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Tuesday, March 31, 2009 

Pakistan, Afghanistan and the new American strategy.

In one sense, the claim of responsibility from the Pakistani Taliban for yesterday's attack on the police school, more accurately known as the Tehreek-e-Taliban, headed by Baitullah Mehsud, is something of a relief; it means, that as yet, Lashkar-e-Taiba, another group founded by Pakistan's intelligence agencies, has not declared war on the Pakistani state itself, even if they remain the most likely suspects for the previous attack on the Sri Lankan cricket team. It does however show how quickly attacks like those in Mumbai can be copied and carried out, the TTP having previously relied almost exclusively on suicide bombings.

The other sort of good news from yesterday's attack was that a complete bloodbath was avoided thanks to the relatively swift intervention of the Pakistani security forces, those who had been criticised, probably unfairly, after the first Lahore attack. "Only" 11 dead, when there were up to 800 police recruits in the attacked compound, can be seen as something of a success. It might also cause a rethink in the terrorists' tactics: a suicide bombing, especially a truck one, would have almost certainly resulted in far higher casualties and at less expense to the attackers, hence why suicide bombing is such an attractive strategy, however much horror it inspires in those who are under attack.

Apart from those very small consolations, there is much to fear from the continuing spiral into proactive insurgency in Pakistan. The sharia "deal" in Swat was meant to bring a halt to some of the attacks: if anything, they have increased elsewhere, as could have been predicted. The justification given by Mehsud for yesterday's attack was the drone strikes which are also continuing in the semi-autonomous tribal areas along the Afghanistan border. While these attacks have been effective in taking out some al-Qaida and Taliban leaders, they are also the equivalent of using a sledgehammer to crack a nut, resulting in civilian casualties which only further enrage public opinion against the Americans, and in turn towards the Pakistani state which they see as colluding with the Hellfire missile assaults, however much they condemn the Americans in public. That the latest attack was again in Lahore, long regarded as being far removed from the tension of Islamabad or the radicalism of the towns and cities further west, also shows just how far the reach of the TTP has spread and also how quickly. The insurgency ostensibly began after the assault on the Red Mosque in 2007, but has since become almost inseparable from the simultaneous jihad in Afghanistan against the foreign forces, as the merging of three separate organisations under the banner of the Council of United Mujahideen last month showed. The new grouping, which also pledged allegiance to Mullah Omar and Osama bin Laden, was meant to focus its attacks on the coalition in Afghanistan and turn away from targeting the Pakistani military and police, yet there is no sign of that happening yet. Indeed, if anything, the attacks in Pakistan itself seem to have stepped up further over the past few weeks.

All of this is a direct challenge to the "new" US strategy on both Afghanistan and Pakistan. This is fundamentally based around denying terrorists the use of safe havens to attack foreign countries from. In some ways it amounts to a refutation of the previous administration's strategy of tackling rogue states, where the attack on Afghanistan amounted to revenge with the war on Iraq, which had no connection to al-Qaida, the main event, but in other ways it is nothing more or less than simply a justification from Obama to continue the war, regardless of the consequences. The strategy fundamentally ignores what the jihadi motivation is: they themselves are only too aware of their actual weak status, knowing full well that they cannot carry out spectaculars like 9/11 on anything like a regular basis. What they can do however is draw in their enemies and then subject them to asymmetrical insurgency, knowing that unless their tactics become too brutal, as they did in Iraq, resulting in a backlash from those who had fought alongside them, that they have the potential to bog down the invaders or occupiers for years, if not decades, while increasingly gaining recruits to their cause as a result. Afghanistan has not really been free from war since before 1980, and some of those fighting have also been involved since then, showing no signs of getting tired of it.

The biggest problem with it though is that it imagines that it can create safe havens, or even that such a policy is the way forward. Even if you managed to kill bin Laden, Zawahiri and Mullah Omar tomorrow and most if not all of those currently actively involved in the insurgencies, while it would be a tremendous blow, it would not even begin to challenge the ideology behind the men. Havens also are transient: at the moment it's the FATA area of Pakistan, but bin Laden if we are to use him did plenty of travelling around after the end of the jihad against the Soviets, moving from Saudi Arabia to Sudan and then back to Afghanistan. As Andrew Exum points out, where does it all end? Do we also go after and into Somalia, Yemen, the Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon and anywhere else where jihadist movements are also beginning to spawn and which might at some point threaten the West? Then there's the "virtual" safe havens, the online jihadist networks which currently only involve discussion and distribution of propaganda rather than actual plotting, which instead takes place off the actual forums, but which could at some point potentially fill the void. Thomas Hegghammer points out four very simple things that have to be done but which don't involve violence of any variety which would help immensely:

It is very simple: 1) Say and do things on Palestine, Chechnya and Kashmir that make Muslims feel less geopolitically deprived and humiliated. 2) Be nice to the locals in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan and broadcast your good deeds, 3) Point out where the jihadis are wrong on substance, and 4) Let mainstream Muslim clerics take care of the theology.

The above is not suddenly going to stop the TTP from launching more attacks, but it will help to staunch the flow of recruits. Pakistan is worrying, but it is not suddenly about to fall into the hands of jihadists who will instantly have their finger on the nuclear trigger. Lastly, we also have to start thinking seriously about an exit strategy from Afghanistan: a country which could never be conquered in the past is not going to be conquered now. Deals, however unsavoury, will have to be made. It probably won't however look as bad as it currently does when the government we helped install wants to introduce such draconian laws on the role of women in Afghan society as those detailed in today's Grauniad.

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