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Needless Belligerence

October 20, 2011

This belies logic – but then most things in Pakistan do not make sense. The primary being – how is it that while India became a thriving democracy after partition, the other half, Pakistan never could shake off the role of the Army in all walks of life.  Again, the Pakistan army chief has warned the US that they should think ten times before any military forays into Pakistan. His reasoning being that unlike Iraq and Afghanistan, Pakistan is a nuclear weapons state1. Point taken General Ashfaq Kayani, but then why have the things come to such a pass?

NATO presence in Afghanistan soon after 9/11 attacks has seen a see-saw relationship between the US and Pakistan.  This worsening of relations saw a nadir when the American embassy in Kabul was attacked by the Taliban a couple of months ago. The US had turned a blind eye to all the double games and chicanery by Islamabad. But they could not tolerate Osama bin-Laden ensconced just outside a military school in Abbotabad. Americans eliminated the dreaded terrorist and the US-Pak relations saw another trough. The worst part is that the credibility of Pakistan nose dived and Washington did not believe a word of what Islamabad was saying any longer. The Kabul embassy attack was the veritable last straw.

US had understood early on that looking at Afghanistan in isolation meant not understanding the situation at all. It was then President Obama hyphenated Pakistan with Afghanistan and the much discussed Af-Pak policy gained currency. Drone attacks inside Pakistan territory were increased. The problem was that terrorists would hit targets in Afghanistan and seek refuge in Pakistan which was short distance away.

The US had tried to make Islamabad understand that they need to get rid of terror machinery and think about development and growth in Pakistan. The one mistake that Americans made was to declare that they would be withdrawing by 2014. Their allies began withdrawing from Afghanistan soon after. The British, the Dutch and the Canadians have left and the French are on the way out. This has emboldened Pakistan and they take these terror outfits as strategic asset and would be loathe to dismantle them at this critical stage. They plan to use them to overrun Afghanistan and take Kabul as they did when the Najibullah regime was on its last legs. Pakistan reckons that the US has already lost the war in Afghanistan and that they do not have the stomach to remain in the region for long. For this perception to have gained currency it is Washington that is at fault and while Obama hit the nail on the head with his Af-Pak policy he committed a blooper with his announcement that US will withdraw by 2014.

The Haqqani network was behind the attack on the American embassy in Kabul – it has been established. Americans want Pakistan to take action against Sirajuddin and Jalaluddin Haqanni. Pakistan is not too keen to act against them as that will have negative impact on public perception. Besides they see the Haqannis and the Quetta shura of one-eyed Mullah Omar as strategic asset. They will be used to take over Afghanistan once the Americans are gone, which Islamabad feels is sooner rather than later. The French withdrawal makes Islamabad ever more convinced that it is curtains for the West in Afghanistan.

Yet Americans have a task at hand and complete they must before the 2014 withdrawal. Will they make a complete withdrawal is anybody’s guess. Chances are that there will be a token presence of at least 25,000 troops in three or four bases across Afghanistan to maintain a foothold in the region. But then if that is the salutary presence that Pakistan has to contend with post 2014, why will they do Washington’s bidding? These are the ‘strategic’ equations that are emerging for Pakistan.

But why is the US in the region in the first place. The primary goal is to neutralize terror outfits in the region that can be a threat to western security interests around the globe. A corollary to the ‘fighting terrorism’ is the proposed gas pipeline from Daulatabad gas fields in Turkmenistan through Afghanistan and Pakistan on to the lucrative Indian markets.  But such a gas pipeline is possible if there is peace in the region. Americans have been talking to various warlords and Haqqanis have also been approached. Peace is elusive till such time that warlords are taken care of. A gas pipeline that runs across Afghanistan is a vulnerable target and can be damaged anytime without much effort.

The American resolve can be gauged from the fact that they have amassed troops on the Afghan side of the border with North Waziristan and are threatening to take action against Haqqanis if Pakistan did not go after them. India on its part has started military exercises named ‘Sudarshan Shakti’2 in the Thar desert to keep Pakistan army on its toes. Pakistan is exposed on both the flanks. It is not a pretty situation from Pakistan’s point of view and there is jingoism galore in Pakistani media and war cries are heard incessant and loud.

