Time Is Running Out

In several Security Debrief posts published on this site in 2007 and 2008, I discussed the great urgency required by the United States to adopt a different strategy towards Pakistan and I also articulated the options and steps necessary to stop Pakistan’s fast slide towards instability.  Unfortunately, the United States has already missed the boat and time has run out for any “catching up” in policy and tactics.  Today, the world faces the stark and real possibility of Pakistan becoming a failed state and a haven for terrorism with potential nightmarish consequences.  Can this be stopped and what should the U.S. do about it?

What Went Wrong?

US policies towards Pakistan have failed and security has deteriorated dramatically in Afghanistan and Pakistan because the United States did not keeping its eye on the ball!  The source of terrorism and the threat to the world’s security has been, still is, and will remain for the foreseeable future, Wahhabi Sunni fundamentalism which has produced the Taliban, Al Qaeda and their likes, and has established bases of operations in Afghanistan and Pakistan.  It is not Iran.

Instead of focusing on developing strategies to curb and marginalize over time the influence of Wahhabi Sunni fundamentalism (the root cause of the terrorist attacks of 9/11 and the source of religious extremism that had inspired suicide bombings in Iraq, Israel, India, and Spain for example), the Bush Administration’s main efforts in its second term in office were aimed at isolating and destabilizing Iran while fighting Al Qaeda-in-Iraq.    The shift in focus produced confusing policies towards Pakistan and Afghanistan and provided the breathing space for Wahhabi Sunni extremists, the Taliban and Al Qaeda to reorganize their forces and restructure their tactics and engineer a major comeback in both countries.

Mission Focus: Defeat Wahhabi Extremism

Security conditions on the ground in both Pakistan and Afghanistan have reached a critical stage and time is running out.  Unless the United States switches gears immediately and adopts an aggressive policy aimed like a laser beam at defeating Wahhabi extremism in both countries, the world better brace itself at having to face two failed states – Pakistan and Afghanistan –  in the very near future.  The “key” to success will depend on having one integrated regionally-based comprehensive strategy towards both countries, otherwise failure is most certain.


The development of a new integrated strategy requires greater cultural intelligence. In this case, religion plays a paramount role in identifying the solution to the problem.  Let me explain.

The overwhelming majority of the people of Pakistan are Moslem or follow Moslem traditions.  It is important to note that Islamic values and practices color virtually all aspects of Pakistani life and society with most Pakistanis being Sunni Moslem (there is a Shiite minority comprising approximately 14% of the population).  The majority of Sunni Moslems in Pakistan adhere to the Hanafi School of Sunni Islam.  There are four major schools of Sunni jurisprudence in Islam namely Hanafi, Maliki, Shafi’i, and Hanbali.  The Hanafi School of Islam is “relatively” the most liberal of the four.  In addition, many Moslems in Pakistan are influenced by Sufism, a more mystical form of Islam.  Although Islam plays a central role in the life of most Pakistanis it was not subverted by violent extremists because of its Hanafi and Sufi influences.

The real problem lies with the spread of the Wahhabi Sunni movement (founded in Arabia) more particularly, among the Pashtun tribes located along the border with Afghanistan.  Following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, Saudi Arabia provided relief and humanitarian assistance to Pakistan in order to care for the large number of Afghani refugees who crossed the border into Pakistan in search of safety and shelter.  In addition, Saudi Arabia funded the construction of thousands of “madrassas” (religious schools) in those areas which indoctrinated the local population in Wahhabi Sunni Islam.  Over time, these schools became the breeding grounds for fanatical ideologies espoused by extremist groups (notably Al Qaeda and the Taliban) in the region of Baluchistan, the North-West Frontier Province, and other parts of the country.

Any strategy aimed at eliminating the threat of Wahhabi Sunni fundamentalism must have a religious component at its core in order to be effective.  The United States should do the following:

•    United Pakistan Against Wahhabism: the United States should encourage the formation of a national unity government in Pakistan that represents all non-Wahhabi Moslem components of society including the Pakistan Muslim League (N) led by Nawaz Sharif and declare war on a sect that has infected Pakistani society and is threatening the noble soul of Islam.  Under the banner of Pakistani Islam, the country may be better enabled to unite itself and mobilize its population and resources in defense of Pakistan and the Pakistani way of life.
•    US Lower Profile: the United States should lower its military profile and refrain from making statements that are interpreted by Pakistanis as undue interference in their internal affairs.  The struggle against Sunni Wahhabism must be based on Pakistani nationalism and driven by Pakistani society and forces.  Furthermore, while the safety of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal is of real concern to the United States and the world, it is recommended that the Obama Administration address these concerns very quietly with the Pakistani military in order to avoid embarrassing Pakistan on an issue that is of great pride to the Pakistani people.
•    India’s Support:  the Obama Administration should discretely secure an understanding with India that provides full support to a national unity government of Pakistan in its push against Sunni Wahhabism.  After all, a ‘failed state’ in Pakistan is of greatest concern to India, given the protracted conflict over Kashmir and the infiltration of Wahhabi Sunni fundamentalism in Indian Moslem society.  This arrangement would free the hands of the Pakistani government enabling it to employ all of its resources against the Taliban and their allies in the North-West Province and Baluchistan regions of the country.


