Pakistan's "Strategic Depth" and Endless War in Afghanistan

Congress must be forced to not only institute a binding timetable for the president, but to accelerate that timetable in every conceivable way possible
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I am the Afghanistan Blogging Fellow for The Seminal and Brave New Foundation. You can read my work on The Seminal or at Rethink Afghanistan. The views expressed below are my own.

If everything works out perfectly in our counterinsurgency strategy, or if Congress forces a binding timetable in line with popular support, the United States will begin slowly drawing down its forces in Afghanistan in July 2011. It's only the start, it will be tremendously slow, and the military leadership will likely fight it every step of the way (if Iraq is any indication, that is).

July 2011. That's one year from now -- 12 months. If June's casualty numbers remain constant, that's over a thousand Americans who'll die before then, at minimum another 80 billion dollars down the toilet, and then we just start leaving. After that there's no clear evidence of exactly how long it will take before the US has completely removed its military presence from Afghanistan, and possibly Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, etc, although there's no evidence we're planning on leaving those places either.

As I've said many times before, this is a good thing. It's good that Congress is starting to listen to its constituents, and is taking action to hold President Obama to his timetable for withdrawal. Afghanistan is America's longest war, and with such ethereal objectives as "stability" and "preventing safe havens for extremism," the war can seem endlessly un-winnable, stretching on for decades as long as we're content to let it happen. That we have a goal in sight, July 2011, is absolutely a victory.

Unfortunately, it's not good enough. Pakistan's national security policy of supporting terrorist groups and militias as proxies against India, known as "strategic depth," is accelerating out of control, and they are either deliberately or inadvertently engineering a globalized religious war, a Clash of Civilizations. Both terrorist and insurgent elements are evolving, with the Taliban co-opting Al-Qa'eda's idea of religious war to legitimize its fight against the Pakistani state, and Al-Qa'eda in turn co-opting the Taliban's objective of confronting India to legitimize the sub-continent as the premier theater of global jihad. Hawkish India, for one, will not take these developments lightly.

If pressure on Congress is not increased, if the US remains on the slow, ambiguous timetable it is on now, it will be caught right in the middle of this clash. The bloodbath of Iraq in 2006 was only a preview of what will happen if there is a civil war in Pakistan, or a (nuclear?) war between Pakistan and India. Or both. If the US does not expedite its withdrawal, as well as dramatically reform its policies toward the region as a whole, we will very quickly be sucked into that conflagration.

"Strategic Depth," Pakistan's support of militants, is a carefully crafted national security strategy. However, it is easiest to understand in the context of state-sponsored terrorism. During the 1970's and 1980's, many Arab governments supported terrorist groups as a form of internal security. The oppressive Arab dictators would facilitate terrorist recruiting and training so long as they went off to wage jihad in Lebanon, or Palestine, or Israel, or anywhere else but at home. In doing so, they ensured that any violent radicals were engaged elsewhere, while clinging to scraps of Islamic legitimacy for their brutal police states. It is "strategic depth" for domestic purposes.

Pakistan's calculation is just the same, only adapted to military and foreign policy. Pakistan is able to wage a war against India through terrorism and militancy (Taliban puppets in Kabul, LeT puppets at home), while maintaining some legitimacy with its own constituency (elite Punjabi Pakistanis). Furthermore, Pakistan's military owned industries are able to win massive amounts of contracts and investments from the US and China among others, and in return offer up meaningless victories (capturing an Al-Qa'eda commander for the Americans, shutting down a Uighur training camp for the Chinese). All the while the Army safely maintains its truly-important insurgent assets for use against India. It is state-sponsored terrorism as foreign policy, and it's been very successful for them so far.

But the terrorists and militants themselves also benefit from this relationship, and they may now be adapting beyond the control of the Pakistani military and intelligence services. Just as the Arab governments discovered, state-sponsored terrorism always comes back to bite you. Syria learned from Lebanon, Egypt learned from the Muslim Brotherhood, and the Saudis learned from Al-Qa'eda that it is only a matter of time before the militants turn on you. Just the same, the Taliban is now turning from the US in Afghanistan and onto the Pakistani state.

