US Vice President, Joe Biden, is a tough, straight talking, incisive politician. What was his mission to Kabul and Islamabad all about? What might be its consequences for America, Afghanistan and Pakistan?
Mr Biden is the author of the strategic doctrine of “Counterterrorism Plus” (C+) which is at odds with the strategic doctrine of “Counterinsurgency” (COIN ) advocated by General David Petreaus, the head of US military forces in Afghanistan. COIN envisages a long drawn out US military campaign with maximum American boots on ground in Afghanistan until the Al-Qaeda-Taliban network has been defeated. C+ calls for a much smaller core troop and military resource deployment against specific Al-Qaeda targets in Afghanistan and Pakistan. It lays emphasis on rapidly strengthening the Afghan National Security Forces to take over the security functions of the Afghan state. It also wants to work with the political and military leadership of Afghanistan and Pakistan to de-link the Pakhtun Taliban (who do not represent a global jihadist view that threatens the West) from Al-Qaeda (which does). General Petreaus wants to focus on all insurgents while Mr Biden wants to concentrate only on those insurgents who are also global terrorists, the implicit argument being that the Taliban can be brought in from the cold eventually as co-partners in a stable Afghan state that does not export terrorism while Al-Qaeda and its offshoots have to be uprooted and eliminated from Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Mr Biden’s view, as quoted in Obama’s War by Bob Woordward, is that “the allocation of American resources between Afghanistan and Pakistan (30:1) is misplaced because the focus should be on Pakistan. If we don’t get Pakistan right, we can’t win”. President Obama has supplemented this view by remarking that “changing the Pakistan calculus is key to achieving our core goals”. Is that what Mr Biden came to do last week?
Mr Biden wants Pakistan to swiftly go after the Al-Qaeda-Haqqani network in North Waziristan. In Mr Biden’s assessment, the Haqqani network is irrevocably part of global Al-Qaeda (which has to be eliminated) rather than part of the provincial Afghan Taliban network (which has to be incorporated into a future political settlement). Pakistan’s military leaders disagree. They argue that their military resources are stretched thin and, given the rise of religious passion and anti-Americanism in Pakistan, there is no public support for any major operation in N. Waziristan.
In actual fact, however, Pakistan doesn’t buy the self-serving American argument that the Haqqani network is irrevocably part of global Al-Qaeda. Indeed, it supports the view that the anti-India Haqqani network is potentially Pakistan’s biggest asset in any future political configuration in Kabul. So, far from helping to eliminate it, Pakistan wants to protect it for re-launch at an appropriate political time in the future. The weakening of the pro-Pakistan Quetta Shura of Mullah Umar by the elimination or sidelining of the old guard and its replacement by amorphous and autonomous bands of younger Taliban leaders makes this singular potential Haqqani asset even more necessary. This is the bone of contention between the US and Pakistan. The Pakistani foreign office’s warning that Islamabad will resist any foreign-inspired “new great game in Afghanistan” (anti-Iran, pro-India, US-Afghanistan end-game plan for Kabul) is a shot in that direction.
Notwithstanding Mr Biden’s straight talk and reassurances of long-term engagement with Pakistan, therefore, one should not expect any major change of strategic direction by the Pakistani military high command. Certainly, there was no overt mention of any new carrots for Pakistan by Mr Biden.
This means that the US will have to amend its end-game tactics and strategy and link up with Pakistan or it will have to brandish the stick and offer carrots to Islamabad and make it fall in line. In actual practice, however, it is likely to be a complex process with all players pushing and shoving for more space without coming to blows, until one or the other has been sufficiently sidelined or softened to accept the other’s point of view.
In parting, Mr Biden urged Pakistanis to accept the fact of Al-Qaeda’s violation of their country’s sovereignty and reassured them there would be no American boots-on-ground in Waziristan. That is a good bottom line.
Therefore Pakistan is likely to allow or condone more US drone strikes in Waziristan and may even launch its own air strikes against Al-Qaeda hideouts and strongholds. It will also participate in the trilateral dialogue with Turkey and Afghanistan in an effort to find a solution in Kabul that doesn’t trap it in any US sponsored great game for the region in which India is also a major player. Finally, it will insist on a transparent ring-side seat for itself in any negotiations about the future of the Afghan state. At the same time, it will protect the Haqqani network, persuade it to de-link itself from the Pakistani Taliban and try and dislodge it from the clutches of Al-Qaeda so that it is accepted as a legitimate player for stakes in Kabul.
Mr Biden’s C+ doctrine was an advance over General Petreaus’s Counterinsurgency strategy. Now it is time to amend C+ to read C+P so that America can win Obama’s war by “getting Pakistan right”.