Rethinking the War in Pakistan’s Borderlands

It took the United States government over six years after 9/11 to concentrate on designing a strategy for the war against the militants in the Federally Administered Tribal Area of Pakistan’s border region with Afghanistan. It was not alone. Pakistan too managed to ignore the deeper issues at stake and pursued a half-hearted strategy that allowed the Taliban to make inroads into Pakistani territory and challenge the writ of the state and the Pakistan army itself. Now, as the militants have brought the war into the Pakistani hinterland, things seem to be moving in the direction of a new war strategy. But the remarkable lack of public discourse of the emerging approaches in both countries is symptomatic of the secretive and top-down thinking on this critical issue. For years the US pushed a Pro-Musharraf policy and relied on one man to help it fight its "war on terror" in the region. Now, rushing to put it into effect a new war strategy, even before a new popularly elected government takes over in Pakistan may compound the difficulty in shifting to a Pro-Pakistan policy.

First some background: the US made a serious mistake in Afghanistan by shifting its focus and resources from that country to Iraq before it had consolidated its position against the Taliban. A nominal force was left in Afghanistan under very difficult conditions and all attempts to reinforce its numbers were resisted, for instance by the offer of the Marine Corps to send a special expeditionary force. In effect, the US military command and its diffident NATO allies conceded the countryside to the Taliban, content to policing the cities and their immediate environs. Even the Special Forces, who had gained some rural traction, were largely withdrawn for duty in Iraq. The allies also failed to provide good governance and security for the population of Afghanistan, allowing its Pashtun majority to coalesce with the Taliban and against the regime in Kabul.

On its part, Pakistan recognized the cross-border influence of the Pashtun tribes that sit astride the border with Afghanistan but chose to ignore the Taliban that sought sanctuary inside FATA. In return for the injection of US payments for the army’s expenses in entering FATA, Pakistan concentrated only on trying to curb the "foreign" elements in FATA, the Uzbeks, Tajiks, Arabs, and sundry other nationalities under the umbrella of Al Qaeda that had made their homes in the tribal badlands, some even marrying into local tribes.

Nothing was done to control the Afghan Taliban, who then spawned a Pakistani offshoot. More important, nothing was done to integrate FATA into Pakistan proper and give it the economic, legal, and political benefits potentially available to other Pakistani regions. Ignoring the Taliban only emboldened them, as they fought for space against an under-equipped and weak Frontier Corps and other local para-military outfits. And lack of training and individual command failures contributed to poor morale, defections galore, and ignominious surrenders. Meanwhile the FC and army suffered heavy casualties, showing their lack of preparation for counter insurgency warfare.

In November 2006, the Pakistan army came to the US with a 5 million plan for building up the capacity of the Frontier Corps. Discussions since then have led to a heightened US interest in FATA, with CENTCOM actively entering the picture. The result was a billion Government of Pakistan plan over a nine-year period to help improve governance, economic development and security in the FATA and enhance the Pakistan army’s capabilities in the region. The U.S. contribution will be a little over billion, the most well known part of that effort being a 750 million contribution for development in FATA for the next five years. Another part of the U.S. contribution is the Security Development Plan (SDP) to improve security by enhancing the capability of the paramilitary Frontier Corps.

In the face of a deteriorating security situation, the first phase of the SDP, approved for FY 2007, concentrated on improving the policing and antinarcotics capabilities of the FC and assisting the Pakistan army’s commandos, the Special Services Group’s operational capacity in the region with helicopter support. Much more is (pardon the pun)en train:

• 2 training centers for the FC
• 2 intelligences bases
• 4 sector headquarters for increased Command and Control, and
• A series of Border Coordination Centers to share intelligence, develop a common operational picture on both sides of the Durand Line, and help coordinate the activities of the US, Afghan, and Pakistan army in the area; the first one opening in Torkham on the Afghan side shortly, the second one being built.

The US hopes to begin training of the FC, starting in October 2008, especially its newly raised Wings, through a "Train the Trainers" program. Current FC officers will be trained in counter insurgency warfare. And intelligence training will be imparted to personnel of two new intelligence battalions of the FC. When all is said and done, the overall cost of these measures in the SDP may exceed 0M. But much time will have been lost by these plans become reality. Senator Joseph Biden has proposed an even larger aid plan for Pakistan to help it on its path toward democracy that would triple the non-security aid to .5 billion annually for a decade. He has also proposed a "democracy dividend" of billion to encourage the shift from autocracy to democracy.

