Monday, April 27, 2009

Sharia in Swat: A Big Gamble on a Big Deal?

Informed analysis of Pakistan has exploded in a whirlwind of conflicting narratives following the announcement of the deal on sharia law—the Nizam-e Adl Regulation or NAR-- in Swat and the apparent burgeoning of Taliban-centric religious extremism in western Pakistan.

The United States policy sphere reacted with a hysterical, “barbarians at the gate (or 100 miles from Islamabad)” reading that was widely resented and, I believe, can be properly discounted.

Juan Cole and the Pakistan government took a diametrically opposed tack, along the lines of “big country small problem” and positing that Pakistan is properly groping toward a political solution to a political issue.

The third group, into which I fall, apparently with a lot of Pakistanis from the educated-liberal quadrant, saw the sharia deal as a disastrous capitulation.

I also see the NAR as part of a big gamble—an attempt by Pakistan’s political/intelligence/military deep thinkers to orchestrate a grand bargain that will get the Taliban off their backs and back into Afghanistan.

It’s a gamble that I think will fail, in large part because U.S. and Pakistan definitions of what constitutes an acceptable outcome inside Afghanistan are fundamentally at odds.

I’ve read what a lot of serious people have written on the issue and I will now explain why I still think Pakistan’s ruling elite is going to get its ass handed to it by the Taliban.

First, I would suggest that everyone read Syed Saleem Shahzad’s interview at Asia Times Online with Owais Ahmed Ghani, the governor of the North West Frontier Province (NWFP).

Shahzad appears to be one of the most important channels for both the Taliban and the Pakistani government to publicize their positions but he is no mere stenographer—his knowledgeable, pointed, and prolonged questioning of Ghani’s assertions concerning the situation in NWFP is exemplary and should be a model to all political and national security correspondents.

The NWFP is at the frontline of Pakistan’s confrontation with the Pakistani Taliban and the intelligent and energetic Ghani is the pointy end of the stick as far as Pakistan’s Taliban policy is concerned.

Ghani previously served as governor of Balochistan.

Balochistan, like NWFP, is a destitute and disgruntled frontier province and by all accounts Ghani did a good job of keeping the lid on the province with the carrots and stick approach. Ghani, in a way, is Pakistan’s best hope for managing the NWFP problem and it’s reassuring that Pakistan’s frequently dysfunctional political system has managed to put the right guy in the right job.

Trouble is, the scope of the challenge in NWFP is far greater than Balochistan’s.

Iran apparently kept its malicious meddling in Balochistan to a minimum, despite its detestation of Pakistan’s essential Sunni-ness, its casual trampling of the aspirations of pro-Iranian Balochs, and Islamabad’s support for violently anti-Shi’a elements—i.e. the Pashtun jihadniks, up to and including the Taliban—in Afghanistan.

NWFP—a different story. The mountainous border region between Afghanistan and Pakistan is a subsidiary of Taliban Inc., a flourishing enterprise that can devote significant financial and military resources to keeping its havens in FATA and NWFP secure.

Ghani describes what’s going on:

Last year we conducted, in September, an analysis that showed that about 15,000 militants in arms [in the Pakistani Tehrik-i-Taliban] on an average then, today it is more, were getting a 8,000 [US$100] to 10,000 rupees salary. Their rations were free. All their arms and ammunition were free. They were highly mobile with 4x4 off-roaders, diesel free, petrol free, everything was free. They had fantastic communication equipment, including satellite phones. So who was paying for them? We estimated that they were spending at least 20,000 rupees per person [per month]. A very conservative estimate, 20,000 times 15,000 men times 12 months equals a 3.6 billion rupees per annum budget.

We asked, "Where is this money coming from?" Pakistan has not given this money. no zakat [charity] or donation is going to raise that sort of money. Please tell us where this money is coming from. The route is Afghanistan. They, [US] talk about cross-border intrusions from Pakistan into Afghanistan. What about the reverse, which has been taking place for years, this ammunition, money, narco, everything is coming from Afghanistan.

