Last month has been witness to massive attacks on the population of Kabul. A strike on the Intercontinental Hotel claimed 20 lives, following which was the explosive laden ambulance suicide attack which claimed over 100 lives. This is still the winter season and under normal conditions the Taliban and their affiliate the Haqqani network spend this period recouping and preparing for their offensives to be launched in the spring.Is this a change in trend, a sinister design or a message being conveyed by those who control these groups?
Since the announcement of his new South Asia policy, threatening Pak with his new year tweets, Trump has put forth a strong message to these groups and their sponsors in Pak. He has also changed the rules of engagement, giving permission to military commanders in Afghanistan to target hideouts of these groups in both Pak and Afghanistan. Thus, strikes by air power have increased manifold in Afghanistan and rattled the Taliban. Drone strikes across the border into Pak have also commenced, location of which remains under dispute between Pak and the US. Few of their leaders have also been eliminated.
The Taliban and Haqqani network have been compelled by pressure to change their approach. This pressure flows from their hierarchy, which has gone underground, fearful of being struck as also their handlers in Pak. The direct involvement of Pak in the latest terror strikes were conveyed to them by a team headed by the Afghan Intelligence Chief on a visit to the country. The team had evidence including phone taps to prove that the attacks were planned in Pak and executed at their behest. The father of one of the terrorists killed in the Intercontinental Hotel attack claimed his son was trained in Pak and the news of his death was conveyed from a call from Pak.
The US knows that if it must succeed, which it should or else pave the way for more attacks on US soil, has limited options. Trump, aware of the gravity of the situation announced no talks with the Taliban, unless they are convinced that they cannot defeat the US-Afghan combine. A fact which the US is aware and details of which were released by their own department is that the Afghan Government retains control or exerts influence in about 56% of the nation’s 407 districts. Around 30% remain contested and 14% are under the control of various militant groups including the Taliban.
Since the involvement of Pak is evident in each terror strike, the pressure on them would continue to mount. The US knows that unless it forces the Taliban and Haqqani leadership away from Pakistan, denies them resources from the country, it would continue to stumble. Hence, it should be willing to risk counter move of Pak, including threats of blocking the use of Karachi port and its airspace, by increasing drone strikes into Pak.
Pak would, since it considers the Taliban as akin to its own para military force and the only means of controlling the narrative in Afghanistan, would delay acting against them till theyare forced to do so. It changed its stance post 9/11 and can be forced to do so again, provided the US applies the right nature of force.
The military in Pak controls a weak Central Government, already under threat from multiple sources. An election year implies that no political party would seek to anger the military. Drone strikes, simple threats and military to military dialogue would elicit promises from the Pak army and nothing more. All these actions including aid cuts have led to increased terror strikes.
The US’s changed strategy of enhancing air strikes has forced the Taliban leadership to hunker down for the moment. It cannot be seen to lose face nor accept US strikes without hitting back. Hence, it is now compelled to adopt a different strategy of striking at the heart of Kabul, to convey that it still possesses power and can cause requisite damage. By striking in Kabul, they seek to convey the ability to penetrate any part of the country. If they need to be reined in and Pak also be forced to act, then the approach to be adopted must change.
Pak could and would support protestors from religious groups blocking or destroying US cargo destined for Afghanistan. This could impact US operations and become a counter pressure on them. It has been done before and could be repeated. Therefore, an air corridor, costly but viable would need to be considered.
Pak is in deep financial mess. The first action would be to block international financial institutions from providing loans to an already almost bankrupt Pakistan. China would provide financial assistance, but not the quantum Pak needs to overcome its dire financial state and at a higher rate of interest. Alongside would be to remove Pak from its non-NATO ally status. This may be cosmetic but would convey the message.
The third would be to commence placing Pak as a terror supporting nation. China would block it, possibly with Russian support, but introducing it in itself would hurt Pak sentiments. The fourth would be to enhance drone strikes deep into Pak and simultaneously stop targeting of the TTP, the anti-Pak Taliban.
Finally, would be placing top military hierarchy on the watch list or designating them as terror supporters. Most children of senior Pak military officers are either working or studying in the US. Since this action would hurt them directly, they would be compelled to act, albeit discreetly.
If the US is to succeed, then it needs to adopt out of the box measures, alongside expected ones, which would hurt those who support the Taliban. It cannot afford to mollycoddle Pak and expect it to act. Tough times require tough actions. The fact remains, how far is the US willing to go.
(The author is a retired Major General of the Indian Army)