But there are causes for concern on both sides. First, in the direct military-to-military discussions there have been no exchanges on the need to politically and economically integrate FATA into Pakistan proper. The Department of Defense has conceded that ground to the Department of State that has been demure in pushing this agenda forward, only recently waking up to the issue. As a result FATA remains an anachronistic appendage, and its population deprived of the full benefits of Pakistani citizenship. A disconnected population will not actively participate in any development plans and this may led to "carpetbaggers" from the settled areas of the North West Frontier Province or other provinces taking advantage of economic opportunities and tax breaks in FATA. Second, there has been no sharing of information by the previous government of Pakistan with its general population of what is planned for FATA with the United States and what conditions for the entry and operation of US forces in Pakistan are being agreed upon and by whom. As a result, the few bits of information that leak out into the pages of the newspapers tend to paint the cooperation in the darkest hues. The danger seen by critics of the US plan is that Pakistan’s leadership may be bartering away its sovereignty by allowing the US unbridled access to the borderlands. Third, a new civilian government is being formed in Pakistan these days. If it is not brought into the picture and allowed to make final decisions on the future plans for FATA and collaboration with the US in Pakistan’s own interests, this whole enterprise may collapse for lack of political support. It would behoove the US and the Pakistan army to bring the new political leadership on board and allow it to decide on future plans so it takes ownership of these ventures before signing any agreements. This would also strengthen the move toward civil supremacy.

Finally, the enhancement of the FC should be seen only as a short-term transitional measure, with a greater and longer-term shift towards improving the capacity of the regular Pakistan army in counter insurgency warfare. Most thinking officers in the Pakistan army probably know that they will not be fighting any large-scale conventional war in the near future, especially against India. The posture there is purely defensive and the presence of a well trained, mobile Pakistan army, backed by nuclear weapons, should be enough to deter any regional hegemon from exerting undue influence on Pakistan.

Pakistan’s wars within, against homegrown insurgencies, will demand a different type of force and a different mind-set. This will take time. Despite his desire to move towards this new objective, the new army chief, General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani has only three years to complete his tenure. The shift in the army’s posture and capacity for the new kind of warfare will likely extend even beyond the term of his successor.

But, the rush to get the US plans into action and to improve the FC’s capacity, without looking at the more important longer-term issues affecting the region and the Pakistan army itself may not yield the intended results. Rather, pitting a locally-recruited FC against its own tribal cousins may end up creating more problems and feed the very insurgency they are meant to quell. Both the US and the Pakistani public need to be part of this important discussion. Haste and secrecy can only undermine these efforts.

This appeared on Huffington

Who will be calling the shots in Pakistan?

As the newly-elected representatives of the opposition parties and their unelected leaders, Asif Ali Zardari and Nawaz Sharif, position themselves to take over power in Pakistan’s National Assembly. They face the dwindling power of President Pervez Musharraf, weakened by the loss of his supporting party, the Pakistan Muslim League Q, and all his other camp followers, many of whom are seeking to hitch their wagons to the Pakistan Peoples’ Party of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto or Sharif’s PML-N. Meanwhile the most powerful man in Pakistan, the army chief, General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, bides his time in the General Headquarters (GHQ) in Rawalpindi. A major concern of his is the undue attention given to the army by the militant Islamists whom Musharraf had riled and then been unable to control. It was Kayani’s public separation from Musharraf in the days leading up to the February 18 elections that spelt doom for Musharraf and his party. By forbidding the army from contacts with all politicians, including Musharraf, and dissociating it from the running of the elections, Kayani made the army neutral. In other words, it would not participate in intimidation of the electorate nor condone blatant vote rigging. That allowed the opposition parties to win back their rightful quota of power in the elections. Now, Sharif is calling for Musharraf to resign and the Western powers are trying to find ways of keeping him on, with Zardari and the PPP hedging their bets for fear of “rocking the boat”. That was the telling phrase used by PPP Prime Minister-in-waiting, Amin Fahim, yesterday. Attention shifts to the role of the army chief. Kayani’s actions and inaction both will mean a lot in the days ahead, especially in signaling a shift in relative power between the President and the army chief.

