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Pakistan in a bind

December 1, 2009

In a few hours time President Obama will announce the increase in troop levels in Afghanistan. If one were to believe the grapevine, indications are that there will be an increase by 30,000 from the American side to the coalition forces. The British have been more conservative and Prime Minister Gordon Brown has announced another 500 British troops for Afghanistan. Other nations in the coalition are also expected to increase the troop levels by a few thousand. The message to the world including Taliban and Pakistan is that the west’s commitment to Afghanistan is very real and that they do not plan to abandon the region in a hurry. This is reassuring to the Karzai government that has faced much flak from the west for the corruption and nepotism in his government. The Americans and the British are also actively pursuing a policy of trying to raise an army and a police force that can take over from the coalition forces once they depart. The leader of the opposition in the British parliament made a very valid point when he said that it was important for west not to give an impression that they are tired and will not be there in Afghanistan for long, for any such statements boost up the morale of the enemy forces (read the Taliban).

The Washington Post has reported that the US National Security Advisor, Jim Jones has given a letter from President Obama to President Zardari of Pakistan in which has been outlined the course of action that Pakistan needs to take in its fight against terrorism. The letter specifically mentions al-Qaeda,  Lashkar-i-Toiba (LeT), Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan(TTP), the Taliban (Afghanistan) and the Haqqani group that needs to be tackled by Pakistan. It further says that were Pakistan to take palpable action against these terror groups the US will support Pakistan with arms and financial resources. However, if there is no progress in tackling these groups then the US will use ‘all means’ at its disposal to tackle these terror structures, including the drones with Hellfire missiles to hit targets deeper into Pakistan territory. Clearly, American patience is running short. Earlier, Prime Minister Gordon Brown had said that Osama-bin Laden is in Pakistan and Islamabad should make efforts to apprehend him. This is the first time that a leader from the western world has categorically stated that Osama bin-Laden is in Pakistan. It appears that the west wants to end its operations in Afghanistan at the earliest and from what one hears, if and when they do decide to withdraw, it will be a swift, immediate withdrawal. The chances are that Osama and Mulla Omar are the two main targets of the west and once they are caught the west will start withdrawing.

My hunch is that Osama and Mulla Omar will not be caught quite so soon. They will be caught when it suits the west. Obama is still in the first year of his presidency. His popularity ratings have already dipped. But he is not too bothered. Iran is still some years away from detonating a nuclear bomb. So tackling Tehran is not an immediate priority. There will be some punitive sanctions imposed by the Security Council, especially now that Tehran has declared that they are going to build another ten nuclear reactors. Obama can afford to wait and play on the rhetoric for a few years. The western coalition troops will hold the fort in Afghanistan and there will be a gradual withdrawal from Iraq, making troops available for a possible future operation against Iran. Osama is most likely to be caught only in the fourth year of Obama presidency, as any such success will boost his chances of re-election manifold. If Osama is caught now, people will soon forget all about it, the security forces will get the credit and the roller coaster economy will get precedence that that will not be good for Obama.

Yet, Afghanistan is a difficult terrain and the west is treading carefully. They understand that the success in Afghanistan depends a lot on how they deal with Pakistan. Not only because Pakistan is still the supply route for the western forces, but also because the genesis of the problem lies in Pakistan and not in Afghanistan. If the west wants to root out terror they will need to deal with Islamabad more firmly. The case of David Coleman Headley and Tahawwur Rana has opened the eyes of the west. The Pak terror network runs deep and they have been using all means to strike at the west. While pointing out the various terror outfits that must be dealt with, Washington also realizes that all these organizations have a common thread and are inter-mingled. They may be divided on ethnic lines but when it comes to the west all these terror organizations see the west as their enemy as also India and therefore act as one. Abandoning Afghanistan therefore is not a choice as of now.

From the Pakistan point of view, things are only getting worse. They have no choice but to play along with the demands of the west. The Pakistan army is heavily dependent of western aid to keep it going. There was a news item where it was said that the CIA had given more than 15 billion dollars over the years to Pakistan for the services rendered. This is over and above the aid that Pakistan has received from the US. The US has also promised arms and financial aid for development if Pakistan takes actions against these terror networks. The US has also for the first time mentioned that Pakistan must refrain from using terror as a tool against India and that they expect that those who carried out the 26/11 Mumbai attacks must be brought to book.