The second major part of a new integrated and comprehensive strategy to defeat the real enemy – Sunni Wahhabi fundamentalism – centers on Afghanistan.

Virtually all the people of Afghanistan are Moslem with a 75% majority adhering to the Hanafi School of Sunni Islam and approximately 24% of the population are Shiite Moslems, particularly the Hazara and Kizilbash.  Sufism is also widely practiced among Sunnis and Shiites alike in Afghanistan.  While at first glance one may be tempted to think that since the majority religion is Hanafi Sunni, maybe a strategy similar to the one being proposed for Pakistan could also be adapted to Afghanistan.  The answer is no because conditions in Afghanistan are much more complex than in Pakistan.  Although religion holds an important position in the daily life of most Afghanis, divisions along cultural and ethnic lines are quite dominant.  Let me explain.

The Pashtun ethnic group heavily centered in the southern province of Kandahar comprises less than two-fifths of the population and does not constitute a majority.  Tajiks account for approximately 25 percent of Afghanis, the Hazara comprise nearly 20 percent, and Uzbeks and Chahar Aimaks each account for slightly more than 5 percent of the population.  Furthermore, the official languages of Pakistan are Pashto and Persian (Dari).  Approximately two-fifths of the population speaks Pashto (the language of the Pashtuns) but more than half of the population speaks some dialect of Persian (Dari).

The complex religious, ethnic and linguistic mosaic of Afghanistan makes the development of a more coherent strategy against Sunni Wahhabism more difficult but not impossible.  We need to first understand the status of the Taliban in this complex picture.

The Taliban, whose ranks came originally from the Saudi funded Sunni Wahhabi madrassas in northern Pakistan, became a real force in Afghanistan in 1990’s following the withdrawal of Soviet troops.  Their main power base within Afghanistan is in the southern province of Kandahar among the Pashtun ethnic group.  Having taken over the government of Afghanistan in the nineties, the Taliban provided a safe haven for Sunni Wahhabi militants from around the world, including Al Qaeda headed by exiled Saudi Arabian Osama Bin Laden.  Resistance to Taliban power in Afghanistan came primarily from non-Pashtun ethnic groups such as the Tajiks, Uzbeks, and Hazaras, whose power bases are in the north, west, and central parts of the country.  The Northern Alliance, led by Ahmad Shah Massoud (assassinated by Al Qaeda on September 9, 2001, two days before 9/11), grouped local leaders from those regions and ethnic groups of the country in opposition to the Taliban.  The alliance was supported: by India because of their rivalry with Pakistan; by Iran because of their opposition to a strong Sunni Taliban government; and, by Russia and Tajikistan because of the growing Islamic movements in Chechnya and Central Asia.

Following the terrorist attacks of 9/11, Operation Enduring Freedom was launched by the Unites States and NATO aimed at removing the Taliban from power and going after Al Qaeda.  Having succeeded in toppling the Taliban government and establishing a new government in Kabul, the Bush Administration ‘lost’ focus in its second term.  Instead of pursuing an aggressive policy aimed at neutralizing the long term impact of the Taliban and their Sunni Wahhabi extremist allies, the United States shifted its attention to neutralize Iran’s rising regional influence.  This change in policy focus caused a major setback to U.S. interests in Afghanistan and led to the gradual re-emergence of the Taliban as a power and a major threat to stability in that country.

As in the case of Pakistan, the Obama Administration needs to adopt a strategy that has the single aim of defeating Sunni Wahhabi fundamentalism in Afghanistan.  Given all the background information provided above, the recommended strategy is as follows:

•    New “Northern Alliance” Against Wahhabism:  the United States should encourage the formation of a new ‘Northern Alliance’ made up of all non-Pashtun ethnic groups who are vehemently opposed to the Taliban.  A new national government would be formed that brings on board non-Wahhabi Pashtuns and that has at its core this new Northern Alliance.  The defeat of the Taliban and Sunni Wahhabism must take precedence and should not be sacrificed for the sake of seeking greater accommodation with the Pashtuns.
•    India and Tajikistan:  India and Tajikistan have provided military and logistical support in the past to the old Northern Alliance in its resistance to the Taliban.  The Obama Administration should reach out to these two countries and develop a coordinated effort to support the new Afghani government’s policy to defeat the Taliban.  It is in both countries’ national interest, and even most especially India, to have Sunni Wahhabism defeated in both Afghanistan and Pakistan.
•    Iran: Iran was the one country most actively engaged in supporting the old Northern Alliance in its resistance to the Taliban during the nineties.  Following the terrorist attacks of 9/11 the United States launched Operation Enduring Freedom with the aim of removing the Taliban from power and destroying Al Qaeda.  Iran was quite supportive of the American effort:
o    Military and Rescue Support: Iran continued providing weapons to the opposition Northern Alliance, closed its border with Afghanistan, and in response to a request from the Bush Administration, agreed to rescue any American military personnel in distress in its territory.
o    Formation of new Afghanistan Government: after the toppling of the Taliban government, U.S. and Iranian diplomats met together in Bonn to discuss the formation of a new government and constitution for Afghanistan.  “None was more [helpful] than the Iranians,” said James Dobbins, the U.S. special envoy to Afghanistan at the time, writing in the Washington Post. “The original version of the Bonn agreement … neglected to mention either democracy or the war on terrorism. It was the Iranian representative who spotted these omissions and successfully urged that the newly emerging Afghan government be required to commit to both.”

