Eric Rosenbach

Pakistan smart to hit Taliban

By Eric Rosenbach
February 21, 2010

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FOR MOST of the past decade, Republicans and Democrats have agreed on one aspect of counterterrorism strategy: Pakistan needs to act more aggressively against Al Qaeda and Taliban militants operating from the western part of its country. President Obama’s recent decision to deploy additional troops to Afghanistan redoubled pressure on Pakistan. The White House knew that without Pakistani action, militants would simply increase attacks against new troops in Afghanistan and then disappear unscathed across the border into a Pakistani safe haven.

That’s why last week’s news that a joint Pakistani-American operation captured several senior Afghan Taliban leaders, including its top military commander, is a strategic game-changer for the Obama administration. On the tactical level, Mullah Baradar’s removal is a major military victory that eliminates their most important leader from the battlefield. More importantly, the Pakistani decision to take down Baradar and several Afghan Taliban governors may show that Pakistan made the strategic decision that supporting the Afghan Taliban no longer advances its core national security interests. If true, the odds of success for US efforts in Afghanistan have significantly increased.

But that begs the question: What would cause such a significant shift in Pakistani strategy? After all, close ties have existed between the Afghan Taliban and the Pakistani intelligence service for decades. Before Sept. 11, 2001, the Pakistani government supported the Afghan Taliban with both money and arms. Even after the United States ousted the Taliban in 2001, most security experts assessed that the Pakistani intelligence service provided support to the Afghan Taliban’s surviving members, despite official disavowals. Several intelligence officials have also claimed that Pakistani security forces previously refused to take action against Afghan Taliban leaders, even when passed intelligence about their location.

Any mention of strategic reassessment by Pakistan will meet warranted skepticism in Washington. Experts will correctly point out that Pakistan allowed the continued presence of the groups because they played an important role in the military’s long-standing interest in maintaining strategic depth in Afghanistan. Pakistan believes that it must maintain Afghanistan as a reliable sphere of influence to prevent Indian encirclement and allow the military to fall back in the event of a major conflict with its archenemy. Thus, Pakistan kept the Afghan Taliban in reserve for rational, strategic reasons.

Most Pakistani decision makers never believed that the United States had the stomach for a prolonged occupation of Afghanistan. So when the “inevitable’’ US withdrawal occurred, redeploying the Taliban to Afghanistan offered one proven, if highly imperfect, strategic option for ensuring an Indian-free regime palatable to Islamabad.

This change in strategic calculus likely occurred gradually over the course of the last year due to the influence of Pakistan’s two most important military officers, General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, the chief of the overall military, and Lieutenant General Ahmad Shuja Pasha, the director of the intelligence service. The duo, both known to hold anti-Taliban views, must believe that the Americans, not Mullahs Omar and Baradar, are the best bet for lasting Pakistani security.

The capture of Baradar and the Afghan Taliban governors is only the most recent and highly visible signal of the possible shift. Both Kayani and Pasha have backed aggressive and unprecedented Pakistani military efforts to attack militants in Waziristan. And last week, Kayani gave a subtle harbinger of change when he held a rare press conference and emphasized that, “We want to have strategic depth in Afghanistan, but that does not imply controlling it.’’Reading the tea leaves in Pakistan is always difficult, so it’s entirely possible that the latest news is a temporary pressure-release action to appease Washington. The more likely explanation is that Pakistan now believes it can best achieve security on its western border through a stable, US-backed Afghan government. If true, Obama’s war in Afghanistan just may not turn out to be the Vietnam that many fear.

Eric Rosenbach is the executive director of the Belfer Center for International Affairs at the Harvard Kennedy School. He formerly served as professional staff member on the Senate Intelligence Committee and an army intelligence officer.

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