It is true that Afghanistan and Pakistan are fighting a common enemy in the Taliban and al Qaeda. But the nature of insurgency and engagement is quite different in the two countries. The Pakistani military is fighting an insurgency mainly against its own people. It's different in Afghanistan: government forces are fighting both local militants and terrorist mercenaries that primarily infiltrate from, and are trained and equipped by, elements from across the country's southeastern border.
There is also a vast difference in governmental experience and capacity. Pakistani security institutions have 62 years of experience, and they are bolstered by the country's heavy defense spending and international security assistance. By contrast, Afghanistan's security institutions are just emerging. These fundamental differences necessitate that the counter-terrorism effort and the perception of the region be bifocal--focusing on the specific conditions in each country, rather than lumping them into one, overly simplified within the context of an "Af-Pak" strategy.
In Afghanistan, the government supports the recommendation of the Commander of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, to protect the Afghan people by increasing the number of US and NATO forces in the country. An expanded force would help provide transitional stability in Afghanistan, and create time for Afghan security forces to build capacity. As capacity expands, Afghan forces will be able to take greater security responsibility from ISAF to stabilize and defend Afghanistan.
Things are different in Pakistan, however. There, the Taliban have been strategically tolerated for years. In his recent assessment, Gen. McChrystal noted that the insurgency in Afghanistan is "clearly supported from Pakistan. Senior leaders of the major Afghan insurgent groups are based in Pakistan, are linked with al Qaeda and other violent extremist groups, and are reportedly aided by some elements of Pakistan's ISI [intelligence services]."
The frequent peace deals that Pakistan signed with various local Taliban groups between 2004 and 2008 offers several examples of accommodating the Taliban. Senior Pakistani officials termed those deals as "a local solution to a local problem." In February 2009, for instance, Pakistan and the Taliban entered into a peace agreement in the Swat Valley. But the United States, NATO, and Afghanistan strongly objected to it. Officials in Kabul believed the peace deal would enable the Taliban and al Qaeda to rest and reequip in order to carry out new operations in Afghanistan. As expected, security did begin deteriorating in both countries, soon after the February peace deal.
So far, Pakistan's sweeping military operations to retake the lost ground from the Taliban have helped precipitate a humanitarian crisis, featuring the large-scale displacement of civilians in the North-West Frontier Province. This has alienated the border region's most impoverished tribes, among whom al Qaeda has heavily recruited desperate and illiterate youth to carry out suicide attacks in Afghanistan. At the same time, Pakistan's conventional operations have proven inept against an unconventional, elusive enemy. These operations have either displaced Taliban fighters to new areas in Pakistan or pushed them over into Afghanistan.
To help operationalize the US policy of disrupting, dismantling and defeating al Qaeda, Pakistan's capable military and intelligence institutions must focus on strategic rather than tactical operations. Such operations by Pakistan can succeed only if the country sincerely commits to honest intelligence sharing with its key allies: the United States, NATO, and Afghanistan.
Effective intelligence will enable Pakistan and its allies to focus on and hit the strategic targets: leadership of al Qaeda and Taliban, their financing sources within and outside Pakistan, as well as terrorist sanctuaries in rural or urban areas of the country. The net result of such direly needed cooperation among Pakistan and its allies would go a long way to avoid civilian suffering in Pakistan and Afghanistan. It would also significantly boost the chances of success in the fight against extremism and terrorism in both countries.
To the enemy, Afghanistan and Pakistan are one and the same: training ground, sources of recruits and targets of their unscrupulous acts of terrorism. But our situations are clearly different, even though we are fighting the same common enemy. It is up to us and the international community to understand our unique positions and different circumstances, and to alter the 'Af-Pak' perception of the region accordingly. As the renewed international effort, spearheaded by the United States, gathers steam, this consideration becomes crucially important. The enemy does not distinguish between us. We must.
M. Ashraf Haidari is the Political Counselor of the Embassy of Afghanistan in Washington, DC. His e-mail is [email protected]