The United States should build on this constructive past experience and engage in a serious dialogue with Iran because the defeat of the Taliban and Sunni Wahhabism are in the interest of both countries, especially Iran.

The Iraq Challenge

An intensified and well-focused effort on defeating Sunni Wahhabism in Pakistan and Afghanistan requires, as stated earlier, the active involvement of regional powers such as India and Iran but also requires a U.S. shift in military, logistical and economic resources away from Iraq towards the Pakistani-Afghani theatre of operations.  An orderly and effective drawdown of U.S. military assets in Iraq necessitates a region-based security arrangement with Iraq’s key neighbors namely Iran, Turkey and Syria.  Of the three, Iran is most important in order to secure stability in Iraq, post U.S. withdrawal, and to insure the non-resurgence of Sunni Wahhabi fundamentalism and Al Qaeda.

Iran and the Netanyahu Opportunity

In this long term war against Sunni Wahhabism Iran could potentially be one of the most reliable regional partners for the United States.  But how can the U.S. engage Iran given past hostilities, the nuclear agenda, Iran’s support to Hamas and Hezbollah, and Iranian leadership threatening to “wipe Israel off the map”?

Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has effectively facilitated the opening for the United States to engage Iran. Let me explain.

On March 29, 2009, two days before he was sworn in as the new Prime Minister of Israel, Binyamin Netanyahu in an interview with the Atlantic was quoted as saying “The Obama Presidency has two great missions: fixing the economy, and preventing Iran from gaining nuclear weapons.”  Netanyahu also said in the same interview that he would support President Obama’s decision to engage Iran, so long as negotiations brought about a quick end to Iran’s nuclear ambitions. “How you achieve this goal is less important than achieving it,” he said.

The Washington Post published an article on April 22, 2009, in which it stated that Israel would not move ahead on the core issues of Palestinian peace talks until it sees progress in U.S. efforts to stop Iran’s suspected pursuit of nuclear arms and to limit Tehran’s rising influence in the region.  “It’s a crucial condition if we want to move forward,” Deputy Foreign Minister Daniel Ayalon, a former ambassador to the United States, told The Washington Post. “If we want to have a real political process with the Palestinians, then you can’t have the Iranians undermining and sabotaging.”

When asked about those Israeli comments at a testimony hearing in front of the House Appropriations Committee on April 23, 2009, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton stated “For Israel to get the kind of strong support it’s looking for vis-à-vis Iran it can’t stay on the sideline with respect to the Palestinians and the peace efforts, that they go hand-in-hand.”

Some analysts have interpreted Secretary Clinton’s remarks as implicitly rejecting the emerging position of Netanyahu’s government and others have predicted that American and Israeli priorities were no longer in sync.  In reality, however, by putting Iran ahead of Palestinian peace talks on Israel’s list of top priorities, Prime Minister Netanyahu has opened the door for the Obama Administration to move as quickly as possible towards engaging Iran in a serious dialogue that may bring peace of mind and security to Israel.

While it is true that Iran is providing support to Hamas, it is important to keep in mind that this support is based on convenience much more than anything else.  Hamas was cut off by Arab countries such as Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Egypt after it seized power in Gaza through a military coup and sought support from anywhere, including Iran.  This support, can easily end if and when circumstances, vis-à-vis Hamas, were to change.  The real long term problem for Israel, however, is the ideology of suicide bombing aimed at killing innocent civilians, which is espoused by core elements of Hamas and other extremist Islamist Palestinian factions.

In other words, while Israel considers Iran’s nuclear agenda its top immediate security priority, Israel also knows that the long term threat to its security comes from the ideology of Sunni Wahhabi fundamentalism that rejects any accommodation with Israel and indoctrinates the hatred of the Jews in its teachings.  It is this ideology, and not Iran, that has produced suicide bombings in Israel, Iraq, India, Spain and the United Kingdom.

In summary, the opening presented by Prime Minster Netanyahu must be seized by the Administration with the goal of reaching an arrangement with Iran on multiple fronts that are all inter-related, namely Israel’s security, Iraq’s stability, Pakistan’s recovery and Afghanistan’s liberation.

Eye on the Ball

Stopping Pakistan’s slide into chaos depends on adopting this new integrated comprehensive strategy, and the success of this new strategy depends on keeping two factors constant: preserve mission focus (the defeat of the real enemy – Sunni Wahhabi fundamentalism), and secure regional engagement.

Cultural Intelligence matters!