Pakistan has always looked for strategic depth in Afghanistan and to have leverage with India. Such ambitions from Islamabad are understandable. There is another very important paradigm in any strategic dialogue – the economics of a nation. If anything it is the economics that leads the politics of any nation in today’s world.  Pakistan is doing woefully economically. They do not have the leverage therefore. One reason why Pakistan would like the US to stay the course in Afghanistan is to milk Washington as they have been doing all these years. They depend on American aid and would fold up economically were it not for American largesse.

American interests in the region are a boon for Pakistan. They can encash it if they want to the benefit of the common good of Pakistani awam. They can get developmental aid which they can use to buld infrastructure that is primarily of British vintage. But then they will have to abandon the policy of lionizing terror outfits that the ISI and the army so gleefully nurture.

Pakistan has a historic opportunity to make that quantum jump economically and become a serious player in the region. They have everything that a nation needs to do well. They have fertile soil, industrious people and ports and mineral wealth to better the lot of common Pakistani. They must get over their fixation of having a ‘strategic depth’ in Afghanistan and a leverage with India. In fact if they are really serious about having a strategic depth in Afghanistan they must allow peace in the region so that the gas pipeline from Daulatabad can fructify. They will then have a strategic depth in Afghanistan and also leverage with India. They will have the keys to energy resources of India and can dictate terms to New Delhi. That is as strategic a leverage as any that Islamabad can aspire for. That they will earn millions of dollars as royalty will be another boost to their economy.

Any Pakistani leader worth his salt should understand that they have a unique position and if they made sure that there was peace in the region and the TAPI was made possible it would give a huge fillip to Islamabad strategically, economically and even militarily. They will have New Delhi eating out of their hands. Were the TAPI to reach Pakistan India would be in an unenviable situation of making the hard choice of either accepting the pipeline or rejecting it. India will be in a very uncomfortable position of neither being able to accept the pipeline nor being able to say a flat ‘no’ to it as that would be frowned upon by the West. The present Pakistan position where the nation has to make hard choices and is veritably between a rock and a hard place will be the situation India will find herself in if the pipeline reaches Pakistan. New Delhi will be loathe to accept gas sourced through Pakistan and yet be unable to strike down the proposal. India has reluctantly agreed to the TAPI knowing that this is just a posture to make life difficult for Pakistan knowing fully well that TAPI is not going to happen anytime soon. Were it actually to fructify Pakistan will have a strategic leverage over India that they can use to their benefit- and they are past masters at leveraging their position.

As said earlier, the present belligerence where US and Pakistan are glaring at each other does not make sense either from Pakistan’s point of view or from Afghanistan’s future. What will Islamabad gain were they able to capture Kabul a few years from now through their proxy- the Taliban? The real strategic depth would be if they have a say both in Afghanistan and keys to India’s energy supplies. That would be real strategic depth on both the eastern and the western flanks. I understand that China may not like India getting gas cheap through this pipeline, but Pakistan is a sovereign nation and while they have an ideal equation with Beijing they may not do as the Chinese tell them to do always. Pakistan must learn to talk from a position of strength. Going around with a begging bowl does no good to Pakistani pride. They have no reason to be poor and on the edge all the time. They do not need to beg. They have enough if they play their cards right and get their priorities sorted out. The US is not leaving the region in a hurry. It is a prudent thought that radicalism in Pakistan must be curbed and that can happen only if terror outfits some posing as social workers were to be dismantled and focus returns to economic and infrastructure development. Haqannis and Mullah Omar are names that ISI props up from time to time. Its time Pakistan army goes back to their barracks, stop funding and supporting terror outfits and become a responsible nation with a future to look forward to. My guess is Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will try and impress upon Pakistan leadership about the choices that they have and encourage them to make the right ones on her trip that starts today.

  1. Kayani: US must think 10 times before anti-Pak offensive: The Tribune, Chandigarh.
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