Pakistan extends hand to India

That ongoing tensions between Pakistan and India present a serious obstacle to long-term peace and stability in the region is well known. In addition to straining relations between two nuclear powers (Pakistan and India), the dispute over Kashmir resulted in Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) supporting Taliban and possibly al Qaeda militants in the region as a "strategic asset" in their struggles with India. This resulted in the blowback we see today, as militants shed any pretense of control by the ISI and began taking over Pakistani villages and declaring Shari'a rule.

As such, diplomats and international security experts have been long saying that an important part of a successful strategy in the Af-Pak region is to heal old wounds between Pakistan and India. While this will not come easily, it's good to see that Pakistan President Zardari is making the important move of extending a hand to India:

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The Dogs of Afghanistan: Obama vs Osama

It's ironic that at the time when the framing 'war on terror' has receded from US public discourse the most telling blows are finally being struck.  The conflict with al-Qaeda was always a war of ideas punctuated by horrible and unexpected violence for no other purpose than to provide tangible evidence of 'legitimacy' for the enemies of the 'Great Satan' who presumed to lead oppressed and potentially militant Muslims across the world.  Our strategy of fighting this 'war' by suspending civil liberties, promoting fear at home and apprehension overseas while unilaterally projecting US military power in the Middle East and South Asia always seemed as likely to play into the hands of the self-appointed enemies of the US as not.  

It almost seemed calculated that Bin Laden struck the US when our leadership was predictably willing to frame the conflict in the convenient medieval narrative of 'crusade.'  But things are different now, we finally understand the field on which this battle will be won:

"Barack Obama is not just trying to reach out to Muslims for the sake of it," says Mr. Gerges, a professor of Middle Eastern studies at Sarah Lawrence College and an authority on modern jihad. "He's trying to hammer a deadly nail in Osama bin Laden's message." What President Obama understood more than his predecessors, Mr. Gerges says, is that it is not a war that can be won militarily, but only ideologically.

Jarret Brachman, a former West Point terrorism expert and author of a recent book, "Global Jihadism," said the speech "was the most important strategic step we've taken in this war."

"That's why Al Qaeda is so nervous," he said.

Rod Nordland - Forceful Words and Fateful Realities NYT 06 Jun 09

Woven within Obama's address to the Muslim world from Cairo was a carefully crafted refutation of the al-Qaeda argument, point by point, presented in the form of classical Islamic scholarly discourse, complete with quotations from the Qur'an:

Senior administration officials say the speech was carefully crafted to rob the Al Qaeda leader and his terrorist network of some of its chief recruiting totems, including fears the United States plans a permanent presence in Iraq and Afghanistan.

White House officials say that the tide may be turning on the world's most wanted man. "For the first time, they're beginning to lose the propaganda war," said a top aide traveling with Obama during his six-day mission to Europe and the Middle East.

The week of high drama featured a showdown of sorts between the two leaders -- Obama vs. Osama -- with Obama's soaring speech and a bin Laden audiotape providing a powerful point-counterpoint as each sought to make his case to the Muslim world.

Mike Allen - Barack Obama takes aim at Osama bin Laden Politico 6 Jun 09

In January Bin Laden threatened to open 'new fronts' against the US and it's allies.  On the eve of Obama's speech his scratchy audio-taped prebuttal was more tactical, and clearly concerned with his own backyard:

In a tape broadcast by Al Jazeera shortly after Obama arrived in Saudi Arabia on Wednesday, bin Laden said the president had inflamed hatred toward the US by ordering Pakistan to crack down on fighters in the Swat Valley.

He said: "Obama and his administration have sowed new seeds of hatred against America.

"He has followed the steps of his predecessor in antagonising Muslims ... and laying the foundation for long wars."

Bin Laden attacks Obama policies Al Jazeera 3 Jun 09

It is indicative that this message was focused on the Pakistani offensive in Swat, the frontline evidence of the turning tide of Muslim sympathies and aspirations.  The Taliban, having alienated public opinion in Pakistan, have increased popular support for the newly-minted civilian government's leadership and a determined military effort against this militant Islamist threat, including seeking and confronting the Taliban, and al-Qaeda, in their homelands.  Ideological rhetoric is always most effective when the winds of change are blowing in your favour, and they are blowing fair for us right now.

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Gen. Kayani and President Zardari Make Swift Progress Against Taliban

Pakistan has been hit hard by Taliban militants and is under close scrutiny by the world community. Under this pressure, the army and the government have acted swiftly to secure peace and stability, and protecting Pakistan's culture and way of life.

The tide is turning in Pakistan, and the army has turned the tables on Taliban militants, but the fight is not close to over. Speaking yesterday, Chief of Army Staff Gen. Kayani noted the success of the Pakistan army in turning around the situation in Swat, and that the military would keep pressure on Taliban forces until all safety was returned.

