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'Af-Pak' Policy Faces Hurdles Even As It's Launched

A Pakistani Frontier Corps helicopter flies over monitors the Taliban in the Umar Abad area outside the Buner district. Some 50,000 residents have fled the area due to recent fighting.
A Pakistani Frontier Corps helicopter flies over monitors the Taliban in the Umar Abad area outside the Buner district. Some 50,000 residents have fled the area due to recent fighting.
Despite Pakistan's military targeting the growing Taliban threat in the country's western regions, it has done little to silence alarm bells sounding over Washington's new "Af-Pak" strategy.

As U.S. President Barack Obama prepares to meet the presidents of Afghanistan and Pakistan on May 6, the Taliban appear set to take advantage of failures in a recent peace-for-Shari'a-deal in western Pakistan to project their power into neighboring areas.

Possibly in response to global fears that the Taliban had been allowed to inch too close to Islamabad, and amid concerns that the Taliban could take control of the nuclear-armed country, Pakistan's army swung into action in the country's western mountainous Malakand region this week.

But while the Obama administration has urged Pakistan to take action against the insurgent threat within its borders, it has also focused on confronting global challenges in ways that emphasize engagement and multilateralism.

Speaking to journalists in Washington on April 29 to mark his first 100 days in office, Obama said the new foreign-policy approach was beginning to bear fruit.

"I also campaigned on the promise that I would change the direction of our nation's foreign policy. And we've begun to do that as well," Obama said. "We've begun to end the war in Iraq. And we forged, with our NATO allies, a new strategy to target Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan."

The "Af-Pak" strategy, which treats Afghanistan and Pakistan as the same strategic theater, is poised to be a critical test of the new approach, as it requires a breakthrough against Taliban insurgents in Pakistan and Afghanistan in order to effectively deal militarily with Al-Qaeda.

Unveiled on March 27, Obama's Af-Pak strategy promises more financial aid, troop deployments, societal development, and regional cooperation to help deal with the complex regional situation.

Civilian Problems

The stakes are particularly high in Afghanistan, with improving governance and security during an election year seen as key to future success.

And the Taliban is readying its own counterstrategy. In a statement circulated on April 29, senior Taliban leader Mullah Biradar Akhund warned of a summer offensive aimed at countering the additional supply of Western troops to Afghanistan.

Will the new civilian experts be targets for the Taliban?
Stephen Henthorne is a senior specialist at the Civil-Military Cooperation Center of Excellence in the Netherlands. He first went to Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban and sees the United States repeating some of the mistakes it had already made, particularly in terms of the planned surge of civilians.

While the civilian surge is a central piece of Obama's efforts to improve stability in Afghanistan, the administration is still struggling to find the hundreds of experts it has promised to send to Afghanistan.

"I don't think they are going to be, at the end of the day, successful," Henthorne says.

"They claim -- the U.S. claims -- that they are going to send a lot of civilians over there, but you are going to get the same thing you got the last time," Henthorne adds. "Not all of those civilians -- a large part of them -- are truly going to be civilians. They are going to be either army reservist, they are going to be the CIA in civilian clothing. The other problem is that these troops that are coming have never been deployed in mountainous areas before, a lot of them."

Beth Cole, an expert in postconflict peace building at the U.S. Institute of Peace, an independent think tank in Washington, says that recruiting, training, and deploying civilian experts to Afghanistan is proving to be a tremendous challenge.

She, too, says the biggest question is how they would operate in the Afghan countryside once they get there, considering the general insecurity and threat of insurgent attacks.

"Well, I think, any civilians that go out there are going to have either guns or be protected by guns. And that automatically separates them from the humanitarian community because the humanitarian community is unarmed. And it will make them a target," Cole says.

"And I don't know how we are going to get around that. That's our big problem," Cole continues. "How are we going to send these civilians out where it's [not] very clear that they are civilians. I am not sure we have answered that question. And yet we are scrambling to send them out there."

Supporting A Fragile Government

As big as the hurdles appear to be in Afghanistan, Western policymakers see them as small in comparison to those awaiting in Pakistan.

While Islamabad has endorsed Obama's Af-Pak strategy, it wants Washington to better understand the scope of the problems faced within Pakistan before attempting to implement it on the ground.

Local residents flee the Charbagh area of Swat Valley.
Speaking to journalists on April 29, Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi said such details will be laid out during President Asif Ali Zardari's visit to Washington on May 6.

"We will talk about the operationalization of the new Obama strategy, which was endorsed by 73 nations in The Hague [in March]," Qureshi said. "It was also endorsed in Strasbourg by NATO allies including Russia."

Zardari may succeed in his expected calls for more U.S. military equipment and for the United States to deliver on promises of civilian aid, but events in Pakistan indicate that the president's position is becoming tenuous.

Speculation abounds that the Taliban could one day expand its reach to the capital, placing the country's nuclear arsenal at risk of falling into the wrong hands.

Many, of course, dismiss this threat out of hand.

In one example, Hussain Haqqani, Pakistan's ambassador in Washington, wrote in an April 29 op-ed in "The Wall Street Journal" that "the specter of extremist Taliban taking over a nuclear-armed Pakistan is not only a gross exaggeration, it could also lead to misguided policy prescriptions from Pakistan's allies, including our friends in Washington."

President Obama himself has taken steps to assure people that Pakistan's nuclear arsenal is secure and will not fall into the hands of the Taliban or Al-Qaeda.

However, he has also said he is "gravely concerned" about the unstable situation in Pakistan, "not because I think that they're immediately going to be overrun and the Taliban would take over in Pakistan -- [but] more concerned that the civilian government there right now is very fragile."

As the Obama administration works to convince leaders in Islamabad that militancy is a much bigger threat than that posed by Pakistan's arch-rival India, it will also look for decisive action to stem the advance of the Taliban.

Such dilemmas, experts argue, suggest that Obama's set strategy will struggle to keep up with events on the ground and, without major breakthroughs, will be set on a negative trajectory toward failure before it can be implemented fully.
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    Abubakar Siddique

    Abubakar Siddique, a journalist for RFE/RL's Radio Azadi, specializes in the coverage of Afghanistan and Pakistan. He is the author of The Pashtun Question: The Unresolved Key To The Future Of Pakistan And Afghanistan. He is also one of the authors of the Azadi Briefing, a weekly newsletter that unpacks the key issues in Afghanistan.

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