It's time for the US to rethink its AfPak strategy

The Afghanistan-Pakistan approach: a five point plan for Obama.

Afghanistan is a mess. Pakistan remains a perpetual headache.  The Obama Administration’s AfPak strategy is not working.  It is time for a fresh approach.  

The starting point must be a hard-headed assessment of what kind of Afghanistan can be left behind when NATO forces leave in 2014.  The aim should be to prevent a descent into an all out civil war.  The foundations for a stable regime should be established where all key players feel they have a stake in the future of the country.  

US strategy should be re-focused upon five strands.

First, however much one detests the Taliban and what it stands for, it is clear that its confidence is growing.  The start of its Spring Offensive on April 15 - which saw the targeting of foreign embassies and government institutions - underlined the severity of the situation.  The long-term risk of not directly involving those elements of the Taliban willing to cease hostilities in discussions about power-sharing post-2014 is much greater than the short-term fallout a US President might suffer from doing so.  This is also an issue where the strategic interests of both the US and Pakistan coincide, and where the latter could prove useful in seeking a compromise. 

The Taliban comprehends the reality of its own position.  After 35 years of fighting, it is itself exhausted and appreciates that marching on Kabul post-NATO withdrawal is not realistic given the increasing strength of the Afghan army.  It also realises that all foreign aid would be immediately cut off leaving it facing a disgruntled electorate and millions of mouths to feed.

But the longer the US shuns a political solution in favour of a futile military pummelling of the enemy, the weaker its negotiating position will become.  

Second, a regional track to diplomacy on Afghanistan must be established, involving all countries with strategic interests in the country.  Pakistan has for decades sought pliable government in Kabul to offer “strategic depth” against India for fear of “encirclement”.  But the recent visit to India by Asif Ali Zardari, the first by a Pakistani president since 2005, to promote bilateral trade – currently a paltry $3bn - is an encouraging sign of a potential rapprochement between the two neighbours.  

The Russians, Iranians and Arab states also have a stake.  A multilateral diplomatic initiative needs to begin imminently and be led by a credible third party with no historical Kalashnikov to grind.

Third, the extent of the use of drone attacks should be considered.  There is no doubt that they have brought success in dispensing with a number of unsavoury characters in North Waziristan, the base of the Haqqani Network of insurgents.  However, when innocent civilians are killed, this simply acts as a recruiting sergeant for family members to take up arms against the US to avenge the death of their relations.  Honour and revenge in blood are hallmarks of the Pashtun tribal code.  Such attacks should be used sparingly and judiciously.

Fourth, as a Pew research study conducted last year revealed, only 1 per cent of Pakistanis had a positive image of the US - despite $600m in aid being provided after the floods in 2010.  Of the $20bn the US has given since 2001, over 70 per cent has been taken by the country’s military.  The US must instead focus its aid efforts in both Afghanistan and Pakistan on the development of infrastructure and the provision of microfinance to small businesses starved of credit.  The biggest problem being faced by ordinary Pakistanis is the shortage of gas, and living for up to 18-hours a day without power.  More than 60 per cent of the population is under-25 and only 50 per cent are literate.  Central to solving the security conundrum is helping Pakistan back to a path of economic growth and job creation.

Fifth, with an eye on the Pakistan Parliamentary elections to be held early next year, the US must recognise that the political balance of power within the country may well shift.  The frustrated youth and urban educated elites of Pakistan have been captivated by the anti-corruption message of former cricketing legend turned politician, Imran Khan.  His rallies in Lahore and Karachi have attracted hundreds of thousands of ordinary Pakistanis.  A growing number are yearning for positive change.  They want an end to Berelvi (Sufi) shrines being bombed by radical Deobandi fanatics, economic prosperity, and their nation to be raised from the status of an international pariah state.  The US cannot afford to be caught out as it was, for a time, by the seismic events that took place across the Middle East last year. 

Laying the foundations for a stable Afghanistan by 2014 with Pakistan’s assistance is still achievable.  But it will require personal risk on the part of the President, whatever his political persuasion.  This is no time to be pusillanimous.  The situation demands a leader with the dexterity to strike a deal combined with a strategic vision for the region.  There might then still be one throw of the dice left in the Great Game.  