From what I understand of the situation in Pakistan and Afghanistan, Ghani’s analysis of the Taliban’s strength inside NWFP is dead-on.

His interview is a lengthy exposition of his view that all of Pakistan’s problems come from the U.S. failures inside Afghanistan—which is true enough—though it conveniently ignores little details like the ISI funding the Taliban in their bid to take over the country in the 1990s:

So we are not responsible for Afghanistan. They are responsible - Afghanistan and those people in Afghanistan who accepted the responsibility for Afghanistan [coalition forces] are responsible for the mess and problems we are facing in Pakistan. I am very clear about it.

His views on Afghanistan—stated so publicly and categorically—must be causing Washington a great deal of heartburn as they obviously reflect the deeply-held convictions of Pakistan’s political and security jefes.

They could be summed up as “let Afghanistan go down the tubes”.

If a certain degree of normalcy returns to Afghanistan, normalcy according to Afghan standards, only then can the issues the tribal areas and our provinces and Pakistan face subside.

Ghani all but admits that the price of peace with the militants in Waziristan was letting them use the areas as havens while they mixed it up in Afghanistan. He justifies this hands-off attitude by claiming that the U.S. and NATO presence in Afghanistan is profoundly destabilizing and keeps the local tribal elders from keeping a lid on things on Islamabad’s behalf.

Ghani makes the rather dubious claim that the Swat NAR was promulgated in response to long-standing local demands for sharia law, and not simply as capitulation to the militants.

But it is clear that Ghani is talking to an international audience about the way forward for Taliban, and the deal in Swat is important as a harbinger of his hopes for political negotiations with the militants on a broad range of issues, which will decouple Pakistan’s security concerns from the preoccupations of the United States:

I told the Americans, Petraeus and Boucher were sitting here. I asked, "Gentlemen, for seven years you have been fighting, what is your result?" We have been fighting. What is our result? So we have had to step back and review our strategy and we have come to the conclusion that we will proceed like this.

However, if you have differences with my strategy, then you had better have a better idea to put on the table. If you don't have a better idea, then don't tell me to go back to the old strategy because that patently did not work. Therefore, let me try this, if it does not work, we will come back and discuss it. I told them our strategy was working and we are moving forward.

The trouble is, I suspect, that generously giving the Taliban a free hand in Afghanistan in return for laying off Pakistan may have worked in 2005, but not 2009. With the Taliban more deeply entrenched in Pakistan’s west, the Taliban’s calculation of risks and opportunities may sway them toward a decision to go for wins in both Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Reading between the lines, Pakistan’s plans for a “politically negotiated” solution include the following ideas, expectations, and hopes:

First, the old-line mujihadeen (Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, Jalaluddin Haqqani, et. al.) who are fighting the U.S./NATO presence in Afghanistan and rely on secure bases in FATA, will finally, after years of wooing, enter the Afghan government.

Second, this drives a wedge between the Pakistan-based mujihadeen from the Afghanistan-based Taliban. Hekmatyar and Haqqani will, as a matter of self-interest, seek to weaken their political rivals, the Taliban, and deny them access to safe havens in Pakistan.

Third, the leader of the Afghan Taliban, Mullah Omar, will keep his eyes on the prize—Kabul—and cut his ties to the Pakistan Taliban rather than attempt to take on Hekmatyar and Haqqani on their home turf. As long as Mullah Omar plays nice and doesn’t assist the Pakistan Taliban in destabilizing Pakistan, Islamabad keeps Hekmatyar on a tight leash and doesn’t allow him to use Pakistani money and arms to try to eliminate the Taliban.

Fourth, the isolated and weakened Pakistan Taliban can be contained and perhaps eliminated by a judicious combination of military confrontation, political incentives, and concerted efforts to strengthen the local, Islamabad-friendly Pashtun tribal elders.

