Friday 11 September 2009

Rethinking 'Af-Pak' - does it really make sense?

The term 'Af-Pak' - now widely used within the Obama administration - caught on quickly when it entered the lexicon at the beginning of this year. Its meaning has been most clearly spelt out by US Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, the President's special envoy on Afghanistan and Pakistan, whose job title itself reflected the new policy. Speaking at the 45th Munich Security Conference, held on 8 February, Holbrooke said:
"We often call the problem Af-Pak, as in Afghanistan – Pakistan. This is not just an effort to saved eight syllables. It is an attempt to indicate and imprint in our DNA the fact that there is one theater of war, straddling an ill-defined border, the Durand Line, and that on the western side of that border, NATO and other forces are able to operate. On the eastern side, it’s the sovereign territory of Pakistan. But it is there on the eastern side of this ill-defined border that the international terrorist movement is located - Al Qaeda and other organizations of its sort - and we have to think of it that way, not to distinguish between the two."
As he spoke, the Taliban offensive in Afghanistan was gathering in intensity, ahead of the expected US troop surge. Since then there has been no sign of a let-up, with Coalition casualties at record levels.
Across the border in Pakistan, however, the PPP government of President Zardari was agreeing a peace deal with the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) in the Swat Valley which allowed for the introduction of Sharia law. Western commentators were aghast at the deal and foresaw impending catastrophe for the country.
Six months later and conditions are starkly different. So much so that President Zardari yesterday publicly rejected the idea of linking policy for Afghanistan and Pakistan.
What has changed? The most significant point is the turnaround in Pakistan's attitude towards the TTP and the military defeat of a significant section of that organisation. Its leader Baitullah Mahsud was killed on 5 August by a US drone missile strike and it is unclear who now leads the organisation.
Fighting broke out amongst the tribes immediately after Baitullah's death which was only resolved when the Taliban in Afghanistan sent emissaries to patch up the differences. It was announced that Hakimullah Mahsud had replaced his kinsman as leader of the TTP, but the Pakistan government has consistently stated that Hakimullah was actually killed in the shoot-out and is being impersonated by his younger brother.
Whatever the truth, the fact is that the TTP leadership is in crisis and the organisation may simply dissolve into warring factions.
Meanwhile, in Swat the TTP has been shattered. Every day the Pakistan Army announces more deaths of TTP fighters (and their Uzbek, Chechen and Afghan allies), while dozens - possibly hundreds - of bodies of TTP fighters have been dumped at the roadside. There is strong circumstantial evidence to suggest that they have been killed after having been taken prisoner by the security forces.
At the same time, no-one in Swat appears to be complaining too much. Most of the million-plus internal refugees are happy to have been able to return to their homes, even if hundreds of properties - and more than 500 schools - have been destroyed.
Today it was announced that the TTP spokesman in the Swat Valley, Muslim Khan, TTP commander Mahmud Khan and three pro-TTP clerics were taken into custody by the Army "during search operations" in the Valley. Other sources say the five men were a TTP delegation that had voluntarily gone to Mingora and Peshawar to take part in secret peace talks with the Army. The talks were mediated by Kamal Khan, a resident of Deolai village who is now a US citizen. In exchange for peace the TTP wanted full implementation of sharia law in the Valley and the release of Taliban prisoners.
The fact that the TTP was looking for negotiations emphasises the extent to which the organisation is under pressure.
In other parts of the NWFP (recently renamed Pakhtunkhwa) and FATA the Army has continued to pressurise the TTP and other militants. In Khyber Agency around the town of Bara the army is running an operation menacingly called Bia Daraghlam (Here I come again), directed against the sectarian Lashkar-e-Islam and its leader Mangal Bagh Afridi. Over 100,000 people have left their homes during the last ten days. In South Waziristan, it was recently revealed that the local political agent issued an order on 14 June under section 21 of the Frontier Crimes Regulations allowing the confiscation of property of every member of the Mahsud tribe living even in settled districts of NWFP.
Considering the above, it is hardly surprising that President Zardari has rejected the idea of Af-Pak. And I think I probably agree with him. The fact that tribal groups straddle the border is not in itself enough to link policy. While some policies make sense in both countries, they are not the same place. How else can we explain the different fortunes of Mullah Omar's Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan and the now largely defunct TTP of Baitullah Mahsud and his cronies?

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