KARACHI, Pakistan: People with a hammer only see nails. This well-worn maxim aptly describes the United States relationship with Afghanistan and Pakistan over the past several decades. As early as 1954, the United States identified the country as a bulwark against regional encroachment by the Soviet Union when Pakistan received its first substantial tranche of American military and economic aid.
When US President Barack Obama announced the new AfPak (Afghanistan-Pakistan) policy last month, there were hopes that the hammer-and-nails approach – which saw unaccounted billions in military aid showered on the Pakistan army with the assumption that it alone could bring stability – would be shelved. It will take time to fully assess if it has been.
The new AfPak policy promises a more focused approach in a number of ways.
The most obvious is the physical shift from Iraq to Afghanistan. Under George W. Bush the United States had an uncoordinated strategy in Afghanistan, enabling the Taliban, defeated in 2001 and again in 2002, to first recover and then re-emerge. From 2004 onwards the Taliban and two independent allied commanders – Jalaluddin Haqqani and Gulbaddin Hekmatyar – swept into large swathes of southern and eastern Afghanistan and parts of northern Afghanistan in a series of spring and summer offensives.
The idea of negotiating with less extremist elements in the Taliban in Afghanistan was based upon the experience of US and British forces in Iraq, where Sunni militias were paid and trained to fight their former Al-Qaeda allies.
The aim of the new differentiation between Al-Qaeda and the Taliban is to seek out what has been widely termed moderate Taliban. The earlier strategy of treating Al-Qaeda and the Taliban as synonymous has brought these two diverse entities closer together, both ideologically and practically.
Al-Qaeda earned access to one of the most isolated regions on the planet – Waziristan in Pakistan – and the Taliban, who before 2002 had little or no experience in guerrilla warfare or suicide attacks, learnt insurgency techniques. These days Taliban suicide attacks are a weekly occurrence.
For the more extremist elements in the Taliban and for Al-Qaeda, the new AfPak policy promises an escalation, rather than a major tactical shift by the United States. Missile strikes are expected to increase in scope and regularity within Pakistan, even though Obama promised that operations would only be conducted with Pakistan s permission.
The dilemma for Pakistan s army with the new policy is two-fold. First, it must cooperate with the United States in its pursuit of Taliban in tribal areas to root out extremism and the militant threat in the area. Military and non-military aid to Pakistan promises to be more intricately tied to such cooperation than ever before. Second, the army will either have to get hard on the Taliban that it nurtured for so long in the 1980s or risk Pakistan s international isolation.
While Pakistan s infrastructure will surely get a makeover, it will be challenging to develop institutional and social capacity in Pakistan.
Whether there will be a marked improvement in standards of living remains to be seen – the United Nations Human Development Report for 2007-08 conservatively estimates that almost 33 percent of Pakistanis live in poverty.
The most welcome aspect of the new policy is the emphasis on Afghanistan and Pakistan s civil institutions over individual leaders like Hamid Karzai and Pervez Musharraf. In what many have described as a civilian surge , both countries will receive massive injections of cash, projects and experts.
Development aid for new schools, roads and clinics has been targeted for Pakistan s tribal areas, around $7.5 billion in non-military aid over five years if the Kerry-Lugar bill passes through US Congress.
Reconstruction opportunity zones , aimed at facilitating development and foreign investment by offering reduced tariffs and other taxes, are also proposed for those areas along the Pak-Afghan border that are most afflicted by Talibanization. The hope is that by creating a free trade and industry zone, employment opportunities will attract young men away from the Taliban.
The AfPak policy cannot succeed unless the poverty upon which the militants prey is addressed. No matter what promises Washington, Brussels or Islamabad makes, the simple things like poverty which continue to pose the greatest challenges for ordinary Pakistanis need to be overcome in order to instill faith in a better society based on pluralism, democracy and equal rights.
Mustafa Qadri (mustafaqadri.net) is Middle East and South Asia correspondent for The Diplomat magazine and newmatilda.com. This article was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).