Ghani worked the Afghan/Pakistan Taliban wedge assiduously in his interview with Shahzad:

They [the Afghan Taliban] say that it is a jihad for them and they call it a war of liberation against the foreign occupation army. Their focus is not Pakistan at all. Does it mean that we are supporting them? No, sir. It only means that their focus is Afghanistan and not Pakistan. I had only said that this Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan [TTP] has a strange approach on jihad in that their entire focus is Pakistan - they don't fire a single bullet on Afghanistan. As a Muslim, I cannot comprehend their [TTPs] concept of jihad.

There are a few problems with this fiendishly clever four-act scenario.

First of all, for it to work the U.S. has to give up on Afghanistan.

None of the mujihadeen are going to join the Kabul government unless U.S. and NATO forces are withdrawn from Afghanistan. I don’t see that happening. We probably wouldn’t see Hamid Karzai swinging from a lamppost (the fate of his Soviet-backed successor, Najibullah) but President Obama won’t want the signature foreign policy image of his first term to be Islamic fundamentalists dancing triumphantly on their tanks as the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan is proclaimed.

Therefore, the keystone of the Pakistani plan: a split between the mujihadeen and the Taliban, perhaps followed by that most gratifying of developments-- these violent antagonists annihilating each other in a catastrophic civil war in the Pashtun areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan—is not likely to materialize.

Second, by now the Pakistan Taliban is perhaps too valuable a political and military asset for Mullah Omar to abandon.

Undoubtedly, Ghani has been reaching out to Mullah Omar and Mullah Omar has been making happy talk about how he has laser focus on Afghan jihad and has no plans to destabilize Pakistan. However, the old mujihadeen and the Taliban are oil and water in terms of their doctrine, political strategy, and closeness to Islamabad. If the unifying force of the U.S./NATO presence in Afghanistan ever evaporates, things are not going to end peacefully.

Mullah Omar undoubtedly realizes that the Pakistani government is poised to pour money and arms to Gulbuddin Hekmatyar should the old bandit decide to raise the banner of internecine Islamic warfare against him.

In such a showdown, the Pakistan Taliban might turn out to be a vital local proxy for the Afghan Taliban.

I would speculate that Mullah Omar is buying time with reassuring statements, while he and Pakistan Taliban jefe Baitullah Mehsud seed urban Pakistan with sleeper cells in preparation for a confrontation with the Pakistan government that he intends to fight on his own terms: not just in conventional skirmishes with Islamabad’s Pashtun proxies in the border regions, but with a bloody campaign of urban terror that will extend from Peshawar and the other towns of the NWFP to the great cities of Pakistan’s heartland—Karachi, Lahore, and Islamabad.

So I would say that a season of hell for Pakistan is at least as likely as a decision by Mullah Omar to abandon the force securing his rear areas in Pakistan and stick to his Afghan knitting.

Despite his public protestations that the extremists only really care about jihad--and would lay off Pakistan if given a free hand to pursue their jihadi bliss in Afghanistan--I expect Ghani harbors no illusions about the Taliban's bloody-minded willingness to battle with their Islamic brothers inside Pakistan--as they have battled their Islamic buddies inside Afghanistan for almost two decades--to secure their political and military power.

The genuine threat of urban terror has been communicated unambiguously and persuasively to the powers that be in Islamabad.

For Juan Cole and proponents of the “nothing to see here school”, I would direct their attention to a) the bloody assault on the Lal Masjid mosque in Islamabad and b) the bombing of the Islamabad Marriott last July as signs that things can go very bad very quickly, even for a nation of 170 million confronting a small extremist movement.