It reminds me of the events surrounding Pakistan’s first national Martial Law in 1958 when President Iskander Mirza imposed Martial Law but appointed the army chief General Ayub Khan to run it. Mirza’s plan was to ease out Ayub and replace him with another chief. Within days, it was becoming evident to observers in the media and the diplomatic corps that the duumvirate would not last. Elie Abel of The New York Times recounted how he detected a palpable change in the atmosphere of the room when Ayub entered the room for a joint interview with Mirza conducted by Abel and Watson Sims of the Associated Press on 9 October in Karachi. ‘It was immediately clear who was in charge,’ said Sims. Within days Ayub was to overthrow Mirza and take over as President. (I cover these events in detail in my forthcoming book Crossed Swords: Pakistan, its Army, and the Wars Within; April 2008, Oxford University Press.)

The same sort of shadow play is being conducted between the Army House where Musharraf lives (instead of the Presidency in Islamabad) and its rightful occupant, the new army chief, Kayani. While technically Musharraf can still replace the army chief, he may have run out of time. The extent of Kayani’s unilateral declaration of independence from his former boss will become evident in the next few weeks as he shifts some of his principal aides at army headquarters. The first to go may be his Director General Military Intelligence, Major General Nadeem Ijaz Ahmed, reportedly a relative of Musharraf. Next will likely be the Director General, Inter Services Intelligence, Lt. General Nadeem Taj, a former Military Secretary to Musharraf. The DG ISI normally reports to the Prime Minister and the new Prime Minister will want his own person in that slot and most likely will accept Kayani’s choice. Another key position that Kayani will need to fill with a new person who owes his loyalty to him and not to Musharraf is the Corps Commander X Corps in Rawalpindi that controls the key 111 Brigade. This brigade is the one that guards all the key residences of the President, Prime Minister, and other sensitive installations in the capital area and Rawalpindi. It is also the one that undertakes all the operational aspects of a coup d’etat. At GHQ, he will be looking to the Chief of General Staff’s slot also for someone of his own choice, replacing Lt. General Salahuddin Satti, who once commanded X Corps under Musharraf. Satti commanded 111 Brigade when Sharif was overthrown in October 1999. How quickly Kayani makes his new appointments and consolidates his own position in command of the army will indicate the shift of power from Musharraf to the army chief. His window of opportunity is narrow: he can do it now, while Musharraf is still reeling from the shock of the elections and before the new Prime Minister has had a chance to establish his control over government.

A thoughtful man, not given to impetuous behavior, Kayani will be weighing these matters before taking action in the weeks ahead. Watch those posting orders from GHQ!

Democratic Pakistan: an American Conundrum

The euphoria over the successful democratic elections in Pakistan on February 18 has unleashed a torrent of commentary on what next for the US “War on Terror”? The biggest question that seems to be leading to sleepless nights in Foggy Bottom and parts of even academia it seems is whether a democratically elected government might now decide it is not in Pakistan’s interest to prosecute the US’s war in Afghanistan. President Pervez Musharraf had agreed to allow limited US operations from Pakistani soil but did not level with his own countrymen it seems. The story now breaking from the US is that the Predator drones that often attack targets inside Pakistan fly from a base in Pakistan.

Will a democratic government continue this practice of deception? In other words, was the US better off having an autocrat at the helm in Pakistan?

The latest hand-wringing statement on this conundrum comes from Graham Allison of Harvard, an expert on nuclear issues, who now has become an expert on foreign policy and Pakistan in particular. In his Op Ed, marked by some inaccuracies, in The Boston Globe he states:

A Pakistani government whose actions align with its citizen’s views on these issues would be at loggerheads with the United States.

Such misguided analysis miss the point that the reason why the Pakistani citizenry opposes the US is because the US supported a military regime for the past eight years in Pakistan against the people of Pakistan. Musharraf was seen by increasingly large numbers of Pakistanis as doing the US’ bidding and ignoring the wishes of his own people. Gradually, he lost the support of all major social groups that initially supported him: the intellectuals, the media, the lawyers.

