Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf and his Afghan counterpart Hamid Karzai were high-profile speakers at the recent Davos money and markets talkfest, but their presence was swept up by international financial rollercoasters, and bartered out by rogue traders.
Any other year, Musharraf’s faux-humble offer to step aside should the opposition win the February 18 parliamentary elections would have been big news, just below his headline-seeking Afghan counterpart Hamid Karzai. At Davos, the latter indulged himself in a bullish stage-managed rubbishing of the US/UK initiative to crown Lord Paddy Ashdown as the new UN czar in Kabul. Ashdown’s regal style, as evidenced during a similar posting as High Representative to Bosnia-Hercegovina suggests that his reputation precedes him.
Benazir Bhutto’s death highlighted the dangers for western-backed potentates in this region, so Ashdown might have got off lightly by being snubbed. Under Baitullah Mehsud, the Taliban has re-emerged as major security threat in Pakistan. The young Pashtun warlord is believed to answer directly to Mullah Omar, the one-eyed leader of Afghanistan during Taliban rule from 1996-2001, and is backed by al-Qaeda operatives in Pakistan’s lawless Federally-Administed Tribal Areas (FATA), from where Taliban fighters can strike into Afghanistan at will. Just under two weeks ago, Mehsud demonstrated that he is fast-learning the dark arts of media warfare, al-Qaeda-style, telling al-Jazeera that he aims to destroy the White House, New York and London.
Perhaps that is as outlandish and unlikely a goal as toppling New York’s two tallest buildings, or crashing a ‘plane into the Pentagon. For now, in any case, Mehsud has focused on more attainable targets. He has been fingered by the Pakistani military and the CIA for Bhutto’s assassination, and the UN in Kabul believes he was behind the January 14 suicide attacks on Kabul’s Serena hotel, killing three Americans, a Norwegian and a Filipino. His Pashtun militants have stormed Pakistani Frontier Corps bases in FATA, where government writ does not apply. A string of terrorist plots, including the foiled plan to blow up passenger planes over the Atlantic, were traced to training camps and terrorist leaders in FATA.
With wild rumours circulating that Musharraf will rig the upcoming polls, Mehsud will seek to undermine what remains of Pakistan’s precarious internal stability. In the meantime, his men will react to US military outposts being set up just inside the Afghan side of the would-be border, by ramping up their newly-acquired penchant for looting NATO supply convoys passing though Pakistan en route to Kabul. Losing kit and material to enemies is but one of NATOs growing list of problems.
Despite a UN mandate, and the invoking of its Article 50 collective defence provisions for the first time in history after 9-11, the alliance is at odds with itself over Afghanistan. An extra 3200 Iraq-hardened US marines will bolster the NATO frontlines against the expected Taliban spring offensive, but upon announcing that deployment, US Defence Secretary Robert Gates belittled the counter-insurgency capabilities of allies on the ground, adding to internal NATO rifts already simmering due to German, French and Italian reluctance to aid American, British, Canadian, Dutch and Danish troops in the fight against the Taliban. Canada is dropping not so subtle hints that it will reconsider its frontline deployment, unless other allies put their shoulder to the wheel.
Testifying before the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee on January 31, former NATO Supreme Commander retired General James L Jones, and influential foreign policy wonk Thomas Pickering outlined the findings of a new report they have put their names to. The prospect of again losing significant parts of Afghanistan has moved “from the improbable to the possible,” the study says, warning that Afghanistan could revert to a “failed state.” Nothing new then.
The report pilloried just about every relevant governmental and international organisation involved in Afghanistan, including the Bush administration, NATO and the government of Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s administration, calling their efforts inadequate, poorly coordinated and occasionally self-defeating. Nothing new there either.
But the report is a timely and well-heeled reminder of what is at stake in Afghanistan and for the western alliance – even if it skimps on the real connections between what is going in Pakistan and Afghanistan.
A NATO summit is due in April in Bucharest, where the vitriol of the words exchanged might well approach the ferocity of fighting in southern Afghanistan’s opium-addled Helmand province. However, by then, NATO might face a more complex strategic dilemma in the region, depending on how Pakistan’s elections pan out. Should Pakistan degenerate into broader civil unrest and insecurity, the Taliban might relent on its attacks in Afghanistan, thus giving the combat-shy contingents listed a clear run at their road-building and community development efforts they are so keen on, and giving the Canadians and Dutch the reduced casualties needed to justify staying on in Afghanistan to confused electorates at home.
But the upshot of that superficially-optimistic turnabout will be the Taliban setting their sights on a much greater prize than a revival of their Buddha-bombing, adulterer-stoning, heroin-peddling, al-Qaeda-backing would-be-caliphate in Kabul. With around sixty nukes, and a history of peddling black market nuclear secrets to the likes of North Korea and Libya, the prospect of further destabilising Pakistan will turn Taliban heads, to ascendant militants. Unlike the bear market panic that overshadowed Davos, there is no unilateral rate cut equivalent measure available to curtail these rogue-traders, whose market speciality is suicide bombings – over 800 in Pakistan alone in 2007.
Copryight: OpinionAsia 2006-2009Show