Finally, if Mullah Omar doesn’t cut ties with the Pakistan Taliban, I’m not sure that Pakistan’s military and political elite has the capability to withstand the armed extremists that can rip the social fabric with terrorist bombings, encourage Pakistan’s vast numbers of disaffected and disappointed poor (Punjabi and Sindhi as well as Pashtun and Baloch) to attack the wealthy local elites that monopolize political power and economic opportunity, and split the nation’s religious community with calls to purify Islam by enforcement of conservative Deobandi norms.

Where does it all end?

It probably doesn’t end with bearded mullahs taking over the government and adding Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal to the jihadi toolkit.

It might end with Pakistan’s cowed elite reeling from a campaign of internal terror and cutting off its support of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar at the Taliban’s behest; recognition of the Taliban as the dominant power in Pakistan’s Pashtun areas; and the Taliban becoming a decisive political force in Pakistan’s national affairs—and the Taliban becoming masters of Afghanistan as well.

So, contra Mr. Ghani, I think his proposal to get the United States out of Afghanistan, turn over Afghanistan to the mujihadeen and hope that Hekmatyar will do Pakistan’s dirty work if and when necessary will leave Pakistan in even more dire straits than it is currently.

Because it might mean Pakistan facing the Taliban alone.

And I don't think Pakistan, divided, confused, conflicted, and demoralized behind the brave front of the world's fifth-largest army, can handle the Taliban by itself.

That makes Pakistan a weak and unconvincing deal-maker.

I guess we could consider the sharia agreement in Swat as a intended local prequel to a grand deal mediated by Pakistan with the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan and the old-line mujihadeen.

And the Pakistan government is defending it so vociferously because, if the fragile Swat deal collapses, the Big Deal is D.O.A.

We’ll find out soon enough if the Swat deal was a victory for the Pakistan government, or a time-buying tactical win for a fundamentally hostile Taliban organization inside Pakistan.

My bet is that the Taliban won’t sink into their La-Z-Boys with a relaxed sigh now that a permanent modus vivendi has been reached with their friends in Islamabad; instead they will use whatever breathing spell they get to frantically prepare themselves for a final, two-front struggle with Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and his Pakistani friends across both sides of the Durand Line as the Karzai regime staggers to its doom.

Trouble is, the alternative to Owais Ghani’s Machiavellian Hail Mary is a coordinated, costly, multi-year anti-Taliban policy undertaken by all the regional stakeholders from Washington to Tehran to Moscow to Beijing to Islamabad in an atmosphere of trust, courage, and commitment—qualities that are in short supply everywhere in the world, but particularly in the capital of the key player, Pakistan.

I am no fan of the U.S. policy in Afghanistan.

In my view, the U.S. failed disastrously by pursuing an externally-imposed military solution inside Afghanistan.

Perhaps, as the Pakistanis have been saying, it would have been better if we had gotten the hell out of Afghanistan shortly after our feel-good invasion, and let Pakistan arm Hekmatyar to the teeth to slug it out with the weakened Taliban for control of the country.

Instead, the U.S. tried to engineer a democratic triumph on the cheap with little success as the Taliban regrouped.

We kept our one-time and potential allies, the old-line mujihadeen on the sidelines (actually, they were fighting us!) while the Taliban grew much stronger.

Then, the U.S. responded to the Taliban surge into western Pakistan with disastrously counterproductive military operations (including the notorious drone attacks which, by the way, I think will be revealed to be conducted by the U.S. in consultation with Pakistan’s I.S.I. as part of a clumsy good cop/bad cop dialogue with various favored and disfavored factions in the Pashtun resistance and not some piece of hyper-aggressive U.S. unilateralism) and infantile political gamesmanship with the Musharraf and Zardari governments.

Now, if we let Afghanistan go down the tubes, as the deep thinkers in Pakistan are proposing, there’s no assurance that the Taliban can be rolled back in Pakistan.

Perhaps this problem has become too big for the United States and Pakistan to solve on their own. And, since Washington and Islamabad apparently disagree on the definition of the problem, let alone the outlines of a solution, it looks like nothing but years of bloody muddle lie ahead.

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