By Bill Stewart
Pakistan is in a downward spiral. It is not yet a failed state, as is Afghanistan, but it is lurching in that direction. Last week, the government of Pakistan caved in to the Taliban forces in the Northwest Frontier Province (NWFP), on the Afghanistan border. As part of a peace deal with the Taliban, the NWFP government agreed to the imposition of Islamic Sharia law in Swat, one of the three former princely states that compose the Malakand division of the Northwest Frontier Province. In general, Pakistan is accustomed to English common law procedures alongside local, tribal and customary law. So Sharia is well known in the country. It is its imposition by the government at the demand of the Taliban, that is so disturbing. Just who governs the Northwest Frontier Province? And what can, or should the US do, whose forces are fighting Taliban and al Qaeda militants just across the border in Afghanistan?
Swat is a mountainous part of the NWFP famous for its scenery and was once a prime tourist destination. No longer. Taliban militants have been active in the area for several years, intimidating local officials and often beheading civilians who don't comply with Taliban directives. The people of Swat have been terrorized by the Taliban, including devout Muslims who agree with some of what the Taliban is trying to do. The government of Pakistan, as well as its formidable armed forces, seem unable to either curb or stamp out the Taliban. Some refugees from Swat say the Pakistani army has in fact supported the Taliban in the region. The Pakistani army certainly helped to bring the Taliban to power in Afghanistan at the end of the 1990s, and elements in Pakistan's army are said to favor the medieval Islamist views of the Taliban.
More than seven years after 9/11, the US has declared the Afghan-Pakistan border area to be the new frontline in its war on terror. It is a point of view underscored by President Barack Obama, who has just ordered the dispatch of an additional 17,000 US troops to Afghanistan. That will bring the total number of American troops in that devastated country to some 55,000. To what purpose? We know that a fundamental review of our stance in Afghanistan is underway in Washington. Even Greg Mortensen, the subject of the best-selling "Three Cups of Tea," is on the list of those to be consulted by Gen David Petraeus and senior US intelligence officials. That's a good sign, as it shows an open-mindedness long absent from Pentagon and State Department thinking.
What has been lacking so far in US policy is an imaginative strategy, taking into account not only Afghanistan and Pakistan, but India and China as well. The insurgencies in South Asia may be fought locally, but they are regional in nature and must be addressed regionally, not just on a country by country basis. One of the reasons for the defeat of the Soviet Union in Afghanistan after 10 long years, is that the mujahadeen could slip across the border into Pakistan, where the Soviets could not follow. Taliban and al Qaeda forces still do, and increasingly slip back into Afghanistan.
The situation is further complicated by the role played by India. Pakistan's armed forces have always viewed Afghanistan as their strategic "depth," essential in confronting the much larger armed forces of India. This is probably the main reason that the Pakistani military has always been so chummy with the Taliban. They need Afghanistan. India knows this only too well, and in recent years has been at great pains to establish consulates and close ties across the desolate landscape of Afghanistan. India has its own game to play for its own national interests, and wants to deny Pakistan that essential strategic depth.
This ought to put Afghanistan in the catbird's seat, playing off one side against the other. It isn't because Afghanistan is too war-torn and enfeebled to play an effective role in this latest version of the 19th century Great Game played between Czarist Russia and Great Britain. New Delhi has refused to accept Ambassador Richard Holbrooke as a special envoy to India as well as Pakistan and Afghanistan, because India refuses to be lumped together with the failed and semi-failed states of Afghanistan and Pakistan. India sees this as a regional contest for power, and India intends to win. The US needs to see it this way as well, or we could be forced to withdraw from Afghanistan because we see no viable alternative.
Just as a Middle East peace settlement must eventually include Syria, Saudi Arabia and others to ensure a regional agreement, so too must a plan for the war in Afghanistan and Pakistan include India and China, whose borders touch on these countries. If we think small, concentrating only on the fighting in the Afghan-Pakistan border regions, we may lose the struggle. But if we think strategically, to include the regional great powers, we may actually achieve something.