President Barack Obama won the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize and has committed his administration to working towards a breakthrough in peace negotiations between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President of the Palestinian Authority Mahmoud Abbas. This has been possible through diplomacy and minimal U.S. military force; if only that could be said for our dealings with the Karzai led Afghan government and Pakistani officials. Terrorist activity continues and intransigent leaders stand solid in their opposition of American interests. Recent bomb attacks in Quetta and Lahore deliver such a message in the midst of Pakistan’s greatest natural disaster in decades.
The embattled Pakistani president Asif Ali Zardari is faced with 14 million displaced people, devastated roads, bridges and disease while his government does not have the capacity to simultaneously facilitate relief and pursue counter terrorism efforts. Conventional thought among commentators insists that the recent devastation from the flooding presents an excellent opportunity for America to boost its image and support in Pakistan with A-team choppers delivering crates of food and supplies and extending life lines to survivors barely escaping the flood’s tide.
The U.S. humanitarian operation during the 2004 tsunamis substantially improved our image in Southeast Asia in the midst of rapidly endemic anti-American rhetoric throughout the region. According to a Pew Research Center report, more than 62% of the world’s 1.57 billion Muslims live in Southeast Asia [i] and radical Islamic ideologies are no stranger to the region. For example, the Philippine approval rate of America increased some thirty percent to seventy percent following the relief efforts and they viewed the United States through a heroic lens. Results of this sort are harder to duplicate in Pakistan since the political structure and major actors differ in critical areas.
The Kerry-Lugar Bill [ii] was not solely an investment in Pakistani infrastructure (education, economic opportunities, health-care) but ultimately substantial means towards global security. The thought of nuclear arms under Taliban control is nauseating in itself and this 7.5 billion dollar commitment is to transform hopeless, poverty stricken terrorist recruiting grounds into economically sound, democratic, secure provinces. This is also instrumental in securing the Pakistan-Afghan border, plans to secure the Pakistan side have been motioned but diplomatic talks with Afghan officials remain sclerotic at best and further complicated by the Inter-Services-Intelligence agency (“ISI”) obstruction.
The ISI, Pakistan’s military spy agency, has an open relationship with the Afghan Taliban, illustrating a central government with links to terrorist agents. [iii] Upon learning this, one would be forgiven if distressed curiosity dragged them down cynicism road since Pakistan is supposed to be an important part of the anti terrorism coalition. Earlier this year, the U.S., the Karzai led Afghan government and the Taliban’s second-in-command, Abdul Ghani Baradar were discussing secret peace solutions but these talks ceased prematurely. The ISI arrested Baradar simply because Pakistan was excluded from the negotiations hence had no influence over Afghanistan’s future plans.[iv] The Pakistani military and government view Afghanistan as necessary to providing Pakistan with “strategic depth” in the event of another conflagration in its dormant conflict with India over Kashmir. Afghanistan provides Pakistan a place of retreat and mountainous rugged terrain to conceal nuclear arms, further emphasizing Pakistan’s interest in reliable and friendly relations with the state of Afghanistan. The animosity between India and Pakistan further complicates matters as Pakistan asserts that India uses Afghan consulates to launch violent insurgencies in Pakistan. This insecurity has driven the I.S.I. support of extremist Islamic militias, all in an effort to protect itself from its neighbors. [v]
Just when the situation could not get any worse, the floods made certain to test the valor of this administration with a fifth of Pakistan, the size of New England, under water; reduced to a state of rebuilding and further away from where they were at the signing of the Kerry-Lugar Bill. Many regions are cut off from Islamabad and other aide centers, consequently weakening the state’s control in multiple regions, most notably the Afghan border. The absence of a central governing influence and law enforcement makes these areas prone to Taliban attacks and recruitment. This galvanizes the Taliban and deepens pessimism in their willingness to cooperate simply through dialogue and is further solidified by the words of a former Taliban corps commander, “Their hope is to fight…They will have fame and support if they fight, they think. They think if they come here (Kabul) and surrender, they will have nothing.” [vi]
Diplomacy is preferable over war but it is apparent that talk alone is inefficient as so elegantly put by Al Capone when he stated, “You can get much farther with a kind word and a gun than you can with a kind word alone.” Our military and diplomatic campaigns must severely damage the Afghan Taliban to ultimately eliminate the strategical value they provide the ISI. A mission of such complexity is only attainable once the Afghan government rids itself of overwhelming corruption, a major deterrent in creating opportunities that trump the appeal of life in the Afghan Taliban. This will create a stronger platform in leading progressive dialogue with the ISI and Asif Zardari to secure and stabilize Pakistan. Working with the ISI is uniquely complex, in light of their support of the Taliban, but is required because of the military role they have in protecting Pakistan from neighboring threats. It’s like persuading a cattle producer to terminate its business with McDonalds in the fight against heart disease. The producer (ISI) must be convinced the fast food chain (Afghan Taliban) adversely affects their long term financial stability (Pakistan’s political & financial stability) and understand their role in the accelerated spread of heart disease (terrorist threat to global security) that’s ravishing through the masses. Therefore, team Obama must work with the Indian government to settle the Kashmir conflict with Pakistan to ultimately extinguish the malevolent relationship between these neighboring countries. Again, another deep rooted obstacle layered in ethnic, political, and territorial disputes that will challenge the diplomatic skill and resolve of the sitting American president and Nobel Peace Prize recipient. Pakistan desperately needs a strong government to eliminate havens for Pakistani Taliban and to confront the threat posed by Al-Qaeda while the United States must remain a reliable strategic partner in this fight considering its intelligence, advanced weaponry, technical equipment and guidance, and focus on disrupting and dismantling the funding and support networks of terrorist groups. Only in this way, as the Obama administration demonstrated with its more nuanced approach to aiding the Yemini state in confronting Al-Qaeda’s affiliate in the Arabian Peninsula, will the United States realign its strategic objectives in defeating terrorism with a sustainable strategy. This strategy must incorporate all aspects of American power, both soft and hard, to strengthen American security and to secure a lasting peace.
[iii] Steve Coll, Letter from Afghanistan, “War by Other Means,” The New Yorker, May 24, 2010, p. 50
[vi] Steve Coll, Letter from Afghanistan, “War by Other Means,” The New Yorker, May 24, 2010, p. 53