By Praveen Swami
December 14, 2016
Ten years after 9/11, a small group of Taliban gathered at the two-storey building in Doha’s upmarket West Bay that was to become the Islamic Emirate’s de-facto Embassy, to begin work on peace deal that they hoped would see them back in power in Kabul. Tayyab Agha, Taliban supremo Mullah Muhammad Omar’s former personal secretary, had been meeting in secret with Western and Afghan interlocutors for months. The new round of negotiations Agha was launching in December 2011 were meant to end a decade-long war that President Barack Obama had come to believe was unwinnable.
Halfway across the world, at the United States Army War College in Carlisle, Pakistan Army Brigadier Naveed Mukhtar was that very month finishing work on his thesis, explaining just how peace could be won. He laid out two steps: “first, the establishment of viable decentralised governance structures at the local, district and provincial levels; the second is the accommodation of moderate Taliban factions as part of that governance structure in select areas where they have a strong influence”.
Brig Mukhtar had a warning, too: “the US must begin and largely finish that effort before it withdraws”. “The challenges”, he concluded, “would be overwhelming for what will likely be a mediocre Afghan security force perceived to be supported by an illegitimate and corrupt central government”.
This week, Pakistan’s new Army Chief, General Qamar Javed Bajwa, named Mukhtar, now Lieutenant-General, as his Inter-Services Intelligence head, part of an unprecedented military reshuffle with huge stakes: to keep the country from being mired in perpetual counter-insurgency. Gen Bajwa hopes to extricate the Army from his predecessor Gen Raheel Sharif’s much-hyped Operation Zarb-e-Azb and his spymaster’s paper might just provide the roadmap he needs.
Planned as an 8-week, $ 250 million counter-insurgency expedition against the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan in North Waziristan, Zarb-e-Azb has now run for two and a half years, tied down a quarter million troops across the region, and cost 10 times more than estimated. Perhaps worse, it’s left behind a population alienated as never before.
For withdrawal to work, Gen Bajwa will need stability in Afghanistan. Chiefs before him, Gen Pervez Kayani and Gen Sharif, had encouraged the Taliban and their allies to reject peace, with the ISI instead urging them to hold out for US withdrawal — and then sweep to power in Kabul. That plan has failed, and it is becoming clear it has led Pakistan into a strategic cul-de-sac.
Gen Bajwa is beginning the game with the best hand any Pakistan Army chief has held since 9/11: both Russia and Iran are backing the Afghan Taliban, Pakistan’s proxies, against the Islamic State. That gives Islamabad solid leverage — but it may be too late already.
In 1924, the British Royal Air Force’s Notes on the Method of Employment of the Air Arm, recording the lessons of its counter-insurgency campaign in Iraq, calmly observed that “within 45 minutes a full-sized village can be practically wiped out and a third of its inhabitants killed or injured by four or five planes”. “The attack with bombs and machine guns must be relentless and unremitting,” Wing Commander J A Chalmier wrote, “and carried on continuously by day and night, on houses, inhabitants, crops and cattle”.
Through the 1920s and 1930s, the RAF exercised that strategy regularly against tribal insurgents in what is now Pakistan’s North-West, routinely bombing civilians to retaliate against the little jihads led by local mullahs.
F16s and helicopter gunships have now replaced the British biplanes — and the results have been catastrophic. Zarb-e-Azb levelled the towns of Miranshah and Mir Ali, and forced more than a million people into refugee camps. Eight hundred thousand are still believed to be homeless.
“Large swathes are now empty,” military analyst Hamid Husain observed after a personal trip to North Waziristan. “Local resentment is at an unprecedented level, and these locals are not militant sympathisers, but [people] distressed by indiscriminate bombings. You can now travel for miles in some operational areas and not see a single soul.”
Through the region, resentment has been sharpened by colonial-era laws that allow savage punishments. In October, the entire al-Muhib market in South Waziristan’s Wana was blown up by local authorities as collective reprisal for the killing of a Major-rank officer in an ambush.
“With a weak government in Kabul,” Khalid Muhammad wrote in the Pak Army magazine Hilal last year, “in-fighting among the leadership and a serious attempt by the Indian government to re-establish the proxies they once enjoyed in Kabul, Afghanistan is a powder-keg waiting to explode”. But an explosion in Afghanistan, Pakistan’s military commanders are painfully aware, could set their North-West alight, too. Gen Bajwa knows he needs to douse the powder.
Last week, Russia’s ambassador to Afghanistan, Alexander Mantytskiy, sought to explain his country’s emerging relationship with the Taliban to enraged members of Afghanistan’s parliament, the Meshrano Jirga. “Our interests are the same as the Taliban,” he said. Behind the scenes, Afghan intelligence officials say, Russia’s intelligence services have been arming Taliban and warlords fighting Uzbek jihadists in Kunduz; Iran has given similar assistance in Farah and Herat. Not surprisingly, part of the aid has been used to fight the Afghan government.
In theory, having allies who back the Taliban gives Pakistan more support for its plans to have them accommodated in the country’s power structure. There’s a disturbing underlying reality, though: the jihad in Afghanistan itself is spinning out of control.
The Islamic State (IS) in Afghanistan has few links to its parent organisation in West Asia: it is made up of TTP elements, often at odds with each other, as well as independent jihadist groups like the Lashkar-e-Islam; it has also seen significant leadership losses in recent months. Yet, in regions like the Tirah valley, IS elements continue to be able to recruit new cadre, and have shown the ability to create cells drawn from educated élites in Kabul and the North, too.
Indeed, the Taliban in Afghanistan themselves seem to show no sign of being willing to move towards a peace deal, their commanders flush with drug wealth and de facto power. In one recent video, the organisation underlined their relationship with al Qaeda, eulogising Osama bin Laden and other slain terror commanders. The Taliban also ruled out peace talks, and expressed commitment to global jihadism.
The stabilisation of Afghanistan would allow Pakistan to scale back its own troop presence in its North-West, which military planners know is not a long-term deterrent to terrorism directed at the country’s cities. Though Zarb-e-Azb did dislocate TTP networks, the organisation struck several times in 2016 — September’s attacks in Mardan and Peshawar, the Easter strikes in Lahore, and the August bombings in Quetta among them.
Gen Sharif’s response to the looming crisis had been to stoke war with India, hoping Pakistanis would unite behind the state. He allowed organisations like the Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Muhammad to revive, in the hope they would draw away cadre and resources from the anti-Pakistan jihadists, and raised infiltration into Kashmir. The end result, however, was a conflagration on the Line of Control that Pakistan’s Army was ill-prepared for.
The new General’s spymaster, all those years ago, had outlined a way to walk Pakistan’s policies back from the edge in Afghanistan, involving a political resolution. The Afghanistan it was premised on, though, may no longer exist. For the General, retreat from Zarb-e-Azb may prove impossible, but ahead lies the abyss.