Monday, August 4, 2008
US Policy Options with Pakistan
With deteriorating security situation in Afghanistan in recent weeks and months, there has been mounting frustration with Pakistan by the US government officials, congressmen, military generals and the media over the Gilani government's handling of FATA, Afghanistan and the ISI. This understandable frustration has often been expressed by threats to cut off aid to Pakistan, increasing US predator attacks in FATA, talk of hot pursuit of the militants across the Pakistan-Afghan border and the hints of full-scale invasion of Pakistani territory by US and NATO forces. Let's take a look at these threats and examine what are the US options in Pakistan.
Cut-off US Aid to Pakistan:
A cut-off of US aid to Pakistan would be far more costly to the US than the amount of aid it hands out. Much is made of the fact that the US has given Pakistan over $10b in aid since 911. What has Pakistan done with it? It is then asked, why has Pakistan not succeeded in ending the insurgency by the Taliban? The fact is that Pakistanis have been far more efficient in the use of funds than the Americans, the British or NATO on the Afghan side of the border or in Iraq. The cut-off of aid would only strengthen Islamists and make moderate Pakistanis less likely to cooperate with the US.
Under President Musharraf, Pakistanis deployed tens of thousands of troops in FATA, lost hundreds of lives and captured or killed hundreds of Al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters, including dozens of key leaders. Most of these militants had been pushed into Pakistan by the US bombing and invasion of Afghanistan. In the absence of Pakistani efforts on its side of the border, the Afghans and their Pushtoon kinsmen in Pakistan would probably have overrun the foreign forces in most of Afghanistan by now and restricted them to a Baghdad-like "Green Zone", unable to venture out into the country.
Targeted Predator Attacks:
Whether done by the US or Pakistan, predator attacks have limited value by themselves. They sometimes kill a few militants here and there, but the resulting civilian casualties play in favor of militants in a revenge-based tribal culture of FATA. If such attacks are done strategically to restore the power of the traditional elders, then there is a greater chance of success. It requires a much better understanding and clever use of the current dynamics in FATA, where the the Taliban militants have replaced the jirga system of the tribal elders and assumed the role of de facto government.
Direct US/NATO action in FATA:
If, instead of using Pakistanis as their proxy, the Americans choose to make it their own war on the Pakistani side of the border, they'll soon discover that it will be far more costly and much less effective in terms of dollars and casualties than the current situation. Such an invasion will turn moderate Pakistanis against the United States and radicalize a large majority of the country's population of 165m people. Foreign forces have a long history of heavy losses and defeats in FATA, a region inhabited by fiercely independent frontiersmen of Pakistan's tribal belt. While a massive bombing and direct invasion of FATA will temporarily pacify the situation, the required long-term occupation would definitely cost many times more than $1b a year on Pakistan's side or the current $2b a month on the Afghan side. And it will lead to major uprising and destabilization inside nuclear-armed Pakistan with severe long-term consequence for the entire region and the world. The cost of dealing with such a major upheaval is hard to assess. It should be noted that the US is currently spending about $10.3b a month in Iraq.
It is, indeed, a very difficult situation between US and Pakistan, a situation that requires carefully considered actions rather than angry rhetoric or belligerent threats. This situation can easily spiral out of control, unless sanity prevails on both sides. The only way out of this crisis is for the two cold war allies and their various agencies (including the military leaders and spy agencies) to find a way to work together toward the common goal of ridding the region of terrorism. The US can help encourage and establish clarity in the current political situation in Pakistan. The US must also understand Pakistan's concerns relative to the growing Indian influence in Afghanistan. At the same time, Pakistanis must see the war against the insurgents as their own war and fight it vigorously and cleverly.