It’s hard to figure out what’s going on in West Pakistan. The Taliban moves into Buner. Then they move out. Or the government kicked them out. Whatever.
And I suspect that’s the point.
I think the Pakistani government is playing a complicated double game, trying to chivvy the Taliban back into Afghanistan, selectively pressuring groups that have a presence further from the border and a more aggressive agenda inside Pakistan with a carrot and stick military/political approach, while laying off groups that are willing to use their redoubts in NWFP and FATA only for rest and resupply as they stick it to the West in Afghanistan. (For an analysis of the Awami National Party’s anxious and equivocal efforts to play footsie with local Taliban-affiliated militants in Swat on its own behalf and with the support of the central government, see this post.)
There’s open speculation that Buner’s sound and fury was simply an exercise to give the illusion of activity prior to President Asif Zardari’s visit to the United States next week in quest of American aid largess.
Washington is probably equally interested in the burning question of why Pakistan security forces are somehow unable to keep NATO supplies from getting torched in Peshawar or otherwise interdicted, thereby undercutting the war effort in Afghanistan.
Maybe Pakistan believes that letting a few (of somebody else’s) tankers go up in flames is a small price to pay for showing Mullah Omar that its Islamic heart is in the right place when it comes to tacitly supporting the new jihad in Afghanistan.
Of course, actively conniving at the collapse of Afghanistan in order to relieve pressure on Pakistan is not the kind of foreign policy that a U.S. ally can go public with.
But I believe Pakistan believes that there’s no foreseeable way that Afghanistan can get turned around, and a real fight to the death against the insurgent forces in NWFP and FATA is only going to lead to the evaporation of government control in the Pashtun areas and a catastrophic reign of terror in Pakistan’s major cities, without materially improving the West’s chances in Kabul.
Pakistan has a lot of options if it wants to ensure the failure of an aggressive anti-Taliban effort in its Pashtun areas. And, inevitably–and dangerously—Islamabad cannot discuss or coordinate any of these options with Washington.
In a note to General Petraeus and the punditocracy that apparently has come to the conclusion that the thoughtful and determined Chief of Army Staff Ashfaq Kayani should displace the feckless civilian government of Asif Zardari in a coup in order to prosecute the anti-Taliban fight with more honesty and élan…
…well, I would posit that the Army is on board with the prevailing doctrine of muddled conciliation and confrontation (while praying that the West’s Afghan adventure will die a quick and merciful death and relieve the pressure on Pakistan’s west )…
…and is not unhappy that the complicating factors of the Machiavellian Asif Zardari and squabbles of Pakistan’s self-interested democratic parties are there to prevent the U.S. from putting the army unequivocally and unmistakably on the spot…
…to engage in the all-out war on the Taliban in Pakistan that America needs…
…but nobody inside Pakistan wants.
Pakistan’s difficulties are real, not manufactured by duplicity and lack of will. And they will persist, regardless of who’s in charge.
And I recall, in Vietnam we thought that replacing the civilian dingbat Diem with that tough-guy no-nonsense Colonel Thieu would get the war on the right track. But it didn’t work, did it?
Maybe when the locals believe that a strategy is bankrupt, it’s better to assume that the strategy has a problem, and not just the locals.
I think the United States realizes that the Taliban’s safe havens in western Pakistan enjoy tacit Pakistani toleration. And I think that the Obama administration is groping toward a political resolution in Afghanistan, one that recognizes these havens are a fact of life and make a military victory impossible.
But the Western negotiating position isn’t very strong and the U.S.—perhaps in response to the urgings of General Petraeus—is trying to gain some negotiating advantage through the application of military pressure, directly and through Pakistan.
But nobody has a solution that reconciles two fundamentally contradictory positions: America’s desire to pressure the Taliban (at the cost of Pakistan’s internal stability) vs. Pakistan’s willingness to tolerate Afghan jihad in exchange for local peace (at the cost of the West’s interests in Afghanistan).
Under these circumstances, Pakistan’s best hope seems to be to keep the ball of confusion rolling through western Pakistan until the Taliban surge to decisive victory (or, less likely, decisive defeat) in Afghanistan.
So I think there’s a lot of sound and fury going on, with raids, attacks, withdrawals, and announcements meant to placate the West and disguise a policy of selective conciliation and cooperation.
In Chinese, this sort of misdirection or, more aptly, progress through confusion, is called “Hun Shui Mo Yu (混水摸鱼)”, stirring up the silt in the river and then groping around in the muddy water to catch fish.
It’s a classic asymmetric response of the weak (in this case Islamabad) to thwart the will of the strong (Washington) to impose an unpalatable policy (aggressive rollback of the Taliban in Pakistan) by exploiting proximity to a key area (NWFP and FATA) in order create a state of chaos that can only be left to the locals to try to sort out as they see fit.
As I argued previously, it’s a risky gamble.
The Taliban has its eye on the prize—Kabul. Not Islamabad.
But it also knows that Islamabad would prefer to back rival insurgents—primarily Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, whose alliance with Islamabad goes back decades to before the anti-Soviet jihad—if a struggle for power erupted between the forces seeking to push the U.S. and NATO out of Afghanistan.
It knows that the Pakistan government is shaky, weak, and vulnerable.
And it knows the Taliban has powerful forces, proxies, and assets throughout Pakistan available for military campaigns in the Pashtun region and terror campaigns in the heartland.
So the Taliban might not necessarily respond to tacit Pakistani support for its Afghan endeavors by totally abandoning its plans to make mischief inside Pakistan.
Instead, as the Afghan insurgency evolves this year, the Taliban might still calculate that the best way to secure its rear—and eliminate its rivals—is to shatter Islamabad’s power in western Pakistan, and intimidate the regime through a campaign of urban terror.
Pakistan might find that it’s stirred up the mud and is groping for fish—in a river of hungry piranhas.