Wednesday, December 14, 2011

"Victors" can become victims of the endgame

The breakdown in the US relations with Pakistan could well have a positive outcome. It could have the effect of tearing the veil of hypocrisy in the AfPak situation, and focus the attention of the world on the real problem—Pakistan. The danger from the US walking away from Afghanistan would be the civil war it could unleash in that hapless country, and, the certainty that its territory would be used for training jihadi terrorists from across the world, at least for some time.
But if the US disengages from Pakistan, the situation would be qualitatively worse—a country armed with nuclear weapons, as well as a self-created grievance against the United States (as well as India), would be a clear and present danger, not only to those two countries, but the many others whose nationals gravitate to the AfPak border for terror training.

One explanation for the Pakistani decision to ratchet up tensions, because of the incident in which 24 Frontier Corps (FC) soldiers were killed in a NATO airstrike, is that the establishment—the Army and the politicians—want to keep on the right side of public opinion which is deeply hostile to the US. Another is that it is the Army leadership’s way of keeping on the right side of its increasingly radicalised middle-rung officer cadre. A third explanation is that it is Pakistan’s hysterical response to the recent India-Afghanistan strategic partnership deal.

The death of the Pakistani soldiers in the region is not unusual. After all, by its own reckoning, the Pakistan Army has lost over 3,000 soldiers in combating the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). Over seventy of these have been killed on account of firing from the Afghan side in the recent past.
There seems to be a fundamental variance between the versions of the two sides. And, significantly, Islamabad has refused to participate in any joint investigation of the incident.
Islamabad has been inconsistent with regard to hostilities in the area anyway. It has signed more than a dozen peace deals, but then even carried out massive offensives using fighter bombers and artillery against the TTP. Now it is once again believed to be negotiating with them. Its attitude towards the militants is inconsistent in another way. It treats some as enemies and others as friends, even when they reside in the same area—North Waziristan.
Pakistani sovereignty has been breached more than once, and not by the US alone. Columnist Nasim Zehra pointed out in an article recently that 17 Pakistani soldiers were killed in an incident by the Taliban near the area of the NATO strike recently. So the area is not exactly under the control of Pakistan  which, in any case, allows the Taliban of Afghanistan to shelter in its territory  and move back and forth unhindered. Their breach of Pakistan’s sovereignty seems to be condoned, while efforts by the US and Afghanistan which, by the way, could have sanction under international law under the doctrine of hot pursuit, have been thwarted.

The US is vitally dependent on Pakistan to execute its withdrawal strategy which involves fighting and negotiating a deal with the Taliban. In the short run,  it needs Islamabad’s cooperation in supplying its forces in Afghanistan, and, it also needs Pakistan to work out a peace deal with the Taliban.
Islamabad clearly has different ideas. The way it sees it, is that it is winning and that is why it is taking the risk of continuing to ride the jihadi tiger. They hope that they will be soon able to create an Afghanistan which is totally purged of American and, of course, Indian influence. That is why it has now upped the ante by boycotting the Bonn meet on the future of Afghanistan. Its attitude seems to signal that the NATO and US must concede it an upper hand in any post-pullout situation. In other words, it is laying out clearly the price it would charge for permitting them to use its territory to resume their military supplies to Afghanistan.
As usual, Pakistan is gambling in the short run, hoping things will work out in the long run by themselves. But it may be miscalculating. Ever since 2008, the US has been working on what it calls the Northern Distribution Network (NDN) that brings supplies through various Central Asian republics, from Baltic ports via Russia, and Black Sea ports via Turkey. According to one estimate, as much as 75 per cent of the US supplies are now coming through the NDN. By the end of next year, NATO and US dependence on Pakistan for their logistics could end. Pakistan would still be important for the US/NATO role in Afghanistan, but it would have lost a huge leverage.
The Pakistani military which is clearly playing the dominant role in making policy in Islamabad needs to carefully think through its options. The chances are that the US will remain engaged in Afghanistan, albeit in a different way—through Special Forces and air support. So it is not as though Islamabad will be working on a clean slate minus the US after 2014. No doubt the generals think they can manage the situation, but most countries would think carefully about buying the enmity of the United States, even, or especially, in its present weakened condition.
For the rest of the world, the concern should be as much about Afghanistan, as Pakistan. A Taliban takeover of a ruined country like Afghanistan, as we have noted, would be a threat, but a containable one. But should the TTP and the mullahs take over Pakistan, the situation would be very different. They would inherit a country with nuclear weapons, a flourishing nuclear industry infrastructure, universities and laboratories which could churn out bioweapons and other horrors.

Analyst B Raman has also pointed out that while there was little danger of a traditional coup in Pakistan—one led by the chief of army staff and endorsed by the doctrine of necessity by its Supreme Court—there is no gainsaying the possibility of a coup at the lower level of officers who are less cynical and more ideological and, as the bin Laden incident revealed, vociferous and angry.
In another context, in 1999, General Mohammed Aziz Khan told his boss, the then army chief Pervez Musharraf, that we have them (the militants) by the scruff of their necks. The moot question today is who has whom by the neck.
India remains a sideshow for Islamabad for the present. Those who say that Pakistan’s current benign attitude towards India is tactical, born out of its compulsion to handle the US and Afghanistan, are right. If that policy comes apart, we could see a resumption of business as usual with Pakistan.
Many analysts say that notwithstanding everything, the Pakistani core establishment remains strong, and the chances of a jihadi takeover of Pakistan are slim. But the brinksmanship that this “core” is undertaking could lead to disaster. They may think that they can control the aroused passions of the people with regard to the West and continue to ride the jihadi tiger to victory in Kabul. But they could well end up inside it.
As the decade unfolds, regardless of the outcome in Afghanistan, the world could be compelled to confront a radical Pakistan which is armed with nuclear weapons. It would be a good idea to begin planning for that contingency now.
Mail Today November 8, 2011

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