Tonight I am leading my local Foreign Policy Association’s Great Decision discussion group on the Afghanistan/Pakistan conflict. My presentation will largely stem from FPA’s Great Decision article written by Afghan expert and US government consultant on Afghanistan, Barnett R. Rubin, and an accompanying video debating the key issues of the conflict. There will be two main issues we will address during our discussion: Negotiating with the Taliban and US drone-missile attacks inside of Pakistan.
Regarding the first issue, Patrick French, a scholar and with family connections in Pakistan’s Swat region, recently allowed to be ruled by Sharia law by the Paki government, argues that this is a disastrous policy. He asserts that the Swat settlement was an appeasement of radical Taliban leaders who will continue to foment unrest and violence further and further into the Pakistan. Here is a good summary of his thoughts:
Shariah law has been imposed, allowing elderly clerics to dictate the daily lives of the Swati people. President Zardari’s foreign minister, Shah Mehmood Qureshi, describes this as “a local solution to a local problem,” but the deal with the Taliban represents the most serious blow to the country’s territorial integrity since the civil war of 1971, when the land that became Bangladesh was given up. When territory is surrendered in this way, it is very difficult for the state to recover it. The central premise behind the war on terrorism was that extremist groups should not be allowed sanctuaries from which to threaten the rest of the world. In that context, the loss of Swat offers the Taliban and other extremist groups a template for the future.
The Swat deal has ramifications for US negotiations with the Afghan Taliban as the fear of Swat-like appeasement must be watched carefully. Pakistan’s decision to make a deal with the Swat Taliban seems to have come from a position of weakness, something US military officials already have voiced that would be loathed to do. Obama’s troop surge may indeed be deployed for the central aim of making some security breakthroughs, where the Afghan and US government could then negotiate from a more stable, strengthened position.
French’s jarring description of the Paki-Swat deal is a fair warning of the challenges faced in dealing with the Taliban, as there is the real fear that the Taliban will not stop or be appeased, that they will keep on ‘grabbing for land and power.’
The 2nd topical issue is the Obama’s administration’s possible expanding of the range of drone missile attacks inside of Pakistan. The logic would be to hit and disrupt Taliban elements who are currently enjoying a safe haven deeper inside Pakistan, specifically near Baluchistan, beyond the FATA and Northwest Territories. This sounds like only a military solution to a military/political problem. The fact that these Taliban leaders, including Baitullah Mehsud and Mullah Omar, can live safely deep inside Pakistan, combined with the Swat deal, is an obvious failure of the Paki government and drone attacks will not solve the problem alone. I’m sure the US military and government knows this, but they must be careful before they institute such a policy as the drones may slowly erode Taliban strategic elements, and may even lead to the elimination of senior leaders, but they may also undermine the Islamabad government’s legitimacy and could turn more Pakistani civilians, who may be caught in the cross fire, away from moderate forces.