Today Musharraf is isolated. No one in Pakistan speaks for him, except his own ex-military spokesman, who is paid to do so. Not even his King’s Party, the now discredited and defeated Pakistan Muslim League Q that has gone eerily silent. The only voices of support now seem to emerge from his few American well-wishers, like Allison, who are looking to maintain the comfortable old patron-client relationship between the US and Pakistan.

This confuses the ordinary Pakistani: Isn’t America supposed to welcome democracy? If so, why does it distrust it in Pakistan?

While the past history of Pakistan’s politicians is not one to inspire confidence, they have lived through difficult times in the past eight years and if they learned any lessons, it will be critical for them to put “Pakistan first” in everything that they do. Musharraf used that slogan too but never translated it into action. He put himself first. Indeed, it will be in Pakistan’s interest that the war on terror now becomes Pakistan’s own war, since the battles will be fought within Pakistan and not just militarily but also with economic and political weapons. For once, the Pakistan army will need to work in tandem with the political system to address the underlying issues that fostered the spread of Talibanization in Pakistan, as Musharraf’s regime dithered. If they cannot work together, the country faces dire prospects. And time is not on its side.

The challenge now facing the US is to accept this fledgling democracy and allow it to find its feet. And for Pakistan’s new government to be bold in attacking the insurgency with all the weapons at its command, not just military might. The deal making with the militants that failed Musharraf will fail the new government too. It’s a huge responsibility. But the new government should not sacrifice Pakistan’s sovereignty to the US’s short-term interest as the ancien regime did.

Musharraf loses a “referendum”; Pakistan wins big

Early results from the Pakistan elections indicate a routing of the leadership of the Pakistan Muslim League (Q Group) that supported President Pervez Musharraf for the past five years and allowed him free reign effectively to convert Pakistan from a parliamantary to a presidential system. It appears that the Pakistani voter saw this election as a referendum on Musharraf. If so, he lost big.

Now what?

There is a possibility of a grand alliance at the center, involving former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and his Pakistan Muslim League (N), the Pakistan Peoples Party, and the mainstream Awami National Party of the North West Frontier Province, with even the urban Muttahida Qaumi Mahaz of Sindh joining in. This kind of government would provide a useful counterweight to the power that resided in the presidency for the past eight years plus. Former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto must be smiling in heaven: democracy indeed is the best revenge!

If Musharraf learns to co-habit with this new dispensation at the center, then he may be able to salvage his place in history. One hopes he resists the temptation to resort to political engineering which brought a previous president to his fall at the hands of an army chief who felt the impending chaos was not in Pakistan’s interest. Indeed, the new army chief, General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, must be credited with having helped prepare the ground for the people to exercise their franchise with confidence that the army would not be party to rigging. He and the army can now move back to the military part of the war on terrorists inside Pakistan.

The new government in Pakistan should now see the insurgency inside Pakistan and in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) as Pakistan’s own war and not that of the US alone. And it needs to employ military tactics as part of an overall strategy that envelopes economic, social, and political approaches. The US should not have to push Pakistan into doing what is in its own interest on that front. Senator Joseph Biden must be pleased that the US can now have an alliance with the people of Pakistan and not with an autocrat, no matter how personally liberal he might be. And one hopes and prays that the new leadership in parliament will not wish to pander to the religious right, as the PML-Q did. Cutting deals with the Pakistani Taliban falls in that category. It never worked and never will.

An important part of the political puzzle now will be control of the critically huge province of the Punjab. If it is in concert with the government in Islambad then Pakistan have a chance of stability that will allow it to regain its political footing and restore the teetering economy.

Stay tuned!

Memories of a "Free and Fair" Election in Pakistan

Looking forward to next Monday’s elections in Pakistan, my thoughts go back to the 1970 elections, when I helped PTV cover the elections in “real time” and reported them directly to the population without any intermediaries. Neither the Election Commission nor the Inter Services Intelligence at that time had the nous to manage the results. In fact, the ISI had predicted that the populist Pakistan Peoples Party of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto would get a bare minimum of seats, as would the Bengali nationalist Awami League of Sheikh Mujibur Rehman in East Pakistan. They predicted a hung parliament that would allow the military dictator General Agha Mohammed Yahya Khan free rein to manipulate the system, to his liking. (Shades of what we are hearing these days!) Little did they know what the people of Pakistan would do. Hungry to exercise their right to vote for the first time in a free manner since the 1956 elections (that were overturned by a military coup in 1958 and followed by direct or indirect military rule for 12 years), Pakistanis overturned all expectations and predictions.

