Afghan Spring

Back to the balloon metaphor. The flurry of developments in Pakistan,taken in combination, suggests a significant shift in the Taliban’sstrategic emphasis. It’s based on inherently unstable deals andalliances, and is in all likelihood seasonally motivated and thereforetemporary. But in broad strokes, it looks as follows:

– Consolidating its bridgeheads in Swat and NWFP through allegedly lucrative (as in $6million in government indemnities) ceasefireagreements with the Pakistani government.

– Preparing to meet the U.S.’s 17K troop escalation in Afghanistan witha spring offensive that combines up-to-now divided Taliban elements ina pact brokered by Mullah Omar. (Via John McCreary’s Night Watch.)

In other words, with pressure relaxed on the Pak side, the balloonimmediately bulges on the Afghan side. And by all indications, I’m notthe only one thinking this way. Pakistani intelligence officials cited by the IHT “voiced fears that the expected arrival of 17,000 Americantroops inAfghanistan this spring and summer will add to the stresses by pushingmore Taliban fighters intoPakistan.”

True, the Taliban seem to be preparing to do just the opposite. But noone, least of all myself, has ever argued that they have any militarystaying power head-to-head against the U.S. Army. So while they mightbe more active this spring, chances are they will ultimately be pushedback into the FATA, and subsequently redirected towards Islamabad.

When that happens, there are two potential scenarios. The first,according to McCreary, is a repeat of the cycle of concessions thatresulted in last week’s Swat ceasefires (i.e. further gains for theinsurgents). The second, according to John Robb (via Jari), would seethe insurgents overreaching, creating a civilian backlash that wouldreinforce the government’s authority. As Ahmed Humayun argued in his WPR Briefing, that’s what happened in Swat when the Islamists actually governed through theelectoral process. As Robb acknowledges, though, the fact that poppy growing has increased dramatically in the NWFP creates the risk of a Mexico-like narco-Islamist insurgency.

On the other hand, in answer to a question posed by one of Abu Muqawama’s commenters, a destabilized Afghanistan (i.e., an Americanwithdrawal) would not serve as a subsequent cross-border safe haven fora continued Pakistani Taliban insurgency directed at Islamabad, for thesimple reason that they don’t need one. The FATA already effectivelyserves as one, even if it is nominally within the borders of Pakistan.Add to that the absence of Pakistani military operations in the FATA tosupport American goals in Afghanistan, and it’s possible that the FATAcould return to the status quo ante, leaving Pakistan creaky andfragile but not failed.