President Barack Obama recently announced an escalation of the war in Afghanistan, outlining plans to send an additional 30,000 troops. In search of an “end game,” he also declared that the U.S. occupation of Afghanistan would end in the summer of 2011, though the administration has since stated this will be a long and slowly phased withdrawal. The additional troops — even had they been the 40,000 originally requested by General Stanley McChrystal, the top American commander in Afghanistan — will be unable to score a military victory. Washington realizes that military force is not enough, particularly in the face of the loss of public support in the United States and the recent failure of democratic elections in Afghanistan. The end game will require a political settlement.

The Taliban know this too, and the two are locked in a macabre “diplomatic” dance. The Taliban have ramped up their attacks on NATO forces and carried out spectacular attacks on “soft” targets, such as a UN guest house. At the same time, they have blown hot and cold about negotiating terms provided the U.S. occupation of Afghanistan ends. A potential date for the U.S. withdrawal will perhaps lead to further talks. And it seems that back-channel contacts, including with Afghan Taliban Chief Mullah Omar, are already underway.

America has been searching largely in vain for what it calls “reconcilable” elements of the Taliban — that is, those that are willing to shed an ideological affinity to al-Qaeda. It plans to co-opt them into the Afghan government or otherwise work out power-sharing deals. The problem it faces is insufficient intelligence and contacts with regard to the Taliban. Pakistan is the only country in the world that has meticulously cultivated both. More specifically, the Pakistani army and its powerful intelligence agencies hold the keys to unlock the Afghan conflict. The army has offered to share this information and to actively mediate between the United States and the Taliban — for a price.

The quid pro quo involves two significant components. The Pakistani army — which has ruled the country for most of its existence — must be recognized as the real power in Pakistan as opposed to its fragile elected government. And the army must be given a larger voice in deciding the future of Afghanistan. Both conditions seem to have met American acceptance. The twin coups in AfPak — in Kabul and in Islamabad — flow from this new indispensability that the Pakistani army has acquired in the eyes of the West.

Coup in Kabul

The coup in Kabul has already taken place. Intense pressure from Washington and London forced Abdullah Abdullah, the main challenger to President Hamid Karzai’s re-election, out of the second round of elections. Abdullah was widely acknowledged as having a fighting chance at winning a second round at the polls. But sadly, guns most often decide questions of power in Afghanistan, and NATO’s are firmly dug into the Karzai camp. Abdullah’s decision to drop out of the race ended weeks of political stalemate but also served to legitimize the widespread electoral fraud perpetrated by Karzai’s supporters. The international recognition given to Karzai has papered over questions of the legal and constitutional propriety of the elections.

Abdullah, an ethnic Tajik, was a problem for NATO and Pakistan, which both require a relatively stable and more importantly, Pashtun-led government to negotiate with the Taliban. Pakistan has close ties to Afghanistan’s ethnic Pashtuns, including to the Taliban. The Pakistani army also does not trust Abdullah for his perceived ties to its mortal enemy India. India supported the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance in the years leading up to NATO invasion of 2001. Abdullah was the foreign minister of the Northern Alliance in its capacity as Afghanistan’s de jure government at the time.

Further, as far as the Pakistani army is concerned, a weak and illegitimate Karzai government will be less resistant to Pakistani interests in the region and less open to cooperation with India. As during the 1980s and 1990s — and reminiscent of its predecessor, the Royal Indian Army during the British Raj — the Pakistani army will reprise the role of the West’s enforcer in Afghanistan.

Coup in Islamabad

The second coup is being cooked up across the border against Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari. Zardari has heretofore been a valuable American ally, cooperating on a number of fronts including Predator drone strikes on Pakistani territory and anti-Taliban offensives. “He does everything we ask,” U.S. Ambassador to Pakistan Anne Patterson has candidly stated about Zardari.

As president, Zardari enjoys vast powers. Zardari’s predecessor, the putschist U.S. ally President General Pervez Musharraf, accumulated sweeping executive powers that effectively changed the balance in Pakistan from a parliamentary to a presidential political system. These expanded powers include being able to dismiss the parliament and fill senior positions in the army. Naturally, the opposition hotly contests these executive powers. Zardari promised to quickly shed them almost immediately upon his election in September 2008. He has since backtracked and now insists on holding onto them until at least March 2010.

