This month, Pakistan has sent two asymmetrical signals in terms of the war against terror. One, Islamabad finally admitted the November 26 attack on Mumbai was masterminded within Pakistani territory. It seemed to make efforts to arrest or otherwise control Lashkar-e-Tayyeba operatives waging jihad against India.
Two, somewhat contradictorily, the Pakistani Government approved an agreement between the administration of the North-West Frontier Province and the Tehreek-e-Nifaz-e-Shariat-e-Muhammadi, one of the many front organisations of what is called the Pakistani Taliban, to introduce shari’ah and religious courts in Malakand division and its seven districts.
One of the seven districts is Swat, which has fallen to Taliban militias in recent weeks. The Pakistani Government has claimed that Maulana Sufi Mohammed, the leader of the TNSM, has promised to ask Pakistani Taliban forces to give up warfare.
However, analysts in Islamabad have pointed out that Sufi Mohammed was influential in the 1990s but is a spent force now. His leverage with his estranged son-in-law — Maulana Fazlullah, who led the Taliban forces in the ‘conquest’ of Swat — is limited. Neither can he speak for Maulana Fazlullah’s comrade Baitullah Mahsud, commander of the Tehreek-e-Taliban, the collective of Pakistani Taliban private armies.
As such, the ‘peace pact’ in the NWFP is as likely to fail as the agreement between Gen Pervez Musharraf and assorted tribal elders in North Waziristan in September 2006. It led to the scaling back of the military offensive against the Taliban in exchange for vague promises of the cessation of jihadi activity.
North Waziristan is a component of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, which is immediately to the west of the NWFP. Both regions border Afghanistan and have become sanctuaries for Taliban and Al-Qaeda affiliates fighting American forces.
In 2006, Gen Musharraf had sold the ‘Waziristan Accord’ as an attempt to use local tribal traditions to isolate religious extremists. It was presented as a tactical retreat but a strategic advance. It turned out to be a hoax.
The chess moves — admitting to guilt in the 26/11 attack and introducing shari’ah in the NWFP — would appear to cancel out each other. Is there a method to Islamabad’s schizophrenia?
Superficially, the Pakistani establishment was sending a straightforward message to Mr Richard Holbrooke, the United States special representative whose visit coincided with the actions. It was that Islamabad was a willing ally and trying to help with Mumbai. On the other hand, it faced a compelling military threat in Swat and elsewhere.
There is, however, a more cynical view. Anticipating Mr Holbrooke’s tough message, the Pakistani military-strategic core was also creating a number of diversionary ‘crises’ and smoke-screens so that expectations on it to deliver would be minimal.
Having annexed Swat Valley, the Taliban may be only a short distance from Islamabad, but would it be prudent to see a takeover of the Pakistani capital as logical? It is worth noting that there are no essential differences between the strategic goals of the Tehreek-e-Taliban and the Pakistani Army/ISI.
There may be varied opinions on whether, for instance, America is partially useful or implacably hostile — or on the degree of Islamisation the predominantly-Punjabi Pakistani elite must be subject to. These are concerns for the long term. Right now the Pakistani Army is playing a short-term game, with an immediate and, it feels, realisable prize.The priority for the Generals in Rawalpindi as well as the intersecting Taliban militias on either side of the Durand Line is to regain control of Kabul. This is the greater jihad. For the moment, Kashmir is the lesser jihad; it can be revved up later. That is why Islamabad is pragmatic enough to be willing to sacrifice low-level LeT assets.
The Swat agreement is going to be held up as a template deal with the so-called ‘moderate Taliban’ and with elements within the Islamist collective that are apparently amenable to a political solution. There are three reasons why the Pakistanis hope they will be heard.
First, while US President Barack Obama is committed to intensifying operations in Afghanistan — and the Taliban is already apprehending a ‘Spring Surge’ — it is questionable whether America has the stomach for a potentially 20-year military commitment to the region.
Already there is talk in Washington, DC, of less ambitious goals for Afghanistan. The objective of nation-building is gradually giving way to that of containment.
Admittedly this is not the only assessment in the US capital but it is one that has more takers than at any time since 9/11.
Second, America’s oldest ally, Britain, is clearly tired.
It has experienced military reverses in Afghanistan’s Helmand province. That aside, it fears a renewed war — as Mr Obama has promised — will lead to retaliatory strikes by Al Qaeda sleeper cells among British Pakistani communities. America, with its relatively robust integration model, will be sequestered; Britain worries it will bear the brunt.
An idea of British anxiety was provided, albeit crudely, by Foreign Secretary David Miliband when he visited India and said the global conflict against Islamist terror was more or less a myth. More recently, Britain has appointed Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles as its special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan — he is Mr Holbrooke’s equivalent.
In his earlier job as Ambassador in Kabul, Sir Sherard was famously sceptical of winning the war. He is expected to spend the coming months seeking the ‘moderate Taliban’. No doubt Islamabad will help him by exhibiting suitable candidates of its own.
Third, Afghanistan is due to hold its presidential election in August. The US is certain to dump President Hamid Karzai, convinced he has failed.
His family’s alleged links with the opium trade are also being used against him. Mr Holbrooke, for one, has “long held the view that Karzai is inept”, according to a Washington-based source. The Pakistanis want to see Mr Karzai go, as they consider him too India-friendly.
The search is on for a new Afghan President. Islamabad is determined that it must have its man, and must regain the grip on Kabul that it lost after the Taliban forces were routed in November 2001. All its exertions — whether small concessions to India or alarmism about Swat — are aimed at enhancing bargaining ability and ensuring the West gives it a greater say in who runs Kabul.
After all, as the Pakistanis believe, some day the Americans will firstname.lastname@example.org