Pak-US relations and Afghanistan

Islamabad is hosting another round of the Pak-US strategic dialogue. If looked at from a priority point of view, cooperation against terrorism and Afghanistan top the list of issues on the table. But there are some inherent problems in the terrorism equation. Ostensibly, Pakistan and the US are allies in their fight against terrorism but when it comes to the situation on the ground in Afghanistan, the Pakistani military establishment has been playing a dual game since 9/11. It was more visible in the Musharraf era, to which US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has alluded in the recent past. But it would be tantamount to fooling ourselves if we think that the previous era’s policy has been done away with. Our policy was and is that al Qaeda members should be caught and handed over to the US while the Afghan Taliban are given ‘protection’. This has led to many complications.

The biggest complication is the indigenous terrorist threat at home. It is being argued that the local Taliban have links with al Qaeda. Our military may be fighting the local Taliban but the Afghan Taliban were provided safe havens and rear base areas on our soil. This remains an unresolved issue and for quite some time now the US has been asking Pakistan to cleanse these areas of their presence. Our reluctance to do so is for obvious reasons: the notorious ‘strategic depth’. Despite the troops surge, the US-led NATO forces in Afghanistan are finding it hard to make progress. Even General Petraeus’ taking charge after General McChrystal’s exit in disgrace, is no guarantee of the US achieving its goals. The best option before General Petraeus is a face-saving exit for the foreign troops. Thus the ISI is feeling vindicated and busy preparing plans post-US withdrawal from Afghanistan. The west is now advocating peace deals and negotiations with the Afghan Taliban, which had been the longstanding aim of Pakistan’s military establishment. Given the uncertainty in the region, it is not certain how this will play out.

If there is a genuine change of heart and the Afghan Taliban accept the terms and conditions for reconciliation, which is highly unlikely, it nevertheless carries its own risks. It is possible that the Afghan Taliban will use any power sharing on offer tactically and pretend to accept the Afghan constitution, but once the foreign players are out of the equation, they could try to roll over the opposition and take control of Afghanistan. This will completely defeat the aims of the Americans to leave behind a structure that prevents just such a denouement. And if the Taliban do not come to the negotiating table and wait till the withdrawal of the foreign forces, they could hope to take full control after defeating the weak Afghan forces. In either case, the scenario signals the possibility of a new civil war in Afghanistan. Can Pakistan remain unaffected by a civil war taking place next door?

If the Taliban come to power in Afghanistan, the Pakistani Taliban will be the ones benefitting from it the most. Given their ideological proximity to their counterparts in Afghanistan, in a reversal of the present situation, they could conceivably get safe havens and rear base areas on Taliban-controlled Afghan soil to carry out attacks in Pakistan. If this were to come about, how long would the Pak-US partnership survive? We expect the Americans to support us economically, even asking them to increase the $ 7.5 billion aid under the Kerry-Lugar Act to $ 50 billion. But once the international community sees through us, particularly the Americans, not only bilateral aid but even multilateral aid may dry up. The military establishment is finding it hard to understand that the cost of obtaining complete control or even leverage in Kabul is going to be a very expensive proposition.

If Pakistan loses the goodwill and support of the US, it will lead to an even bleaker scenario economically than the one we are facing right now. The Pakistani state seems to be falling apart, what with the rising violence and the frustration among the people due to poverty. It is a scary scenario and will get worse if things are not put into perspective sooner rather than later.

(my editorial in Daily Times)

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