable of fighting on their own, but to leave major U.S. air bases and Special Forces in country to support them.

This is badly mistaken, from three points of view. First, as long as U.S. troops remain in Afghanistan, the Taliban leadership will continue to fight. They have stated that again and again, and the view of both sympathizers and experts is that they could not abandon that stance without absolutely unacceptable disgrace. And as long as they continue to fight, Afghans and Pakistanis will be willing to join them. It should be remembered that the Soviets withdrew completely from Afghanistan in 1989—and by reducing the nationalist element of support for the mujahideen, they actually strengthened the pro-Soviet regime in Kabul. If American forces remain, then the government in Kabul will inevitably go on being seen as a U.S. puppet. The war in Afghanistan might be diminished, but it will continue indefinitely, and so—much more importantly—will the destabilization of Pakistan. To reduce Pakistani mass fear and hatred of the United States, it is essential that America be seen clearly to take a step back from its presence on the ground in a Muslim country and region.

Second, the continued presence of U.S. bases will make it far more difficult for Washington to develop what should be its core strategy in the region: handing responsibility for guaranteeing Afghanistan’s security to the major regional states. In particular, China, which on the one hand fears the Taliban but on the other is very close to Pakistan, may prove crucial in the long term to forging a regional consensus on this issue. Nothing of the sort can emerge, however, as long as these states can leave Afghan security to America, while fearing that Washington’s real motive for keeping bases is not to fight the Taliban but to build up U.S. regional power.

Finally, to retain a military presence in Afghanistan will mean continual embroilment in Afghan politics—and the general future outline of this seems rather clear. If the United States continues its present strategy of building up the Afghan National Army while the state and the political systems remain weak and dysfunctional, then sooner or later the military will seize power. Yet, Afghanistan’s deep ethnic, political and regional differences would likely lead not to more effective government but to new clashes and further coups and countercoups. If U.S. troops are present in Afghanistan, then Washington will be drawn into these new conflicts as referee, participant or both—and will thereby confirm every belief in Muslim minds about America’s desire to dominate and weaken the Muslim world.

The U.S. strategy should therefore be to continue the present offensive and efforts to buy up local Taliban commanders, while at the same time seeking initial contacts with the Taliban leadership using Pakistan as an intermediary. In other words, the purpose of the offensive should not be victory but a more advantageous deal with the insurgents. The basic terms of this should be Taliban control of the south of the country, continued development aid to this region and some participation in central government in return for the exclusion of al-Qaeda, a crackdown on the heroin trade and recognition of the Afghan national government. If successful, such a deal would surely involve a measure of humiliation for the United States, but would also have certain real advantages.

Above all, however, the removal of the hated American presence, and the end of U.S. attacks inside Pakistan, would greatly diminish impulses to radicalize in that country, especially if the United States can help develop that state economically (admittedly a horribly difficult process, especially under the present Pakistani government).

It is the possible collapse of Pakistan, not the outcome of the present war in Afghanistan, which is the really terrible threat to America and its allies from this part of the Muslim world.

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