Zardari’s own interest in retaining maximum power has dovetailed perfectly with U.S. needs. Embarrassed by reports of the Pakistani army’s covert support of the Taliban, the United States viewed a powerful Zardari as a useful tool in counter-balancing the army. Zardari, it seemed, would be America’s democratically elected strongman. He sidelined opposition leader Nawaz Sharif, who was seen as too close to the Islamists. He also refused to restore Pakistan’s Chief Justice, who had been unceremoniously dismissed by former president General Musharraf and whom the United States similarly considered too sympathetic to the Islamists for ordering the release of Pakistan’s “missing” prisoners that had disappeared into the moral and legal blindspots of the Global War on Terror. Faced with massive street protests, Zardari was forced to back down on both issues.

But Zardari has lost the American grace he enjoyed — and thus the second coup, a quiet shift of power in Islamabad in favour of the military. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s recent visit to Pakistan, where she spent hours talking to army chief General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, solidified U.S. recognition of the army as the real power in the country. At this meeting, the deal was reportedly hatched to force Abdullah from Afghanistan’s presidential race. Around this time, Clinton’s language around the pro-democracy provisions of the Kerry-Lugar bill softened, making it a near certainty that she will exercise her statutory authority to waive those requirements altogether.

Military Trump Cards

Washington has changed its view of the Pakistani army because of the role the army is expected to play in Afghanistan, as well as its recent success in tackling the Taliban insurgency on its side of the border. The United States hopes to convince the army to expand the offensive to the entire border region, also targeting those Taliban that direct their attacks against NATO and American troops in Afghanistan. Given the tension between this objective and its mediator role, as well as Pakistan’s own interest in maintaining friendly relations with the Afghan Taliban, it is most likely that the army will not extend its operations beyond South Waziristan into other parts of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas where many Afghan Taliban commanders have set up camp.

The army is also slyly playing the card of signalling a larger role for the United States in monitoring and securing Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal. This is clear from an article written by Seymour Hersh in the New Yorker which revealed such discussions between the United States and the top brass of the Pakistan military, including General Kayani and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Tariq Majid. General Majid has vociferously denied any such negotiations. However, General Kayani has maintained an enigmatic silence. The Pakistani military has therefore won U.S. support while maintaining plausible deniability. Of course, the same article quotes high-level Pakistani officials that the military’s gestures are mainly to placate the Americans; they have no intention whatsoever of ceding control of the nuclear arsenal. Pakistan’s generals are probably marvelling at American gullibility — or at the American need for self-serving justifications for the tilt back toward the army.

The Pakistani army has its own reasons to dislike Zardari. He attempted to clip the army’s wings — following American diktats aimed at curbing the army’s support for the Taliban — to shore up his own position, but also in response to a genuine need to diminish the military’s chokehold over the country’s politics. He twice publicly tried to assert control over the premiere army-run intelligence agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate (ISI). Both decisions were reversed within a matter of hours, the second reportedly after the direct intervention of the army chief General Kayani, himself the former spymaster at the ISI.

The army has other concerns too. It views Zardari as being soft on national security on the issues of India, Kashmir, and Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal. It is also worried about Zardari’s reluctance to shed his powers to appoint top military posts. The heads of the army, ISI, and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff are all set to retire in 2010. Zardari could potentially appoint subservient loyalists to these positions. The army considers this entirely unacceptable civilian interference in its internal matters. It has traditionally gone to great lengths to protect its institutional interests. For example, Musharraf’s coup in 1999 was triggered when then-Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif dismissed Musharraf and appointed a new army chief. Given that Zardari has already meddled in army business with respect to the ISI, the army is now moving to rein in the president.

The military has used the hectoring language of the Kerry-Lugar aid package to whip up nationalist sentiment against the government. The opposition decried it as an assault on Pakistan’s sovereignty and national security — though secretly they have communicated their support to the Americans. A large segment of the country’s “fiercely independent” media has fallen in line behind the army and its ubiquitous intelligence services. Local journalists critical of the military have been attacked or killed while their international counterparts are conveniently “outed” as working for foreign intelligence agencies. †With American support in the bag, the army’s media campaign has begun to die down. Its generals have set aside their fury at the swipe at Pakistan’s sovereignty to line up to ask that aid under the Kerry-Lugar bill be fast-tracked.