We see this in the recent attack on a Sufi Muslim shrine in Lahore, Pakistan. Sufi are the majority in Pakistan, centered in its Punjab region with the country's elite. The Taliban, with their Deoband Islam, are in the minority, focused in the Pashtun tribal areas. The shrine bombing shows that Al-Qa'eda's idea of war for Islamic purity has taken hold within the Taliban, and they are able to pivot from a local liberation movement fighting the Americans to a religious jihad against the Pakistani state as represented by the heretical Sufi Islam.

Beyond the demands of Deobandi faith, igniting a religious struggle against popular Sufism is almost a tactical necessity. Fighting against the Pakistani army and Frontier Corps is not the same as battling the NATO and U.S. unbelievers in Afghanistan.

The Pakistan Taliban are locked in a battle with the military forces of an Islamic state and need the trappings of a sustained Islamic religious struggle inside Pakistan in order to sustain its legitimacy, motivate its followers, and divide its opposition.

In fact, attacking Sufi religious practices is probably integral to the entire Taliban strategy of polarizing Pakistani society by attacking a weak link--the popular but difficult to defend (on strict Islamic terms) worship of local saints whose interred bodies reputedly have magic powers.

The central province of Punjab hosts several important Sufi shrines, raising the terrifying specter of attacks on heterodox religious practices in Pakistan's heartland by an ostentatiously righteous, militant, and ascendant religious group whose stated mission is to rescue Islam not only from the West but from idolatry within its own ranks.

And, as a reading of Sikan indicates, challenging popular Sufism also means challenging the authority of the custodians who obtained legitimacy, wealth, and power from their control of the shrines and promises to link the Taliban to a populist, anti-elitist message that may find resonance in the impoverished areas of Pakistan far beyond its Pashtun base.

There's not much hope that even the Sufi majority can withstand an open civil war against the Deobandi minority.

If the conflict comes, the [Sufi] are likely to be outgunned.

The Pashtun Deobandi are militant, supported by zakat (Islamic charity contributions) from Saudi Arabia, and have numerous friends and supporters within Pakistan's security apparatus.

The pacifist, underfunded, and underorganized Barelvi--with the exception of the reliably violent MQM in Karachi--appear to be reliant upon Pakistan's rickety and equivocal civilian government to take the battle to the Taliban.

Those numerous friends and supporters within the security apparatus is the "strategic depth," the state sponsorship. That sponsorship may have given them enough strength to finally ignite an all-out civil war. At that point we are no longer talking about isolated Pashtun insurgencies and rural-urban disparities, we are looking at the complete collapse of Pakistan as a recognizable entity. Like Iraq, Pakistan is a wealthy, militarized, and industrialized society and the consequences of its shattered social fabric will be hell on earth. Only Pakistan also happens to have an extensive nuclear weapons arsenal. Iraq, famously, did not.

In addition to the Taliban, the Pakistani Al-Qa'eda franchises have also adapted with the support of "strategic depth." They are now carrying out attacks against targets in India, claiming other Pakistan-supported militant attacks as their own, or both.

There are two types of messages purporting to be from Al Qaeda relating to India. The first are video or audio messages of Osama bin Laden and Zawahiri relating to the global jihad and the global intifada in which there are references to India, including Kashmir. These have been authenticated by Western intelligence agencies on the basis of voice recognition. They are in the form of general criticism of India or general threats and not specific.

The second are messages claiming responsibility on behalf of [Al Qaeda fil Hind, "Al-Qaeda in India"] for specific acts of terrorism in India such as the Mumbai suburban train explosions of July 2006, the Mumbai terrorist strikes of 26/11 and the Pune German bakery explosion and warning of future acts of terrorism against global sports events in India. These are messages circulated through the Internet or through phone calls by persons whose voices could not be identified. There is no way of establishing the authenticity of these messages. We must take them seriously for further investigation and strengthening physical security. At the same time, we should take care not to walk into any trap of the ISI to divert suspicion away from the LET and other Pakistani jihadi organizations and from the ISI for serious acts of terrorism in Indian territory by creating an impression that those were carried out by Al Qaeda.

