Pakistan: A Paradigm Shift in U.S. Policy
May 6, 2008; STRATFOR
The United States is approaching a paradigm shift regarding its policies toward Afghanistan and Pakistan because Washington has reached the conclusion that Pakistan is unable and/or unwilling to control the situation with the Taliban. The Bush administration is thus pressing ahead with a new policy of denying the Taliban sanctuary in Pakistan. This new policy is not constrained by concerns regarding Pakistani stability.
U.S. Deputy Secretary of State John D. Negroponte said May 5 that Pakistan urgently needs to live up to its commitment to the “war on terror” by establishing its writ in the country’s northwestern Pashtun areas. Speaking at the National Endowment for Democracy in Washington, Negroponte stressed that the United States “will not be satisfied until all the violent extremism emanating from the Federally Administered Tribal Areas is brought under control.” Regarding the new Pakistani government’s approach of negotiating with the militants, Negroponte warned that the United States would have to examine any such agreement or understanding in the light of the U.S. policies he just stated.
These comments represent a major emerging shift in the U.S. view of Pakistan. Ever since 9/11, the United States has been continuously pressing Pakistan to stop the jihadists using the country as its global headquarters, but Washington has not pressed Pakistan too hard to avoid destabilizing the government of Pervez Musharraf. With the situation in Afghanistan deteriorating, the United States has decided that stability of the Pakistani state can no longer be an obstacle to tackling the Taliban.
With the crippling of Musharraf and the rise of a jihadist insurgency, the Pakistani state is already in the process of destabilization. While the Musharraf government was unwilling to cooperate seriously against the Taliban, Pakistan’s new civil-military cannot do so because the Taliban are no longer merely using Pakistan as a launchpad. Now, the Pashtun jihadists effectively have taken control of significant chunks of Pashtun areas of Pakistan. Additionally, the new government is so bitterly divided and preoccupied with domestic issues having to do with political survival that the need to roll back extremism and militancy is not getting the priority it should.
The new government’s policy of negotiating with the militants — from a position of weakness — further underscores the policy bankruptcy plaguing Islamabad. Naturally, Islamabad wants to ensure the militants do not stage attacks in Pakistan. The Taliban would be willing to comply provided the situation in the tribal areas returned to the situation prior to March 2004, the month Pakistani troops first entered the tribal areas under U.S. pressure to prevent jihadists from staging attacks in neighboring Afghanistan and elsewhere. Clearly, Islamabad cannot balance Washington and the jihadists. However, it also cannot take a firm stance against the jihadists either.
The Pakistanis feel that they can live with this situation, however. This is a major miscalculation, because the status quo is untenable for the United States. This explains why, over the past few months, Washington has sent messages to Islamabad that it is no longer willing to allow business as usual — which has been going on for almost seven years now — to proceed.
Three weeks prior to Pakistan’s Feb. 18 general election, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Michael Mullen on Jan. 25 openly spoke of the possibility of U.S. forces operating on Pakistani soil. Negroponte’s May 5 comments are the most direct to this effect. Washington not only has altered its rhetoric, it has matched statements with action given the recent increase in strikes in the tribal badlands.
More recently, top U.S. commander in Iraq Gen. David Petraeus was nominated to be the new commander of U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM), the clearest indication yet that Afghanistan is now the main focus of the U.S.-jihadist war. We have discussed how Petraeus brings a wealth of experience from Iraq, where he has successfully reduced the insurgency to a manageable level by manipulating the political environment. He probably will enjoy a great degree of freedom of movement to deal with the situation in Afghanistan.
But Afghanistan is a problem because Pakistan is an even bigger problem. This means Petraeus will have to deal with the situation in Pakistan as well. This could consist of bypassing the central government in Islamabad and directly dealing with regional elements in the Pashtun areas opposed to the Taliban. Put another way, this means Petraeus will seek to transfer in Pakistan the tactics he used in Iraq whereby he dealt with Sunni tribes to undercut al Qaeda.
Since it no longer is clear that Pakistani security forces are having any positive effect on the U.S conflict with the Taliban, the United States is serving notice on Islamabad that fears of destabilizing Pakistan will no longer justify leaving U.S. troops in Afghanistan in the situation in which they have been for the past several years. Washington cannot possibly make progress against the Taliban if Pakistan, for whatever reason, effectively permits them unlimited sanctuary. Given a choice between Pakistani stability and progress in Afghanistan, the United States no longer will make Pakistani stability the paramount consideration.
Petraeus is not being proposed as CENTCOM’s head — and additional forces are not being deployed in Afghanistan — to maintain the status quo. The Pakistanis do not hear this message, and even if they did, they could not do much about it. They believe they have managed the U.S. pressure effectively since 2002, and that they can continue to do so. That leaves the United States with the option of accepting the current situation, withdrawing or gambling that a new strategy will work. Petraeus is the man who would build such new strategies and Negroponte has tried to deliver that message.