Waris Husain Editorial: The Iraq-ization of Af-Pak

To be published in Pakistan Post.

The closing of the NATO supply lines by Pakistan, under direction of the Army, was merely a gesture but could send an ominous sign regarding Pakistan’s perception of the increasingly aggressive stance taken by Obama. Bob Woodward’s new book shows that Obama is highly concerned with continuing the exit strategy from all theatres of war especially after moderate success in Iraq. However, the President has failed to distinguish both in his mind and rhetoric the inherent differences between the Afghanistan-Pakistan conflict and Iraq. In his rush to exit the area, Obama is repeating the mistake of his predecessors by letting the opportunity to become a long-term partner in stabilizing Pakistan and building Afghanistan slip away into the sands of election cycles. This has led to an increasingly adversarial relationship with Pakistan, which must be resolved if the U.S. is to have its goal of eliminating the threat of terrorism in the area.

            In painting the picture to the populace, the President failed to highlight the difference in mission that would have to be fought in Iraq versus that of Afghanistan. Even looking at the starting point of both nations paints a picture of the necessity of a longer-term U.S. presence in Afghanistan than Iraq. Where Iraq was a developing nation with a national army and was able to provide its population with moderate social services, Afghanistan was ruled by the brutal rule of the Taliban who were not trained in the management of a fledgling nation. Thus, unlike Iraq where there were trained civilian bureaucrat and an educated labor base to rebuild the nation on, Afghanistan is a longer road towards development. 

Another difference is that while the U.S. dealt with a very factious Iraqi population, they are dealing with two completely different countries in battling terrorism in Afghanistan. The porous border and the shared ethnic and tribal connections across the border creates an inherent dilemma for the United States. The mere fact that the Obama administration changed the term from the Afghanistan war to the Af-Pak conflict gives credence to the focus of this Administration on the two-headed problem.  Perhaps more daunting, is that within the borders of Pakistan the “cancer” of terrorism has grown independently attracting militants from across the globe to areas outside the border-region like Karachi and Punjab.

But perhaps the greatest difference and complication toward U.S. success in Af-Pak as compared to Iraq is dealing with the highly factious, multi-headed Pakistani state itself. Recently Hussain Haqqani has gone on several news broadcasts and reported that the U.S. should treat Pakistan as a suitor treats his female-interest, to show her some respect publicly and attempt to woo her. So, unlike Afghanistan and Iraq where the U.S. was able to install its own infrastructures and personnel, Pakistan offers its own challenges with its divisive relationship between the ineffectual civilian government and interventionist Army.

The release of Bob Woodward’s book, the dozens of drone attacks launched across Pakistan’s border, and the NATO killing of three paramilitary forces paints a grim picture of the increasingly cynical relationship between the United States and Pakistan. Much of the growing tension is because the Pakistanis perceive the U.S. rushed exit from Afghanistan as a threat while the U.S. is growingly frustrated with Pakistani inaction in the war against terror networks.

The reason why the drone attacks have probably increased is that Obama and top generals have seen a window of opportunity to “kill all the bad guys” which will quicken the pace to exit Afghanistan. Pakistan’s army and government both must now respond because while the populace was enraged by drone attacks, they have become infuriated at an attack across Pakistan’s border by a NATO helicopter killing three paramilitary forces.

Meanwhile the Obama administration has started encouraging Karzai to enter talks with the Taliban without the influence of the ISI, likely as per the same exit strategy. Such a move is perceived as a threat to the ISI and the Pakistani Army who have long-pursued a Pakistan-friendly Afghanistan even if that means having alliances with the Taliban. In fact, the Taliban in Afghanistan have reported that their ISI allies have told them not negotiate with Karzai unless Pakistani officials are present. Thus we can see that much of the increased tension in U.S.-Pak relations can be linked to the danger felt by the Pakistani side that their role in Afghanistan is being minimized for the future so that the ISI will no longer play middle-man to the extremists.

This tension has clearly peaked because Pakistan has pulled its biggest card in the relationship with the U.S., which is the highly-coveted supply routes that are the veins to the U.S. operation in Afghanistan.  But, more than likely the routes will soon be reopened because both parties acknowledge strategic significance of working together as they have for the last 50 years. Yet, it is always sure that cooler heads will prevail.

 This will first require Obama to change his early exit strategy in the haste of helping his party win the midterm or presidential election. By distinguishing this conflict from Iraq and illustrating the human price of failure if the U.S. leaves Afghanistan prematurely, the President can boost his support amongst the growingly dissident anti-war liberals. The failure of the President was not continuing to fight this war, but rather selling it as merely an attempt to “shut down al-Queda and its affiliates” which is not only unlikely but hard to prove in the age of non-state actors and terrorism.



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