Pushed to the limit: lessons in Pakistan

When I was writing this column, Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state, was about to land in the Pakistani capital with an unusually large delegation, which included the head of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), David Petraeus, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey. To prepare the ground for tough talk hours before departing for Pakistan from neighboring Afghanistan, Clinton delivered blunt messages to the Pakistani government, saying she “will push Pakistan very hard.”

My sense is that Pakistan has already been pushed hard to the point where its armed forces are apparently overstretched from deployment of manpower to worn out military equipment. Though military people here are reluctant to say how much in reserve they have left to respond to possible new threats, it appears the government has concluded that Pakistan would have to pick up the fight it thinks winnable and leave the ones that could jeopardize the future unity of the country.

No matter how hard Americans come down on Pakistan, Islamabad won’t fight somebody else’s war and break its own back. Half of its troops already remain continuously committed on operational deployment, which is not easy to sustain for a long time given the constraints of a limited budget and limited availability of cutting-edge military hardware. In the last decade, the fight against terror has drained almost $70 billion from the national economy, which has already been confronted with many challenges, from rampant inflation to an energy shortage. The recent floods took a huge bite out of the infrastructure and agriculture with the damage costing more than $10 billion.

In the Pakistani capital there is a growing sense of “not being appreciated” by the US and others in the West even though the number of casualties suffered by the army is more than the combined total incurred by NATO International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) troops in the last 10 years. By last count, the Pakistani military lost over 3,000 personnel, the equivalent of two full brigades, and over 700 were permanently injured, while the multi-nation ISAF forces in Afghanistan have suffered over 2,500 deaths since 2001, which includes 1,800 US soldiers. The initial heavy casualty figures during the fight against militants were caused by the Pakistani army’s reliance on conventional warfare. It had to adapt to guerilla warfare to sustain operations in different provinces and tribal areas and seems to have dramatically improved its counter-insurgency skills.

Not only that, the Pakistani army had to commit almost 150,000 troops along the Afghan border, while 43 nations have about 100,000 troops deployed in Afghanistan. Pakistan has established 820 border posts to monitor border crossings and stop infiltrations, but there are simply no corresponding border control points for most of these posts on the Afghan side. There are only 112 border posts on Afghanistan’s border with Pakistan. Added to that, the mountainous and rugged terrain makes it difficult to stop infiltrations from the Afghan side along the 2,600 kilometer-long border. In some areas, the border divides villages and communities in half and even crosses right through the center of a house, leaving one room on the Afghan side and others on the Pakistani side.

What is more, Pakistani officials are worried that their grievances over safe havens in Afghan border areas where militants conduct cross-border attacks on Pakistani soil have fallen on deaf ears either in Kabul or Washington. The Afghan Taliban provides sanctuary and support to the Pakistani Taliban on the Afghan side of the border, specifically in Kunar and Nuristan provinces from where militants staged recent attacks against security personnel in Bajaur, Upper Dir, Chitral and Mohmand in Pakistan. Some of the most wanted Pakistani Taliban such as Maulvi Faqir Muhammad and Mulla Fazalullah still live in these Afghan provinces after escaping military operations of the Pakistani army in Swat, Malakand and tribal areas. As a result of these incursions, the number of Pakistanis who have lost their lives in this conflict has passed the 40,000 mark according to the latest figures.

Pakistan believes unless these safe havens in Afghanistan are destroyed or controlled, it will be difficult for its army to sustain the secure terrain it has gained in areas like the Swat Valley and South Waziristan. As the US drawdown will be completed by 2014, Islamabad is worried that it will be left alone to clean the mess and foot the bill in terms of economic and human losses just like the Americans did in the aftermath of the Afghan war against the Russians during the Cold War. That is why it is reluctant to wage an all-out war against militants in all provinces; instead it is trying to win the hearts and minds of the local population to enlist their support in future confrontations with hardcore radicals.

There is obviously a growing conflict of interest here between Pakistan’s long-term strategic considerations and the US short-term stabilization target before the US shifts the responsibility to Afghan authorities on the eve of its withdrawal. This is not easy to reconcile, however, as the priorities are quite distinct from each other. Pakistan believes it needs a friendly government in Kabul, one with which it can work to address outstanding issues, from Indian and Iranian engagement on the Western front to cross-border incursions of militants into its territory. On the other hand, the US simply wants a functioning government and stable country so that it can sell to the American public a story that the intervention was worthwhile.

The US did not listen to Pakistan’s suggestion for a politically negotiated settlement with the Taliban in the early years of the engagement when the Taliban was weak and ready to compromise; the window of opportunity is long gone. The Taliban is still strong in Afghanistan and is not willing to cut a deal now that US disengagement is near, and the American public has turned against the administration for its lengthy involvement in Afghanistan. In case things go terribly wrong when the day of reckoning comes, Washington needs a scapegoat to blame. Being the usual suspect, Pakistan is a perfect candidate for that scenario.

The background for that scenario was already set up in the aftermath of the Raymond Davis incident and the killing of Osama bin Ladin in the Pakistani city of Abbottabad via unilateral action. Now they are tuning up the final scenario by bringing up the Haqqani network, which was funded and supported by the CIA for many years during the Cold War era. The feeling here in Islamabad is that even if the outstanding issues were resolved during bilateral talks, the US will come with new excuses to whip Pakistan. I do not blame them as we have seen lately that Americans are throwing everything into the basket to lay the blame on Pakistan and conducting a media blitz campaign to put pressure on this nation, not to mention coercion policies the US employed on economic and military fronts to twist arms here.

But this ill-advised policy may backfire on the US because other Muslim allies and partners will think twice now in engaging with the US, fearing that one day they may be left out in the cold despite sacrifices and sincere effort made for the common cause. Lessons learned in Pakistan may have far-reaching implications beyond the region and ultimately may end up hurting US interests more than originally anticipated.

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