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Domestic Support, National Interest and the US War on Terror

Kartik Bommakanti was Research Assistant at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi.
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  • April 13, 2009

    Pakistan’s counter-terrorism performance has received much attention. However, the United States’ capacity to sustain the ‘War on Terror’ needs greater attention, because Washington is the principal state leading the global fight against terrorism. Defeating and routing Al Qaeda was the core objective of the United States following the September 11 attacks, according to former Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) counterterrorism expert Paul Pillar. Washington was prepared to live with the extremist Taliban if its leadership snapped ties and handed over the top leadership of Al Qaeda. Toppling the Taliban, apprehending or eliminating its core leadership became an objective largely because the Taliban leadership refused to cooperate with the United States.

    Fleeing and regrouping in Pakistan following the launch of US-led Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF), Taliban fighters including its top leadership have staged a comeback in the last four years. The resurgence of the Taliban in Southern and Eastern Afghanistan substantially increases the military burden of US-led NATO forces in defeating the Taliban. The latter requires patience, motivation and constancy on the part of the US and NATO. Yet divisions within the transatlantic alliance are growing because of the divergence in perception about the stakes in Afghanistan between NATO’s European members and Washington. While Washington demands greater burden sharing, the Europeans are squeamishly hesitant. This is a quintessential dilemma confronting the West. The absence of super-terrorist attacks on the scale of 9/11 only erodes public support in the West to fight a protracted counter-guerrilla campaign against the Taliban. Waging a war of attrition is essentially what the US and its allies have embarked upon, and represents a departure from the original objectives of the United States, which was the elimination of Al Qaeda and not the Taliban.

    The Obama Administration seeks to revive a variation of the Bush Administration’s original approach by pursuing a strategy that fractionates the Taliban through bribes and incentives even as it seeks to isolate or eviscerate the most viscerally extreme elements that encompass the core leadership of the Taliban. This strategy can only bear fruition if the United States induces and forces a re-conceptualization of Islamabad’s interests. Pakistan’s military is the principal patron and sponsor of the Taliban and its resurgence owes substantially to what Islamabad perceives to be a vital asset in the projection of Pakistan’s power in Afghanistan. It is evident that Washington confronts a resourceful adversary in the Taliban that enjoys Islamabad’s support, but ultimately the latter represents the most disciplined adversarial challenge to the West’s effort to stabilize Afghanistan. This peculiar antinomy demands that the US finance and arm a country that is subverting its war aims in Afghanistan.

    The Pakistan army’s strategy is calculated to defeating the US-led NATO presence in Afghanistan, because its motivational power stems from the interests it has at stake that potentially outweigh America’s national interests. Pakistan shares a substantial border with Afghanistan with a significant Pashtun population of its own whose secessionist impulses can only be suppressed and managed if not outrightly overcome through an Islamist proxy such as the Taliban. Washington’s geographic distance and the absence of mega-terrorist attacks denude domestic public support, imposing a significant motivational constraint on the US’ capacity to sustain a protracted military campaign in Afghanistan and the border areas of Pakistan. Further, the Army, being the apex institution within the power structure of Pakistan and the guardian of the Pakistani state, has an entrenched vested interest in not servicing American objectives in Afghanistan. This is not simply a case of praetorian Pakistan versus democratic America. The US-Pakistan relationship is a power relationship, despite Washington’s surplus of economic and military capacity. Pakistan is asymmetrically motivated to defeating American objectives in Afghanistan. Moreover even if political elites in Washington were to make the case for the US to persist with stability operations in Afghanistan over an extended period of time, an increasingly war weary public may just insist on calling it a day. Power is concentrated in Pakistan, but power is diffuse in the United States. Therefore shifting the Pakistani army’s focus from India to the Afghan border may be fine, but jejune if Washington and its NATO allies cannot demonstrate constancy. Constancy is a function of motivation and motivation is in turn a function of the interests at stake. If the United States’ motivation flags, the ‘War on Terror’ is well and truly lost, but if it matches Pakistan’s motivation, the US will prevail.

    Keeping American limitations in mind, New Delhi needs to craft a strategy that revives consultations with Iran, Russia and the Central Asian Republics bordering Afghanistan and deepen its contacts among all ethnic groups, particularly the Pashtuns in Afghanistan. Despite New Delhi’s official wariness with the Obama Administration’s strategy of co-opting the Taliban in establishing general stability in Afghanistan, there may be no option for India but to go along with the newly unveiled Af-Pak strategy because it may actually work.

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