So there's no concrete evidence that Al-Qa'eda in India exists as of yet, but the perception that it does exist is growing. Even if it is Pakistani intelligence services trying to create a mythical Al-Qa'eda, that doesn't change the fact that each new terrorist attack in India will be seen as a victory for Al-Qa'eda's jihad. And with each new "victory" come new "foreign fighters" willing to take up arms. The myth becomes reality, whether you want it to or not. And not only in India, but in Kashmir as well.

On 15 June, Al Qaeda announced that it has a new branch, Al Qaeda in Kashmir (AQK), according to a report in Jane's Terrorism and Security Monitor [subscription needed]. The group is apparently led by Mohammad Ilyas Kashmiri, who claimed responsibility for the February bombing of the German Bakery in Pune, India. [...]

The announcement of AQK is significant, however, since it shows Al Qaeda trying to bolster what it clearly thinks is an emerging front in the global jihad: India. The LeT have already shown an interest in extending anti-Indian militancy beyond localised issues such as Kashmir. The LeT opposes India not just because of specific policies and actions, but for its very existence -- as a perceived enemy of Islam. Hence, attacks such as those in Mumbai, as well as earlier bombings in which it is likely to have played a role, strike at symbols of India's success -- its economic growth and its acceptance into the global (i.e. Western) community. The appearance of the Al Qaeda brand name in the region is part of this process: framing the conflict between India and Pakistan as a global, ahistorical phenomenon, divorced from immediate political concerns and thus insulating the jihad from any progress in negotiations between the two governments. Who belongs to which group is less important than the symbolism that this latest development suggests.

Al-Qa'eda can fully open the entire sub-continent as a theater for jihad, and coupled with the collapse of nuclear-armed Pakistan and the presumable Indian military response, we have the Clash of Civilizations. Pakistan vs India becomes Islam vs the Hindu Superpower. And stuck right there in the middle of it is 100,000 US troops in Afghanistan, soon to be controlled by a Taliban-Karzai power-sharing government, a puppet of Pakistan's "strategic depth." To say it will be ugly is an epic understatement.

We may be in the process of pulling ourselves back from the brink of endless war in Afghanistan, but that doesn't stop anyone else from sucking us back in. Whatever our pretensions about 9/11 and denying terrorists a safe haven in Afghanistan, there's no turning back once we've been sucked into a massive blowout on the sub-continent.

Congress must be forced to not only institute a binding timetable for the president, but to accelerate that timetable in every conceivable way possible. Funding must be cut, programs discontinued, missions aborted. Nothing the US could (doubtfully) accomplish before July 2011 will change the events in Pakistan and India. We can eradicate the corruption in Kandahar, but that won't deter the Deobandi-Sufi civil war in Pakistan. We can install perfect governments-in-a-box in every single province in Afghanistan, it won't stop Al-Qa'eda from waging its jihad in Kashmir and India. We can't afford the blood and treasure that the war is costing now, much less if it explodes across the region.

The US must accelerate its withdrawal timetable, but it also must dramatically reform its policy toward Pakistan. Waiting another year before beginning to leave Afghanistan is also another year spent dumping billions of dollars and sophisticated military technology into the hands of Pakistan's military and intelligence services, those most responsible for the stoking the civil war and terrorism with their "strategic depth." The US must engage with and empower the democratically elected civilian government. It is they who must be strengthened in the battle against extremism, not the Army and ISI. But even this is simply taking yet another side in yet another civil war, and if the past is any indication, the US is by no means guaranteed success even if we try.

It is good to celebrate what has been accomplished in ending the war. It is good that 65% of Americans now support the timetable, and that Congress is starting to act on that. But more pressure must be brought to bear on your local representatives. The timetable must be sped up, the US must begin drawing down before July 2011 and certainly at a much faster pace than is currently planned. The maneuvering for a post-US Afghanistan has accelerated out of control, and if we don't move fast enough, if Congress isn't forced to step up efforts, there may be no such thing as a post-US Afghanistan. Quite frankly, if we don't start leaving now, we may never leave at all.

Join us on Rethink Afghanistan's Facebook page and help us turn up the heat on Congress and end this war -- while we still can.

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