The Afghan policy review

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The latest review of the United States policy in Afghanistan, released on December 16, does not set out any new goals but reiterates its policy to disrupt, dismantle, and eventually defeat Al-Qaeda in the region (Afghanistan and Pakistan) and to prevent its return to either country. It also endorses the decision taken at the Lisbon Conference in the third week of October 2010 to pull out NATO-US troops by the end of 2014 after transferring security responsibilities to the Afghan National Army and the Police. The review also hinted at the beginning of a responsible reduction of US forces in July 2011.

The report suggests that the US attaches importance to its ties with Pakistan and wants to stay engaged with Pakistan as a part of its sustained long-term commitment to the region. However, the report emphasised that Pakistans cooperation would be needed to remove the safe haven of the al-Qaeda and the Afghan Taliban in Pakistans tribal areas. Admiral Michael Mullen was more forthright in urging Pakistan to launch non-discriminatory security operations against all extremist and terrorist groups, especially the Al-Qaeda and the Afghan Taliban, based in Pakistans tribal areas, especially in North Waziristan. The cross-border movement of the Afghan Taliban from and to Pakistan is viewed by Americans as the sole cause of their failure to overwhelm the Taliban in Afghanistan. This demand will be sweetened by continued American support to Pakistans socio-economic development, provision of civilian and military assistance and an active dialogue on Pakistans strategic priorities.

This is the third major review of the Afghanistan situation by the Obama Administration. The first policy framework was announced towards the end of March 2009. This was followed by another review in Septmber-November2009 and announcement of policy framework on December 1, 2009. In early 2010, the US began to gradually add new 30,000 troops in Afghanistan, raising the number of US troops to around 94000. In February, the US started the long awaited security operation in the Merjah and Nad-Ali area in the Helmand province.

Despite the optimism expressed in the latest review of the Afghan situation, the NATO-US troops did not register any significant military success in Afghanistan in 2010. The US military authorities can talk of more Taliban being killed by their operations but the Taliban seem to be operating in Afghanistan with a lot of freedom. The coalition troops often expel the Taliban from an area but the Taliban return after some time because the coalition troops face the problem of sustaining their hold over territory. The Afghan National Army and the Police have so far shown little capacity to hold on to an area without the support of American troops.

The problems of the US-NATO coalition troops in Afghanistan cannot be attributed solely to the cross-border movement of the Taliban from and to Pakistans tribal areas. The predominant majority of the Afghan Taliban is based in Afghanistan. Further, the movement of the militants is in both directions. If some Afghan Taliban cross over to Pakistani tribal areas, a good number of Pakistani Taliban take refuge in Afghanistan. They return to Pakistan to launch violent activities.

The problem of cross-border movement cannot be addressed by public denunciation of Pakistan. The US and Pakistan need to coordinate border monitoring system. In August-September 2010 Pakistan had set up 821 check posts on the Pakistan-Afghan border as compared to 112 check posts established by the coalition forces on the Afghan side. If cross border movement is the main or sole cause of American predicament in Afghanistan, the U.S. military authorities need to set up more posts on the Afghan side and increase surveillance in collaboration with the Pakistan Army rather than putting all responsibility on Pakistan.

Pakistan has lost 2273 military and paramilitary personnel in war of terrorism up to September 2010. American human losses in Afghanistan are less than that. This fact is hardly known outside of Pakistan.

What has contributed to anti-U.S. sentiments in Pakistan more than anything else is the inability of the U.S. authorities and the leaders of public opinion to acknowledge the sacrifices by Pakistan and their failure to understand the socio-economic predicament of Pakistan caused by the terrorism after September 2001. The key concern in Washington in 2007-2008 was to make sure that Pakistans contribution to countering terrorism is worth the funds the U.S. was providing to Pakistan.

The public denunciation of Pakistan and demand for do more has irritated even those who are otherwise favourably disposed towards the US. A large part of anti-American sentiment in the official circles, especially in the military, can be explained with reference to what is viewed as undue American pressure and interference in Pakistans internal affairs, especially not letting the military authorities decide on their own about security operations against terrorist groups. Some critics go to the extent of suggesting that the US treats Pakistani military as a mercenary force, asking it to do what they demand in return for economic assistance and military sales.

There is a need to understand that the security operation in the tribal areas and Swat created a serious refugee problem. The rehabilitation of the displaced Swat people has not been completed. The return of the people to South Waziristan started earlier this month, although the security operation ended in December 2009. There are displaced people from other tribal areas living in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa. Very little is known about them outside of Pakistan.

Pakistan also faces a multitude of terrorist groups in the Punjab. Further, there is Indian military and diplomatic pressure on Pakistan that forces Pakistan to stay vigilant on the India-Pakistan border. The U.S. does not want to risk its newfound friendship with India by working towards diffusing tension between India and Pakistan and encouraging them to return to dialogue on their contentious issues.

The more pressure and demands on Pakistan the greater will be the anti-American sentiments in Pakistan. This trend can be countered by appreciating Pakistani sacrifices, understanding its security concerns, problems and difficulties and working for consensus-approach rather than assuming that the US knows best about dealing with terrorism

The writer is an independent political and defence analyst.