The US, Pakistan and Afghanistan

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The August 6 shooting down of a US helicopter that led to the death of 30 SEALS, 7 Afghan ‘commandos’ and an interpreter has led to some serious discussions on the whole regional situation. Various versions have surfaced – that this was a Taliban laid trap to lure in and destroy the Chinook helicopter in the Tangi Valley area of Wardak province that is a known Taliban stronghold, that this was a US operation to get rid of the SEALS who knew the ‘truth’ about the OBL raid, that the SEALS were an Immediate Reaction Force (as distinct from a Quick Reaction Force) called in to back up a night raid that had gone wrong and were therefore not in a ‘stealth’ helicopter or the SEALS were actually carrying out a raid to capture a Taliban leader when they were shot down and killed. These versions of the event will continue to be debated just as new ‘facts’ keep emerging about the operation to get OBL. The fact is that a high value US target was successfully destroyed by the Taliban in Afghanistan.

This incident may not be a game changer but it does point to two US/ISAF vulnerabilities – the dependence on air mobility and the logistics through Pakistan and Afghanistan that are periodically attacked. Reports indicate that the Taliban used a modified rocket grenade – an Improvised Rocket Assisted Mortar (IRAM) and not a shoulder fired guided anti-aircraft weapon. If the Taliban did get access to such weapon systems then these coupled with interrupted logistics would indeed be a game changer.

The US needs to work with Pakistan on this, especially if the reports about talks with Taliban breaking down are true. A withdrawal is the most difficult military operation, especially if it is under the shadow of a political decision to retreat that has already been announced. This retreat needs to be orderly and with the façade of victory or at least not a defeat. Here again the US should work with Pakistan and not just Afghanistan because the post withdrawal situation has implications for regional peace.

Since June 22 when the retreat decisions to pull out 33000 US troops by September 2012 (with 5000 leaving in July – August 2011) were taken, there has been a surge in violence in Afghanistan. There have been at least five high profile assassinations besides seven such events since January 2011. These include mayors, police chiefs and even advisers to the President. The casualty figures for US troops, ISAF troops, Afghan National Army personnel and Afghan civilians are alarmingly high if considered against the results achieved.

In Afghanistan, there is across the board condemnation of ‘night raids’ and in Pakistan there is similar opinion against drone attacks – both these policies are considered successful and necessary by the US. Atrocities like cutting off the fingers of dead Afghans as trophies or killing them for sport add to the outrage felt by many even if these were isolated incidents just as the atrocities in the Abu Gharaib prison will forever be a part of the US war on Iraq.

At this stage failure because of strategic incoherence in policies, especially the policy towards Pakistan can be disastrous. This will lead to all the gains being jeopardised, especially when the capacity of Afghan security forces remains in doubt and except for three Northern provinces all the other 31 provinces in Afghanistan are in turmoil.

The US considers the Afghan Taliban and the ‘Quetta Shura’ under Mullah Omar plus Gulbadin Hekmatyar and the North Waziristan based ‘Haqqani Network’ as the main problems. More ominously the US believes that Pakistan has tolerance for these factions because of its broader Afghan policy – a belief that Indian ‘thinkers’ never tire of promoting. There is, however, increasing convergence on the view that these elements have a domestic agenda in Afghanistan related to foreign presence there and nothing beyond that, unlike Al-Qaeda and the Tehrik Taliban Pakistan (TTP) that have regional and extra regional agendas.

As the situation in Afghanistan deteriorates, Pakistan sees bases coming up in Afghanistan, especially Kunar and Nuristan with known anti-Pakistan leaders established there. Pakistan has also faced multiple attacks across the border with Afghanistan in June and July 2011 and it had to retaliate effectively to the incursions. Pakistan also faces internal instability and exploitation of its vulnerability with criminals and extremists linking with the TTP. Pakistan, therefore, has serious concerns with the Afghan situation, especially the post US/ISAF environment. The decline in the Pak-US ties at a critical stage of the transition in Afghanistan has serious implications.

The conclusion that one reaches is that regardless of views in the Afghan government, in India and some in the US and Pakistan, the urgent requirement is for the US and Pakistan to come together and not drift apart. If the strategic alliance is dead as the US seems to indicate, then a clearly spelt out tactical arrangement must be worked out by addressing each other’s immediate concerns. This is not the time or place for ‘intelligence wars’ or short-sighted retaliatory steps. Pakistan wants to move on the road to political stability, economic viability and internal security – conflict and confrontation do not figure in its present policies. These do figure in the policies of those who seek to thwart Pakistan’s progress.

Spearhead Research is a private centre for research and consultancy on security, headed by Jehangir Karamat. Spearhead analyses are the result of a collaborative effort and not attributable to a single individual.