US, Pakistan Need to Bridge Afghan Divide

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post on May 14, 2009.
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US President Barack Obamarecently met the leaders of Pakistanand Afghanistan to discuss their fullcommitment to fighting terrorists intheir region. Media coverage of thethree-way talks cast the president'sefforts in a favourable light, even asconditions in the region were beingdescribed, in his own words, as"increasingly perilous".

Mr Obama deserves credit forleading the meeting. Unlike hispredecessor, he fully appreciates theseriousness of America's topforeign-policy challenge. The USpublic, however, must separate theman from the policy. Pakistan'sfrontier region along the Afghanborder stands fully "Talebanised".Pakistan's military, for whateverreasons, has ceded state sovereignty,police and education to militants inareas of the north. And AfghanPresident Hamid Karzai is widelyperceived within Afghanistan asbeing thoroughly corrupt.

It's an open secret that elementsof Pakistan's military-dominatednational intelligence agency assistthe jihadist insurgency which USand Nato troops are fighting inAfghanistan. If the strategic chasmpersists between Islamabad andWashington, the military campaignin Afghanistan will fail.

In eastern and southernAfghanistan, the insurgency hassome indigenous support, but thecommanders ensconce themselvesacross the border in Pakistan.

Hawks within Pakistan's militaryand intelligence services use theinsurgency to blunt the risinginfluence of their rapidly growingnemesis, India, which stronglysupports Mr Karzai's regime.

While high-level Pakistanicommanders have their ownagenda, security forces on theground could have their own.Pakistan's paramilitary force, the80,000-strong Frontier Corps ischarged with law enforcement in theFederally Administered Tribal Areaand the adjoining NorthwestFrontier Province and Baluchistan.

Last October, the US approvedthe Security DevelopmentProgramme to "train the trainers"and improve security along the2,600km border with Afghanistan.But most soldiers are recruitedlocally from the Pashtun-dominatedprovinces and may be unwilling tofight Pashtun militants.

Because Pakistan's securityforces have proved unable – and, attimes, unwilling – to uproot militanthavens, Washington has decided totackle the problem itself. Mr Obamahas continued his predecessor'spolicy of Predator drone missilestrikes, which have exacerbatedradicalism and pushed militantsdeeper into Pakistan.

Aerial strikes and other stop-gapmeasures will do little to close thestrategic drift between Washingtonand Islamabad. Unless Mr Obamacan reassure hawks in Pakistan'smilitary and intelligence apparatusthat India no longer poses a threat totheir country (a promise impossibleto guarantee) then the stalemate inAfghanistan will persist. Mr Obamamust accept the reality that, if the USand Nato want to win inAfghanistan, they need a partnerthat fights its enemies, not friends.