Friday, 16 October 2009

16 October 2009

Just in case you were in any doubt: Yes, what’s happening in Pakistan is extremely serious.

Five major attacks in 10 days; more than 150 people dead. Coordinated attacks in Lahore, close to the Indian border; Rawalpindi, where the army is headquartered; and Peshawar, close to the Afghan border. (There are reports of another attack in Peshawar as I write this.) If this what the Taliban look like when they’re on the run, which is what Pakistani officials have been claiming, I’d hate to see them when they’re at full strength.

On the other hand, it does seem that they have been taking quite a beating. The Pakistani army have wrested back control of the Swat Valley region, even though it’s clear that some Taliban fighters remain. And they – or rather an unmanned US drone – did manage to kill the Taliban leader, Baitullah Mehsud, in August.

Has it weakened the Taliban? Probably – but clearly not to the extent that they are no longer capable of mobilising gunmen and suicide bombers across the country. Are the Taliban worried about the prospect of the major threatened military offensive in South Waziristan? Again, probably – but what we’ve seen over the past 10 days could well be their way of saying to the Pakistani government and military: If you come to get us, we can come to get you.

It’s said that there are around 28,000 Pakistani troops available for the South Waziristan operation – and there are thought to be around 10,000 Taliban and al-Qaeda fighters in the region. Civilians are already fleeing, ahead of the expected onslaught, just as they did from the Swat Valley.

But no one in Pakistan thinks this is a war that can be won by military means alone. That’s why just last night, President Obama signed the law which will provide $1.5 billion a year in non-military aid to Pakistan, making it the third biggest recipient of US aid after Israel and Egypt.

So what now for Washington’s Af-Pak strategy? Well, President Obama may be announcing within the next week what he’s decided to do about troop levels in Afghanistan – I expect him to announce a substantial increase, but their deployment may be time-limited, and he may set “bench-marks” for the Afghan political and military leadership to meet.

One intriguing hint last night: the Afghan ambassador in Washington suggested that there may, after all, be a second round in the Presidential election, after the allegations of widespread fraud in the first round. If he’s right, it could be seen as a significant concession to US and other critics – although the final outcome will still be the same: Hamid Karzai will still be President.

I suggest that over the coming months, you keep half an eye on the American political timetable. This time next year will be the run-up to the mid-term Congressional elections: and if the Democrats are to retain control of Congress, President Obama will want to have a good news message from Afghanistan.

And a year after that, he’ll be embarking on his re-election campaign for a second term in the White House. What he’ll want more than anything will be to be able to say: “I can tell the American people that our military involvement in Afghanistan is coming to an end. Our security – and the security of the Afghan people – can now be left in the hands of the Afghans themselves.”

Which will leave just one, big problem: what will be happening next door in Pakistan, a nuclear-armed state with a deeply-entrenched jihadi insurgency?

That’s why I said that what’s happening there is extremely serious.

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