Some 63 per cent of Pakistan cast their votes on December 7, 1970. The eastern wing chose Mujib, the west chose Bhutto. The East Pakistanis by rights could have ruled the country. But the west, the army, and Bhutto, would have none of that. Civil strife erupted. The military was caught in a bind. And to “save” Pakistan, Yahya let loose a reign of military terror in East Pakistan, in the end losing that province to an Indian invasion. Thus was born Bangladesh. Pakistan has never been the same since.

But those elections in 1970 were a huge shot of adrenalin for the electorate and for us in Pakistan Television news. I recall how we set up a system to gather results from each district and reported them to our central office. As they came in, we announced them from a special election studio in Chaklala, Rawalpindi, with a wall-sized chart that listed progressive results for each party by province. We stayed on the air for 29 hours non-stop, sleeping in shifts and then getting on the air again. Shoaib Hashmi, an intellectual from Lahore,  and Ubaidullah Beg, the brilliant mind who was co-host of a popular twenty questions-type of program called Kasauti, anchored the Urdu reportage. I cut in with the English updates. We were on an emotional high, seeing the peoples’ right to select their leaders being exercised in a bold manner. And for the first time, the people of Pakistan believed what we told them from official PTV. They responded warmly.

To help pass the time, I had brought in a book of elephant jokes. We began filling the gaps on air with those jokes. Even translated into Urdu they struck a chord with our audience. We had started getting letters, cards, and parcels with mini-elephants from or viewers while we were still in the midst of our marathon broadcast. They stayed up with us. We were in reporting heaven! I recall coming out of the studio in the middle of the night to see my friend Gareth Gwenlan, standing on the lawn of the TV station waiting for me. Gareth, later famous as the producer of Fawlty Towers and other top BBC shows, had been sent with another colleague to help train us in TV production by the BBC. He said he was watching the reporting of results from his home in distant Islamabad and could not stay away. “I had to be where the excitement was!” he said.

That night’s excitement was repeated with the provincial elections ten days later when we were on the air for another 17 hours non-stop. But it did not last too long after that, as the country slipped into chaos and confusion and street protests led to open rebellion in East Pakistan and then an unnecessary war with India that Pakistan lost. The country wept as our once proud but badly led and misused army surrendered in the Race Course Ground in Dacca on 16 December 1971. Pakistan was never going to be the same again.

Subsequent elections never produced the same vitality and huge turnouts. Even the election after the death of another military dictator General Ziaul Haq in 1988 that brought Benazir Bhutto to power had a turnout of only 40 percent. When Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif won his so-called landslide in 1997, only 35 per cent of Pakistanis went to the polls. The heavily circumscribed election of 2002 under President Pervez Musharraf was said to have brought out 41 per cent but that figure may be open to doubt.

On Monday, February 18, 2008 when Pakistan goes to the polls again, the turnout may well be below 30 per cent, as threats of terrorism scare the population from coming out in large numbers. The assassination of Benazir Bhutto took the excitement out of this election for many Pakistanis. The absence of Nawaz Sharif and his brother from the races also detracts from the validity of the process. Musharraf’s falling popularity among Pakistanis at large will be reflected in the turnout and the results this time around. He may well lose in the long run. He has promised a “free, fair, and safe” elections. But the real losers on Election Day will be the people of Pakistan, deprived of participating in a truly unfettered election.

Private TV channels will do their best to cover the voting. But the threat of controls and sanctions weighs heavily on their operations. PTV will do what is expected of it, toe the official line. Word of mouth, what Franz Fanon called “the native telephone”, will prevail in the end. No amount of government controls or threats can silence that. No matter what the announced party results are on February 19th, in the end the people of Pakistan will win. I hope it is not too long in coming.