This Spring America’s target is not Iran but Pakistan

On February 27 2007, US Vice President Dick Cheney paid a surprised visit to Pakistan and held private talks with General Musharraf. After the meeting, Cheney refused to comment on the nature of his visit and left for Afghanistan. The New York Times stated that Cheney was sent to remind Musharraf that he must take stiffer action against the Taleban; otherwise US aid will be in jeopardy. The Pakistani government issued the following statement: “Cheney expressed US apprehensions of regrouping of Al Qaeda in the tribal areas and called for concerted efforts in countering the threat”, and also talked of “serious US concerns on the intelligence being picked up of an impending Taliban ‘spring offensive’ against allied forces in Afghanistan.” Cheney’s trip coincided with Britain’s Foreign Secretary, Margaret Becket’s visit to Pakistan. Becket also pressed the Pakistani government to take more action against Al Qaeda and the Taliban, but struck more reconciliatory tone. Speaking at the Foreign Services Academy on a lecture entitled ‘The UK and Pakistan: partners in diplomacy’, she stated that the UK would not link its aid to Pakistan over its performance on counter-terrorism measures. So what was the purpose of Cheney’s visit to Pakistan? Does the British stance suggest cracks in the Anglo-American alliance over Afghanistan?

Cheney’s visit comes nearly two weeks after Bush gave his speech on Afghanistan at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), where he set out US goals to stabilize Afghanistan and warned about the Taliban spring offensive. Bush said,” The snow is going to melt in the Hindu Kush Mountains, and when it does we can expect fierce fighting to continue. The Taliban and al Qaeda are preparing to launch new attacks…This spring there is going to be a new offensive in Afghanistan, and it’s going to be a NATO offensive.” Other US officials most notably US Secretary of Defence, Robert Gates and US Assistant Secretary of State, Richard Boucher have also visited Pakistan in the past month. Gates’s visit focussed on how to secure greater freedom for US and NATO forces to launch strikes against Taleban sanctuaries and conduct military forays deep inside the Pakistani tribal areas, whilst Boucher reviewed Musharraf’s progress on the peace deals signed with tribal elders.

The visits by senior officials of the Bush administration to Pakistan demonstrate that the carrot and stick policy adopted against the Pashtun resistance and their supporters, since 2003 has started to unravel. The carrot disguised as Afghan national reconciliation drive was meant to entice moderate elements of the Taleban, Al-Qaeda, Afghan Mujihideen and ordinary Pashtuns radicalized by the war–”together they constitute the Pashtun resistance–”into a political process to bolster Karzai’s fledging government.

The US is still encouraging Karzai’s government to explore ways of accommodating moderate elements of the resistance. On January 27 2007, Karzai renewed the offer of peace talks. He said, “While we are fighting for our honour, we still open the door for talks and negotiations with our enemy who is after our annihilation and is shedding our blood.” Karzai’s gestures of peace comes amid the passing of a bill on National Stability And Reconciliation by both the Meshrano Jirga (Council of Elders) and the Wolesi Jirga (People’s Council). The bill offers blanket amnesty to all parties, and after demonstrations in Kabul demanding its implementation, awaits Karzai’s signature. Nevertheless, the US has ruled out the inclusion of hardened Taliban fighters such as Daud Ullah.

To curb the tribal support enjoyed by the Pushtun resistance, peace-pacts were introduced by the Musharraf government. These were designed to achieve two objectives. Firstly to entice tribal elders in laying down their arms, dismantling the jihadi infrastructure and surrendering elements of the Pashtun resistance hostile to America in exchange for economic aid. Secondly, to use the lull in fighting to assemble a moderate faction of the Taleban, take helm of the Pushtun resistance and invest it in a political process. The stick comprised of punitive measures to isolate and destroy hardcore Pashtun resistance leaders vehemently opposed to the NATO’s occupation of Afghanistan, and Pakistan’s collaboration with the US.

The peace deals struck by Pakistan had tacit approval from the Bush administration. However, the callous killing of civilians by NATO forces and Pakistani troops on both sides of the border combined with the endemic corruption and injustices of the Karzai government, have transformed the parochial Pashtun resistance into a mass movement. When the European Union (EU) took command of NATO they were shocked by the ferocity of the resistance and laboured hard to contain its growing influence in the Southern Afghanistan. The rising NATO causalities spurred the EU, especially Britain to expose Taliban sanctuaries in Pakistan. This forced the Bush administration to gradually withdraw its support for the peace deals. By now Pakistan was also struggling to gain control of the Pashtun resistance. British influence in the religious seminaries, amongst the scholars and in the tribal areas, foiled Pakistan’s attempt to create a monolithic Taliban army that Pakistan could use effectively. Beyond Quetta and some parts of tribal areas the new Taliban failed to make impact.

It is not the first time the EU has been at odds with the US over Afghanistan. European countries have consistently refused to deploy a significant numbers of troops assist NATO efforts in Afghanistan. In his speech at the AEI, President Bush lamented at European countries for their failings. He said, “For NATO to succeed, member nations must provide commanders on the ground with the troops and the equipment they need to do their jobs…As well, allies must lift restrictions on the forces they do provide so NATO commanders have the flexibility they need to defeat the enemy wherever the enemy may make a stand.” The EU’s reluctance to contribute to NATO’s mission in war torn Afghanistan can only be explained by its desire to see America fail in Afghanistan. But at the same time the EU does not want to see Islam returning to Afghanistan–a political conundrum it has been unable to solve.

The additional US and UK soldiers sent to be bolster NATO troops in Afghanistan fall way short of the numbers required to confront the Pashtun resistance. The troop numbers have been further exacerbated by America’s distrust of the Afghan army–the army has been intentionally deprived of heavy weaponry–”rendering almost useless in any upcoming battle. All of this means that the US will have to bear the brunt of the fighting. This comes as a huge blow– US forces are over stretched in Iraq and there are not enough troops to send to Afghanistan. The situation is rapidly deteriorating in Afghanistan. The assassination attempt on Dick Cheney clearly highlights America’s predicament.

To redress this situation America has again turned to Musharraf to prepare for a mini war in the tribal belt and Southern Afghanistan. Negroponte’s remarks about Al Qaeda regrouping in Pakistan and the recent US intelligence assessments echoing similar findings are intended to prepare opinion both at home and abroad for this war. It is expected that Pakistan will provide the bulk of the troops for this offensive, while NATO will utilize the American build up in the Gulf to conduct air strikes and limited ground operations.

America knows full well that she will not be able to crush the Pashtun resistance and that Musharraf may not survive. But the US has no choice–it is make or break for the US in Afghanistan and the calculus of Musharraf survival is irrelevant. America’s tactical goal is to degrade the resistance in Afghanistan and confine it to a small area until next spring. By then the Bush administration hopes that situation in Iraq would have stabilized and there would be more US troops to confront the Pashtun resistance in Afghanistan 2008. But the reality may turn out to be entirely different–instead of the Pashtun resistance the Caliphate could be waiting for America.