The military’s main weapon has been to back the opposition parties in rebelling against the National Reconciliation Ordinance (NRO). The NRO, a last gasp of former president General Musharraf, forgave the crimes of thousands of politicians, party activists, and bureaucrats. The NRO facilitated Zardari’s rise to the presidency despite a number of criminal and corruption cases pending against him. The opposition refused to ratify the NRO, which expired on November 28. The hostility of some of the government’s closest allies in parliament and biggest beneficiaries of the NRO, such as the Mutahida Quami Mahaz (MQM) has come as a big shock to Zardari. Even though Zardari enjoys presidential immunity under the constitution, court cases challenging him and disqualifying many of his cabinet ministers and allies will likely hobble his government. The army may even manage an impeachment motion in parliament. Even if he is able to stay in office — which is uncertain — Zardari will have next to no room to manoeuvre without army approval. Either way, the army will have made an effective coup in everything but name.

Zardari’s Choices

The Pakistani army is adept at using its domestic clout and international support to create an environment that produces favourable outcomes. Therefore, akin to the actions the army took to topple no less than four elected governments in the 1980s and 1990s, this will be a “constitutional coup.” It is made easier by Zardari’s undoubted unpopularity in Pakistan. Effectively, the army has delivered a checkmate where the people are forced to choose between an unpopular president and a praetorian military.

These are false choices. There is a real democratic need for Zardari to give up the extraordinary powers that General Musharraf, his dictatorial predecessor, accumulated during his presidency. But barring a removal by the Supreme Court he should complete his term — something the army has not allowed any fully civilian government to do. He would be wise to do so in a much chastened manner, conscious of the fickleness of American support. He must also rebuild the bridges he burned to the main opposition parties in the interest of forming a broad front against the army’s — and America’s — unending meddling in Pakistan’s internal politics and foreign policy.

The failure of such a political consensus will allow the army to completely seize Pakistan’s Afghanistan policy and shut out the elected government. In the 1990s, such a seizure resulted in shunting aside peace efforts in favor of a zero-sum military strategy that exacerbated Afghanistan’s civil war, embittered ethnic relations, and ultimately placed the Taliban in power in Kabul. Pakistan’s own blowback included rapidly worsening sectarian and ethnic fissures, and the increasing impoverishment of its people. Afghanistan’s grinding civil war also became a regional proxy battle, with Pakistan and Saudi Arabia backing the Pashtun Taliban while India, Iran, Russia, and Uzbekistan supported the Northern Alliance, a motley collection of Tajik, Hazara. and Uzbek militias. Ethnic tensions are already high in Afghanistan and likely worse off after the Tajik Abdullah was so casually cast aside in the presidential race. An outright power grab by any one group will only reopen the fresh scars of ethnic strife and deepen Afghanistan’s spiral of violence. This is a real danger in allowing the Pakistani army to pilot Obama’s exit strategy.

Afghans are ill served by their present illegitimate government, but they’d fare no better with a seizure of power by the Taliban in the name of Afghanistan’s Pashtuns. Afghanistan requires a national unity government that reflects the country’s diversity, ethnic makeup, and governance structures, and one the population views as legitimate. There must be a corresponding regional compact that brings together Pakistan, India, Iran, Russia, and perhaps China to provide security guarantees and support for the fledgling new government. The Taliban have signalled a willingness to negotiate once NATO’s occupation ends. And regional governments might just set aside their rivalries to achieve a quick end to the occupation and a stable and peaceful Afghanistan. Preventing Pakistan’s precipitous slide toward anarchy and military domination would also be a goal shared by its neighbors. Such an exit strategy promises long-term success. â€

Without a shift in American policy the foreseeable future appears bleak. The United States and the Pakistani army are a formidable alliance that stretches back to the 1950s. In the past they have engineered the seemingly impossible in the only ever military defeat of the former Soviet Union in Afghanistan. In the process, they also brought about the decimation of Pakistan’s democracy, unrelenting civil war in Afghanistan, and the Islamist blowback across the entire region, the affects of which were felt as far as the American homeland on September 11, 2001. One hopes that history will not repeat itself.

Shibil Siddiqi is a fellow with the Centre for the Study of Global Power and Politics at Trent University and a contributor to Foreign Policy in Focus. He can be reached at shibil.siddiqi [at] gmail [dot] com.

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