For Pakistan, action against the very people they have nurtured over the decades will be very hard to take. They see these terror groups as a strategic asset to be used against the west and India to their advantage. They have been caught and they do not know how to deal with the situation. Must they launch an operation against their own people – the jihadists? They seem to have no options. Because the financial situation is so precarious that Pakistan will not be able to stay afloat for a day without the financial backing of the west. Their foreign exchange reserves are non-existent and their economy is such that they need to import a lot of goods of daily use. The Middle East bubble has burst and Dubai, the el-Dorado for the Pakistani expatriate is an empty shell. Petro-dollars have dried up and they are in severe financial constraint. The army is a white elephant that they can ill afford to maintain without western help. They have no choice but to play ball with Washington and do as they say. To their credit, Islamabad is putting up a brave front and taking the pressure rather well.

Pakistan army and the ISI can understand west’s diktat that they need to act against the terror outfits mentioned. They are even willing to take some cosmetic actions against these outfits – like throwing many of their leaders in ‘jail’. What they are finding hard to digest is Washington’s insistence that Pakistan must stop all terror attacks against India and that they must take action against Hafiz Saeed, Zarar Shah, Illiyas Kashmiri and others. This is unpalatable for Islamabad. They point out that it was Pakistan that was the frontline state during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. They do not tire of reminding the west as to how they helped the west fight the communists. And they therefore just cannot understand that the same United States of America is asking them to stop all attacks against their nemesis – India!!! They feel cheated and used. They do not understand that while they may have helped the west and perhaps that is why they have been so patient with Islamabad, it is also true that Pakistan took these same forces to another level and made them as an extension of the state machinery. These Mujahiddins were transformed from a people fighting a foreign force in Afghanistan to terror groups that were out to destroy the very people who had nurtured them all along. Pakistan gave resources and shelter to these outfits and used them against India. But these terror groups then became ambitious and started targeting the west, as they had been given a healthy dose of radical Islam that saw the west as their enemy.  There is a stage now when the radicalization of the aawam (people) is so complete that they see the west as a monster ready to devour them. From the radicalization of a select group to the radicalization of the Pakistan society has been a steady process. That process has now become so fundamental to the existence of Pakistan as a state that any action against these radicals will see a backlash that will find voice in the streets of the cities of Pakistan. Pakistan is like the Palestinian enclaves of Gaza and West bank with the difference that there is a well trained army at their disposal and this state has nuclear weapons that may not be as safe as we think they are. It now appears that the nuclear button has been shifted from the president to the prime minister of Pakistan. In all likelihood the nuclear button was always with the army chief and these are just postures to show the world that there is an administration in place in Islamabad. The world knows that the army is calling the shots in Pakistan.

Pakistan will need to take some demonstrative action against the terrorist outfits, if they want to keep the concept of Pakistan afloat. They need to understand that the strategic realities in the region have changed. They must realize that both economically and strategically India is a very close ally of the west. It should be clear to them that without the blessings of the West, Pakistan could well be history. The stakes are high not only for Pakistan but for the entire region and for world peace. Pakistan needs to tackle the more fundamental questions of educations and healthcare if they are serious about transforming this vital state. Blindly arming themselves with expensive weapon systems as a ‘balancer’ to India is only going to take Pakistan to a path of self destruction. Sanity demands that the Pakistan state stops engaging with the terror outfits and stops giving arms and money to keep them going. It should not be too difficult, if Pakistan stops trying to compare itself with India all the time. Their fixation with India must end and they need to look at their country in a different light. The world wants a progressive, peaceful and prosperous Pakistan. They must understand what is good for them. Hillary Clinton tried to get this across to the people of Pakistan in no uncertain terms on her recent visit there. She spent as much time talking to the people of Pakistan as she did with the leadership in Islamabad. The west and their neighbors are ready to help them. The only problem is that there is no leader in Pakistan of today that can show them the way. Washington may have no option but to take punitive military action that may see the Af-Pak region in political distress. That is not good for Pakistan or Afghanistan and the whole of South Asia.

Addendum: President Obama called Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to keep him abreast with the decision taken on Afghanistan by his administration. It appears that Obama and Singh during their interaction realized that India was critical to the West’ s initiative in Afghanistan. It is also reported that the US and their allies want India to take up the training of the Afghan security forces. This could be a critical decision for the Manmohan Singh government and India may have to pledge some officers and troops to undertake the task in Afghanistan.

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