American Special Forces in Pakistan: Back to the Future?
American Special Forces in Pakistan: Back to the Future?
Encouraged by Iraqi experience, the US is poised to get more involved in Pakistan
Paula R. Newberg: YaleGlobal, 21 November 2007
New target: US special forces trainers may be headed for Pakistan's unruly border in a desperate bid to win support among Islamist tribals
WASHINGTON: This week, a Cold War breeze swept across South Asia when the US military revealed unofficially that it is making plans for direct action against militants in Pakistan’s unruly tribal areas. The area that prompted one-time British viceroy to India Lord Curzon to caution that “frontiers are the chief anxiety of nearly every Foreign Office in the civilized world” is once again a battleground for competing ideologies and proxy fighters. Sad to say, we’ve seen this show before.
Some two decades ago the US and Pakistan nurtured some of the same individuals and groups – then called “fiercely independent Afghan mujahideen” against the Soviet Union - that are now its counter-terrorism targets. The “success” of those operations in the 1980s sowed the seeds of today’s combative radical cleric's intent on destabilizing both Afghanistan and Pakistan, and created conditions for the return of US intelligence, and now US soldiers, to the tribal areas.
Ignoring the blowback lessons of its earlier interventions, the US plans to fund Pakistan’s paramilitary Frontier Corps – a civilian force whose members are recruited from the very tribes whose adventures it hopes to quell and place soldiers from the US Joint Special Operations Command “on the ground” with them. This is a script for political tragedy. American soldiers, heading toward combat with militant groups whose anti-Americanism is fueled by the US-led war in Iraq (and US failures elsewhere in the Middle East), are bringing with them a plan adapted from their Iraq strategy. For Muslim clerics and their followers, who believe the US-led war is a fight against Islam, this is deliberate insult added to profound injury. For Pakistan and Afghanistan, both Muslim majority states coping with long histories of sectarian conflict, the burden of this policy will complicate difficult state-building challenges. In India and the spillover states of Central Asia, where back-burner insurgencies and latent anti-Americanism have already joined forces, the presence of American soldiers will add fat to the fire. And the specter of a nuclear state whose assets can be compromised, whether by militants or their sympathizers in government and the army, is a frightening one.
The first place to shoulder the burdens of this new initiative, of course, will be Pakistan. Coming on the heels of Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte’s fruitless efforts to persuade General Pervez Musharraf to lift Pakistan’s state of emergency, the Defense Department’s disclosure highlights three dangerous trends: Ineffective alliances that have spawned chaos on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border; ongoing crises within the Pakistan state and government; and deep divisions between America’s soldiers and diplomats over the way to handle Pakistan’s current emergency.
Fatigue, frustration and failure dog Pakistan’s counter-terrorism campaign. For centuries, the absence of state control was the proudest feature of the porous border that now separates Pakistan and Afghanistan. The migration of narcotics, arms and fighters long supported insurgents, irredentists, and ideologues Islamabad – and often, Washington – took advantage of the deniability the permeable boundary afforded to cross-border activities well into the 1990s.
When war resumed in Afghanistan in 2001, the Pakistan-Afghan border should have been closed to all but legitimate refugees. This did not happen. Afghanistan’s impeded recovery, and Pakistan’s imploding domestic security, arose from Musharraf’s reluctance to plug the holes in the border, take on cross-border tribes and stop illicit contact between the militants, intelligence agencies and security forces. Instead, he chose the appearance of short-term stability over long-term security by bargaining with religious parties, tribal leaders and militants – all of whom he finds easy to betray. Broken agreements and damaged credibility, as much as jihadist - doctrine, have provided political space for militants to fill.
Musharraf’s only real constituency, the military, has been unwilling to sustain casualties. He therefore removed the army from the tribal region of Waziristan, persuading the tribes – historically resentful of army presence -- to secure their territory against militants. This bargain on the cheap, like 19th century British efforts to buy off the tribes, quickly failed. The government has since forced villagers out of their homes and harassed legitimate tribal businessmen with little regard to the law. So many tribal leaders have been killed by militants in retaliation for their collaboration with Islamabad that few are left to anchor a new political environment (and work with American soldiers, should they arrive). Waziristan today is like the West Bank in the early 1980s, when the assassination of liberal Palestinian mayors left politics to extremists.
The foolhardy policies that have brought unrest to Pakistan’s borders and fear to its citizens have paralyzed the frontier – not because militancy is popular, but because Pakistan’s proxy for US policy is not. Musharraf finally admitted this summer that Afghan militants have been sheltered in the tribal areas – a place that departing US Homeland Security Advisor Frances Townsend called, with curious understatement, “something of an ungoverned space.” Until recently, however, the government barely acknowledged the rise of militants like Maulana Fazlullah – so-called “Pakistani Taliban” – who have steadily gained territory elsewhere in the Frontier. Musharraf’s proclamation of emergency refocused attention on the broad, radical challenge to the writ of the Pakistani state.
Today, Fazlullah’s crusade to remove the Swat Valley from the ambit of modernity and the reach of government has displaced thousands of Swatis. Killings are on the rise, the army has sustained substantial casualties, and Swat, like the Northwest Frontier, has become a no-go area. Like Swat’s “Mad Mullah” Saidullah, whose 1897 jihad against the British contested the border between Afghanistan and British India (now Pakistan), Fazlullah seems unlikely to succumb to Musharraf’s faux bargains. He may broadcast the language of conservative theology, but his canny rhetoric reflects a politician’s hostility to the US-Pakistan alliance.
This is no small crisis, and reinforces the difficulty of the counter-terrorism challenge. Militancy in Pakistan is not a simple outgrowth of Afghanistan’s war, or even of the army’s favored Kashmir jihadis. Pakistan’s army cannot control extremists – even those it once patronized – in Swat, Kashmir, the Frontier or the Punjab. No doubt the US believes that its own forces can counter terror more efficiently than Pakistan’s army can.
Pakistan’s failing governance is bound inextricably to policies that alternately symbolize, determine and undercut its capacity to secure its territory, citizens and instrumentally, its alliance with the US. If the new Pentagon plan is any indication, however, the US military doesn’t believe that rising militancy has anything to do with Pakistan’s fragile governance, or that US assistance– which has consistently strengthened the central, militarized state as a matter of operational convenience – has contributed to the current governance crisis.
Instead, USAID is spending $750 million to help Islamabad bring the tribal areas under direct rule, and facilitate military control over a restive border region. The Defense Department plans to provide direct assistance to civilians on the border, and central government ministries, in aid of similar goals.
By militarizing its relationship with the Interior Ministry, the US extends the reach of army rule at the very moment that civilian governance has been suppressed. By transferring funds and technology directly to the Frontier Corps, the US jeopardizes India’s hard-won, if limited, rapprochement with Pakistan, including over Kashmir – a valley perilously close to Swat’s, enmeshed in sectarian battles, and a trigger for conflicts large and small. US soldiers may defeat a few militants, but they will almost certainly alienate Pakistan’s forcibly disenfranchised voters, who rightly disdain America’s alliance with Musharraf in the last days of his rule.
Paula Newberg has covered Pakistan’s politics for almost three decades and is the author of “Judging the State: Courts and Constitutional Politics in Pakistan.”