Gen.James Jones, National Security Adviser to President Barack Obama, was in Pakistan during this week. His visit coincided with two important developments----one political and the other military.
2. The important political development was the Indian-initiated move for a meeting of the Foreign Secretaries of India and Pakistan at New Delhi in order to break the post 26/11 ice between the two countries. The Indian move, well crafted, was intended to provide a political face-saving to both the countries. By projecting the proposed meeting as not amounting to a resumption of the formal composite dialogue, it sought to save India the embarrassment of a public impression that it had given up on its condition that the composite dialogue cannot be revived until and unless Pakistan gave satisfaction to India on the question of legal action against the Pakistan-based conspirators of the 26/11 terrorist strikes in Mumbai.
3.The Indian clarification that while the focus of the meeting would be on Pakistani action against terrorism, India would be happy to discuss any other issue which the Pakistani Foreign Secretary might raise enabled Pakistan to claim to its people that while the meeting might not amount to a de jure resumption of the composite dialogue, it did amount to a de facto resumption of it.
4. Initially, there was a reluctance in the Pakistani Foreign Office to accepting the format as proposed by India, but well-informed sources say that US nudging before and during the visit of Gen.Jones influenced Pakistan to accept the Indian-proposed format without making a prestige issue of it. These sources say that during his interactions with the Pakistani political and military leaders, Gen.Jones expressed the US confidence that the proposed meeting of the two Foreign Secretaries would not be a stand-alone or one-shot affair, but would mark the beginning of the process for the de jure resumption of the composite dialogue.
5. The Obama Administration proposes to undertake a series of military and political manoeuvres in the Af-Pak region during 2010 to pave the way for a thinning down of the US involvement in Afghanistan starting from 2011. The starting point of these military manoeuvres would be the proposed military offensive against the Afghan Taliban stronghold in the Marjah region of the Helmand province of Afghanistan. To save its face in Afghanistan, the US needs at least one visible and resounding military victory against the Afghan Taliban, which it can project to its own people and to the international community as enabling it to implement its policy of engagement with the ideologically uncommitted elements in the Taliban and thinning down its involvement from a position of strength and not weakness.
6.The Marjah region, which is compared by some analysts to the pre-2005 Fallujah in Iraq, has , in the US eyes, an importance due to various factors. Firstly, this has been the most enduring stronghold of the Afghan Taliban just as Falluja was the most enduring stronghold of the Baathist-Al Qaeda elements in Iraq before the US forces undertook a special operation in 2004 to crush them. Secondly, the Afghan Taliban controls the narcotics economy of Afghanistan from Marjah. The liberation of this area from the control of the Afghan Taliban would underline the US determination to act effectively against the flow of narcotics money to the Afghan Taliban and Al Qaeda before it contemplated any down-sizing of its military involvement in Afghanistan.
7. The achievement of the US objectives in Marjah would depend on two factors. Firstly, the Afghan Taliban choosing to stand and fight so that the US could visibly defeat it and liberate the area from its control. If the Taliban chooses not to fight as it did in 2002 and withdraws from the area with its fighting strength intact, the US military calculations would remain unachieved. Secondly, the Pakistan Army co-operating with the US by not allowing a repeat of Tora Bora, which could enable the Afghan Taliban to withdraw into Pakistani territory and wait for another day just as Al Qaeda did during the US operations against Al Qaeda in 2001-02.Pakistan allowed Al Qaeda remnants, including Osama bin Laden, to withdraw into North Waziristan and re-organise themselves from sanctuaries there.
8.The military objective of Gen.Jones’ visit was to ensure that the Pakistan Army would not allow a repeat of Tora Bora and would not come in the way of a decisive US victory against the Afghan Taliban in the Marjah area. The visit took place at a time when the US reasons to be gratified by some developments in the Pashtun belt on the Pakistan side of the border. Firstly, after having regained control of the Swat Valley of the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP) from the Tehrik-e-Nifaz-e-Shariat-e-Mohammadi (TNSM), a component of the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), the Pakistan Army has consolidated its hold there. Its confidence in its ability to retain effective control of the area was reflected in its decision to take Gen.Jones on a visit to the area. The Pakistani Army might not have taken him there and Gen.Jones might not have agreed to visit Swat if both did not have confidence in the ability of the Army to ensure his security.
9. Secondly, the Pakistani military operations in the Mehsud majority areas of South Waziristan, assisted by repeated US Drone strikes against TTP strongholds there, have been producing results though not yet as decisively as in the Swat valley. The Mehsud jihadi leaders, who constitute the TTP’s backbone, are in disarray after the death of Baitullah after a Drone strike in August last and the rumoured death of his successor Hakimullah Mehsud following another Drone strike on January 14. Hakimullah did score a spectacular success in the Khost area of Afghanistan by having seven officers of the CIA and one of the Jordanian intelligence killed through a Jordanian double agent, but any aura which he might have acquired as a result of this has been short-lived.
10. Thirdly, neither the Mehsuds of the TTP nor any of the Punjabi Taliban organizations allied with the TTP such as the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LEJ) has recently been able to organize spectacular strikes --- either of suicide terrorism or of commando style attacks---in the non-tribal areas. The acts of retaliation of the TTP and its affiliates---- as deadly as ever--- have been confined to the tribal areas such as the Khyber and Orakzai Agencies and the Malakand Division of the NWFP outside Swat. However, the situation in Karachi, where there have been at least three attacks attributed to TTP elements since the last week of January, are worrisome. If uncontrolled, the situation in Karachi could again turn the tide of the fighting in favour of the TTP in the non-tribal areas.
11. How to maintain the momentum and effectiveness of the Pakistani military operations in the South Waziristan areas? How to undertake equally effective operations against the sanctuaries of Al Qaeda, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, the Islamic Jihad Union, another Uzbek group, the 313 Brigade of Ilyas Kashmiri and the Serajuddin Haqqani group of Pashtuns in North Waziristan? Unless these sanctuaries are decimated before 2011, the danger of a return of these elements to Afghan territory by taking advantage of the thinning down of the US involvement would remain strong.
12. It is in this context that the Pakistan Army and the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) are playing their India card by ruling out any expansion of their operational commitments to North Waziristan unless they have a greater sense of security vis-à-vis India through a forward movement in the talks on Kashmir and through US pressure on India to reduce its presence in Afghanistan.
13. For the present, the US objective is limited to encouraging a resumption of Indo-Pakistan talks under whatever format suitable to both. Its medium-term objective of persuading or even pressuring India to address Pakistani views relating to Kashmir and concerns relating to Afghanistan is likely to assert itself more and more as 2011 approaches. The Obama Administration is more interested in addressing Pakistani concerns relating to India than Indian concerns relating to Pakistan.
14. What are the options available to India for countering the US pressure? This is a question, which should immediately engage the attention of the National Security Council and the NSC Secretariat. ( 13-2-10)
( The writer is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, New Delhi, and, presently, Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org )