US’ Af-Pak strategy should not be a hostage to time

US’ Af-Pak strategy should not be a hostage to time

My recent trip to the US has been an enriching experience, during which I had a very healthy discourse with the American public and an opportunity to understand their concerns about the war in Afghanistan. One question I was asked almost everywhere I went was: “How can we stop losing?"

The answer is a political surge, in conjunction with the additional troops requested by General Stanley McChrystal. Quitting is not an option. A military solution alone cannot guarantee success. Armies can only win sometimes, and at best, create an environment for the political process to work. At the end of the day, it is civilians, not soldiers, who have to take charge of their country.

After decades of civil war and anarchy, the Taliban established control over 95% of Afghanistan in 1996. Unfortunately, the Taliban imposed their strict interpretation of Islam on the country. Nevertheless, I proposed to recognize the Taliban regime, in the hope of transforming them from within. Had my strategy been enacted, we might have persuaded the Taliban to deny a safe haven to Al Qaeda and avoided the tragic 9/11 attacks.

Another golden opportunity to rescue the Afghan people emerged after the United Nations sanctioned international military operation launched after 9/11. Having liberated Afghanistan from the tyranny of Al Qaeda and the Taliban, the US had the unequivocal support of the majority of Afghans. The establishment of a truly representative national government which gave proportional representation to all ethnic groups would have brought peace to Afghanistan and ousted Al Qaeda once and for all. Unfortunately this did not happen.

The political instability and ethnic imbalance in Afghanistan after 9/11 marginalized the majority Pashtuns and pushed them into the Taliban fold, even though they were not its ideological supporters. The blunder of inducting 80,000 Tajiks into the Afghan national army further alienated the Pashtuns.

Meanwhile, Pakistan forcefully tackled the influx of Al Qaeda into our tribal areas, capturing over 600 Al Qaeda and Afghan Taliban leaders, some of them of very high value. We established 1,000 border checkposts and even offered to mine or fence off the Afghanistan -Pakistan border, but this never came to pass. The Afghan government, led by President Hamid Karzai, had no writ outside of Kabul, and the insufficient ground troops of the Nato-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) allowed the Taliban to regroup.

Al Qaeda terrorists who fled from Afghanistan came to Pakistan and settled initially in South Waziristan. Through successful intelligence and law-enforcement operations, we eliminated Al Qaeda from our cities and destroyed their command, communication and propaganda centres. They fled to the North Waziristan, Bajur and Swat regions.

From 2004 onwards, we witnessed a gradual shift in the terrorist centre of gravity. The Taliban started to re-emerge in Afghanistan and gradually gained a dominant role. They developed ties with the Taliban in Pakistan’s tribal areas, especially in North and South Waziristan. With a grand strategy to destabilize the whole region, the Taliban and Al Qaeda established links with extremists in Pakistani society, on the one hand, and with Muslim fundamentalists in India, on the other. They pose a grave threat to South Asia and peace in the world.

We now have to deal with a complex situation. Casualties suffered by our soldiers in the line of duty will not go wasted only if we are able to fully secure our next generations from the menace of terrorism. The exit strategy from Afghanistan must not and cannot be time related. It has to ask, “What effect do we want to create on the ground?" We must eliminate Al Qaeda, dominate the Taliban militarily, and establish a representative, legitimate government in Afghanistan.

The military must ensure that we deal with insurgents from a position of strength. The dwindling number of Al Qaeda elements must be eliminated, and the Taliban dominated militarily.

The Pakistan military must continue to act strongly. Operationally, we must raise substantially more forces from within the tribal groups and equip them with more tanks and guns. On the Afghan side, the US and ISAF troops must be reinforced. All of this must be done in combination with raising additional Afghan army troops, with significant Pashtun representation. Exploiting tribal divisions, we should also raise local militias.

On the political front, we need an invigorated dialogue with all groups in Afghanistan, including the Taliban. It has for centuries been governed loosely through a social covenant between all the ethnic groups, under a king. This structure is needed again to bring peace and harmony. We have to reach out to Pashtun tribes and others who do not ideologically align themselves with the Taliban or Al Qaeda. I have always said that “all Talibans are Pashtun, but all Pashtuns are not Taliban". Pakistan and Saudi Arabia can play pivotal roles in facilitating this outreach.

Pakistan and Afghanistan were shortsightedly abandoned to their fate by the West in 1989, in spite of the fact that they were the ones who won a victory for the Free World against the Soviet Union. For the sake of regional and world peace, let us not repeat the same mistake.


Edited excerpts. Comments are welcome at