Ali Miraj was a member of the Conservative Party Commission on International and National Security 2005-2007

Barack Obama with Afghanistan's President Hamid Karzai, September 2011. Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images
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Meet the remarkable British woman imprisoned for fighting against Isis

The treatment of Silhan Özçelik shows how confused British policy towards the Middle East has become. 

Last week, a British court sentenced a woman to prison for attempting to join fighters in the Middle East. Silhan Özçelik, an 18-year-old from Highbury, London was sentenced to 21 months for her part in “preparing terrorist acts” under the Terrorism Act 2006. The judge called her a “stupid, feckless and deeply dishonest young woman”.  What all of this misses out is the most extraordinary fact: that Özçelik was not convicted for going to fight for the Islamic State, but for the Kurdistan Workers’ Party – better known as the PKK, one of the only effective and consistent opponents of Isis since the war began.

Volunteering to fight in foreign wars – so long as they are long ago enough – is a celebrated tradition in Britain. In the late 1930s, while the Spanish Republic battled on against a fascist coup led by General Franco, tens of thousands of volunteers from all over the world went to fight for the International Brigades, including 2,500 from the UK. They included future celebrities such as writer George Orwell and actor James Robertson Justice, and commemorative plaques and memorials can now be seen all over the country

Like the International Brigade volunteers, Özçelik allegedly volunteered to fight for an embattled state facing military defeat at the hands of a far-right insurgency. The combat units she might have joined have been the subject of moving portraits in the Guardian and even praise on Fox News. The PKK is a secular socialist organisation, with a streak of libertarianism and its own feminist movements. But because of its military opposition to the often brutal Turkish treatment of the Kurds, the western powers list the PKK as a terrorist organisation; and would-be heroes like Silhan Özçelik are detained as criminals by the British state.

On one level, what Özçelik’s conviction represents is a change in how the state relates to ordinary citizens who fight. In 1936, the rise of fascism was something on our doorstep, which was opposed most fervently not by official western governments but by ordinary folk, dangerous far left subversives and free spirited writers who sailed to Spain – often in spite of their own governments. In today’s wars in the Middle East, the state is absolutely determined to maintain its monopoly on the right to sanction violence.

What Orwell and other volunteers understood was that while western governments might promote values like liberty and deplore the rise of tyranny, they were also duplicitous and unreliable when it came to prioritising the defeat of fascism over the narrow interests of nation and profit. Then as now, western governments were  deeply uneasy about the idea of ordinary people taking up arms and intervening in global affairs, or deciding – by force – who governs them. If the Terrorism Act 2006 had applied in 1936, Orwell would surely have been arrested at Dover and sent to prison.

More pressingly for the current situation, the persecution of the PKK should make you think twice about the motivations and outcomes for military intervention in Syria. Cameron is on a march to war, and, following the Paris attacks, much of the political establishment is now lining up to support him.

At the same time, our court system is imprisoning and persecuting young women who try to take up arms against Isis. It is doing so at the behest not of our own national security, which has never been threatened by the PKK, but that of Turkey. Turkey’s military is actively targeting Kurdish forces, and has recently stepped up these attacks. There is a wealth of evidence, not least its behaviour during the recent siege of Kobane, to suggest that Turkey – Britain’s only formal NATO ally in the region – is tacitly collaborating with Isis in an attempt to defeat both Assad and the Kurds.

As the government rushes to war in Syria, much of the media attention will focus on Jeremy Corbyn’s awkward task of holding his anti-war line while persuading his party and Shadow Cabinet not to split over the issue. Others will focus, rightly, on the complexity of the situation in the region and the question of who western air-strikes are really there to support: is it Assad, the murderous dictator whose regime has itself been linked to the rise of Isis; Turkey, which is seemingly focussed entirely on defeating Assad and the Kurds; or the soup of organisations – including the Al-Qaeda franchise in Syria – which constitute the anti-regime rebels?

But Özçelik’s conviction should also raise a more fundamental concern: that the contradictions and complications that we are so used to associating with the Middle East lie at the heart of British and western policy as well. If the British state persecutes, rather than supports, the few secular and progressive organisations in the region who are fighting Isis, whose interests is it really serving? And if we don’t trust those interests, how much trust can we really place in it to act on our behalf in Syria?

You can sign a petition calling for Silhan Özçelik’s release here, and a petition calling for the decriminalisation of the PKK here.