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Will Afghan Peace Talks Pose A Dilemma for the Obama Administration?

The New York Times reports that the leaders of various Afghan resistance groups, including the Taliban, are talking to intermediaries of the Karzai government about a potential peace agreement. Central to the discussion is a timetable for a US withdrawal.

The talks, if not the withdrawal proposals, are being supported by the Afghan government. The Obama administration, which has publicly declared its desire to coax "moderate" Taliban fighters away from armed struggle, says it is not involved in the discussions and will not be until the Taliban agree to lay down their arms. But nor is it trying to stop the talks, and Afghan officials believe they have tacit support from the Americans.

The discussions have so far produced no agreements, since the insurgents appear to be insisting that any deal include an American promise to pull out -- at the very time that the Obama administration is sending more combat troops to help reverse the deteriorating situation on the battlefield. Indeed, with 20,000 additional troops on the way, American commanders seem determined to inflict greater pain on the Taliban first, to push them into negotiations and extract better terms. And most of the initial demands are nonstarters for the Americans in any case.

Even so, the talks are significant because they suggest how a political settlement may be able to end the eight-year-old war, and how such negotiations may proceed. They also raise the prospect of potentially difficult decisions by President Hamid Karzai and President Obama, who may have to consider making deals with groups like the Taliban that are anathema to many Americans, and other leaders with brutal and bloody pasts. Some of the leaders in the current talks have been involved with Al Qaeda.

The United States is not a party to the talks but does not seem to object to them either. Still the United States seems insistent on establishing preconditions. "The U.S. would support such efforts only if Taliban are willing to abandon violence and lay down their arms, and accept Afghanistan's democratically elected government," said Ian Kelly, a State Department spokesman.

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Pakistan Presses On

The military operations in Malakand against the Taliban continue, with a critical stage, the occupation of Mingora, likely to take place in the next few days, as reported after the briefing of parliamentarians from Pakistan's leading parties on Friday:

The leaders were briefed in camera by the COAS and the Director General of Operations, Maj-Gen Javed Iqbal, at PM's House and reassured that special care was being taken to avoid collateral damage and that a decisive advance had been made in Mingora and its suburbs.

The army officers said the city had been encircled from all sides and it would be cleared of militants very soon. The leaders were informed that militants were on the run after army's penetration into areas where troops had no access earlier.

They were also told that Fazlullah, believed to be the head of militant Taliban, was not in control of all the groups fighting in Malakand and that the militant groups were receiving money and arms through Waziristan and Afghanistan.  

Ahmad Hassan - `Mingora besieged, to be secured soon' Dawn Media 16 May 09

As far as military strategies go it would appear that this is a sound one, given the numeric superiority but unwieldy nature of the army.  Occupying the surrounding countryside before descending on Mingora is effective and a significant departure from the half-hearted efforts of years past.

But as we know the real challenge of 'complex wars' is political, not military, and in that respect the Pakistani civilian government seems to be achieving some success, both in uniting political factions behind this operation, at least for now, and mobilising public opinion against the Taliban as a matter of national sovereignty and security:

COAS General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani's in-camera briefing to the parliamentarians on the situation in Swat elicited a unanimous stand in favour of the military operation. This unity among the leadership on an issue of such great importance augurs well for the federation. The Taliban were using Swat as a base to spread their network to other parts of the country and carry out suicide attacks across the country. They were also advocating a way of life that was neither in accordance with the spirit of Islam nor the vision of the founding fathers of the country. The government's attempts to hammer out a negotiated settlement of the conflict had met with little success because the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan could not reconcile itself to the idea of accepting the writ of the state.

Editorial - In both camps The Nation (Pakistan) 16 May 09

It seems pretty clear that the task of wresting control of the NWFP and FATA from the Taliban is going to be a long and difficult one for Pakistan and any expectations of a sudden and dramatic improvement there is likely to be disappointed, especially considering that in Bajaur, apparently, the Taliban have reasserted their presence shortly after the winding down of the operations of the Frontier Corps in February.  According to a disputed BBC analysis only 38% of this region is under the control of the Pakistani government and the very nature of the Taliban insurgency makes it difficult for the unwieldy Pakistani Army to effectively bring them to a decisive action, a tactical reality understood by British colonial generals well over a century ago.  

However public opinion seems to be hardening against the Taliban's excesses in recent months and the military continues to loyally discharge it's constitutional role.  Politically, everything hinges on the All-Parties Conference of the National Assembly, scheduled to be held in Islamabad on Monday.  If the coalition factions, at least, remain united behind their leadership, such as it is, the recent geopolitical gamble by the Obama administration should perhaps be seen as a qualified success in response to a very difficult situation.

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