Morphing Threats

Spearhead Opinion – 29.11.2017

9/11 triggered a US response that has had, and continues to have, far reaching consequences. The response was not a knee jerk reaction but was a carefully thought out strategy for total or full spectrum dominance that has been a consistent US ambition. 9/11 provided the excuse and became the trigger though there is still debate on whether a full scale ‘war’ was really required to be declared. From Afghanistan, the first response target, the US turned to invade Iraq on the basis of intelligence about an Iraqi nuclear capability—the intelligence turned out to be flawed. More than a decade and a half later the US is still in both the Middle East and Afghanistan having spent trillions of dollars and caused the death and crippling of millions of men, women and children. The Middle East is in chaos. Afghanistan continues to be threatened. Iran and North Korea have reassessed their security. IS or Daesh has emerged and spread and there are indications of Al-Qaeda rejuvenation. New threats are emerging and Pakistan is getting the blowback.

Almost half of Afghanistan is under the control of the Afghan Taliban that tolerate the presence of an assortment of militant and terrorist outfits in spaces where the Afghan government has no presence and where the opium production is at all-time high. Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Libya are in ruins. Saddam and Gaddafi have gone but Assad is still there and likely to stay. The Islamic State that emerged as a result of US policies may have been vanquished but is alive and relocating to Afghanistan with assets spread all over the world. Israel, a US ally and massive aid beneficiary is, and should be, applauding all that the US has done and encouraging it to do more. A new situation is emerging and some cobwebs that obscured intentions are getting cleared away. Iran and Saudi Arabia are squaring off for conflict. Pakistan has to consider the impact on the regional situation.

In the Middle East the stand-off that is emerging has the US, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the UAE and their allies on one side with Israel in the shadows behind them. The Islamic Military Counter Terrorism Coalition (IMCTC) is being created to bolster this alliance. On the other side there is Iran, Syria, Turkey, Hezbollah and Russia-China. The target for the US side is Iran with Israel locked on the destruction of Hezbollah. Saudi Arabia made the disastrous intervention in Yemen and then with the UAE targeted Qatar with coercion. Now the Saudi Crown Prince is consolidating power internally, sidelining rivals and religious extremists and bringing in moderation in the Kingdoms harsh laws and policies. The future of the region is uncertain but in a worst case scenario the US may be sucked into an Israeli-Hezbollah conflict as well as an Arab-Iran conflict. The stale mate could continue for years with much loss of lives and resources and the US may or may not emerge as the dominant power in the region. With President Trump and his administration promoting Israeli and Saudi interests the US will be there for the long haul. Pakistan has to balance its relationship between Iran and Saudi Arabia.

In Afghanistan the US has opted for a ‘conditions based approach’ and has invited India to be a partner. The extent of involvement desired from India has not been spelt out and nor has India indicated how much it is ready to do. After the IS defeat in the Middle East, US air and fire power assets will shift to Afghanistan as the IS also relocates there. Under the new US policy Pakistan has been confronted with demands for agreeing to Indian presence in Afghanistan, dismantling of the Haqqani Network and possibly restraint in its nuclear ambitions—especially tactical nuclear weapons, sea based capability and refusal on a no first use policy. It is obvious that the US has no intention of leaving its military base facilities in Afghanistan because the agenda beyond Afghanistan is Russia, China and proximity to Pakistan’s nuclear assets in the worst case contingency of internal upheaval in Pakistan. The US has, however, not given up on Pakistan as is evident from ongoing high level interactions and the recent decision to delink Lashkar e Tayaba (LeT) from the Haqqani Network in demands for action by Pakistan. A new kink in US-Pakistan relations has surfaced after the release of the LeT leader whom the US had designated a wanted terrorist. The fact that a court has released him on the basis of insufficient evidence is not being accepted. Most recently the US Commander in Afghanistan has again said that Pakistan is not changing its policy of giving safe havens to the Taliban.

The recent 22 days’ stand-off between the state and a religious group protesting a change in a religion declaration form has ended with the state capitulating to all demands after a botched police operation to disperse the protestors. The military played a pivotal role in resolving a situation that had snow balled with the potential for country wide street battles. Inevitable conspiracy theories suggest that the government acted much too late and then asked the military to intervene so that it would face the fall-out. The military acted but rejected the use of force as that option was no longer feasible. The logical sequence should have been an immediate National Security Council meeting to decide on a strategy and then recourse to Parliament with possibly a Parliamentary Committee tasked to resolve the crisis peacefully. The Punjab government should have been involved too. The result now is the exposure of the state’s weak decision making process, a lack of capacity to optimize use of state resources and a lack of capacity in law enforcement More significantly Pakistan has been portrayed as a country with a serious extremism problem. For a nuclear weapons state this has serious implications.

A nuclear capable state must never drift into economic uncertainty, political instability, socio-economic strife and exploitable vulnerabilities. The fracas in Islamabad’s fringe has added a new dimension to the internal security threat —a dimension that we could have done without. The military has carried out determined and costly operations to sideline the terrorist threat and continues to confront sporadic events. The National Action Plan forged with political and civil-military consensus remains in limbo delaying the consolidation of the gains made by the military. Economists are warning of a further decline unless structural reforms are undertaken and political instability is growing in the shadow of an ongoing judicial process. This is the time for strong governance by a government that should unshackle itself from all baggage and other distractions to focus on governance, internal security, the economy, the CPEC and an established format for all inclusive decision making. Pakistan also needs a comprehensive reality check to decide on a major foreign policy initiative that can move towards resetting the US-Pakistan relationship, push the budding relationship with Russia and Iran as well as bilateral relations with Afghanistan, India (if possible) and the Arab states. The country needs to start projecting the image of a state in firm control of its territory and assets and on the road to economic viability and political stability. There is also a need to check and contain the forces of extremism that could overwhelm the state. This is what national interest demands.

(Spearhead Analyses are collaborative efforts and not attributable to a single individual).