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Is it the endgame for Pakistan?

December 24, 2009 14:15 IST

The coming year will witness exceptional volatility on India's western border areas as the United States' troop surge in Afghanistan gets into full swing, and the political and military pitfalls of the plan begin to surface.  

Pakistan faces an existential choice – bid farewell to militancy as state policy or, alternatively, invite American wrath, which can prove lethal. Either way, the outcome will be of critical importance to India.  

The establishment commentators in Pakistan have almost uniformly assessed that President Barack Obama's strategy is doomed to fail. Of course, this could turn out to be their opening gambit -- the Pakistani ability to hoodwink the Americans is legendary. 

Pakistani commentators base their arguments principally on eight factors. First, the US strategy is deeply flawed insofar as it has hardly anything to say about a political solution to the Afghan crisis, although everyone agrees that a military solution isn't feasible.

Second, following from the first, the strategy will only result in throwing the Taliban and Al Qaeda into each other's arms rather than segregate them, as the strategy hopes for. Third, there is no reason why elements of the Pashtun Taliban should cross over to the government in Kabul that the Tajik and other 'warlords' are perceived to dominate.

Fourth, even with the surge, the NATO troop level will still be insufficient to tackle the widespread insurgency. Fifth, 'Afghanisation' is a chimera, as Pashtuns will refuse to join an army largely composed of non-Pashtuns. Sixth, the intensified military operations may have initial success but the insurgency will adapt to the new conditions. Seventh, Hamid Karzai's government is a write-off and it cannot give good governance to win the hearts and minds of Afghans. Eighth, western public opinion is increasingly sceptical or outright opposed to the expensive, open-ended war.

Never before has Pakistan taken such a position that blatantly identifies the Taliban, Hezb-i-Islami (led by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar) and the Haqqani network (led by Jalaluddin Haqqani) as Pashtun outfits. Mullah Omar, Hekmatyar or Haqqani never identified with Pashtun sub-nationalism. 

Curiously, Pakistani commentators who eloquently speak about 'Pashtun alienation' in Afghanistan are themselves almost one hundred percent ethnic Punjabis. Pashtuns therefore must be wondering, who these Punjabis sitting in Lahore and Islamabad are to make assumptions regarding Afghan ethnicity and regionalism. The fact of the matter is that with all the deficiencies of the last presidential election, non-Pashtuns did vote for Karzai, and Pashtuns voted for Abdullah Abdullah despite his identity as a 'Panjshiri'. Afghanistan has always been an ethnic cauldron but then, Afghans have a way of criss-crossing ethnic divides and forming coalitions.  

The Punjabi establishment is raking up Pashtun sub-nationalism for serving its own sectarian interests. Ironically, it was the Punjabi-dominated Pakistani military and intelligence that over the past couple of decades who undertook a systematic assassination campaign aimed at destroying the traditional Pashtun tribal structure and silencing the moderate or secular voices in order to impose the ISI-controlled outfits.

Today the Punjabi establishment is compelled to play the Pashtun card for fear that Obama is getting wiser about the Pakistani military's doublespeak. The choice facing the Pakistani military is very bleak. Escalating US pressures may be on the cards; the US may expand the drone attacks to Balochistan, where the Taliban leadership is based. Equally, the US seems to be stepping up the CIA activities across Pakistan, and a strong possibility arises that unless Pakistan acts, US Special Forces might be used inside Pakistani territory.

Indeed, the Pakistani military and intelligence face their hour of reckoning. Given the looming possibility of drone strikes over Quetta, Pakistan cannot any longer be in denial mode over the existence of a Quetta Shura.

However, the military is making a last-ditch stand through the arguments of establishment spokesmen who say that, first, the US demand to widen operations against the Taliban and Al Qaeda will 'severely stretch' the capacity of the Pakistan Army. Two, they say the Taliban may retaliate against targets inside Pakistan. Three, popular perception of Pakistan fighting America's war will 'erode the existing national consensus' on confronting and defeating the Taliban. Four, the Pakistani army is hard-pressed to relocate troops from the eastern border with India.

These are lame excuses, but they suggest that the Pakistani military will not agree to a war against the Afghan Taliban. The Pakistani military visualises that once the US leaves Afghanistan, the need arises for Pakistan to recapture Kabul and for this, the Taliban remains its strategic reserve. The Pakistani military estimates that Karzai's government will hardly be in a position to resist a Taliban military offensive well-coordinated by ISI officers.

In such a scenario, the advantage accrues to Pakistan. If its past experience is anything to go by, the foreign backers of anti-Taliban resistance will incrementally begin to lose interest in the 'great game'. None of Afghanistan's neighbours except Pakistan is likely to commit the massive resources needed to capture power in Kabul and to retain it, because these neighbours see no need to 'capture' power in Kabul. They are content with a level playing field in that region, as diplomacy is far more cost-effective than war.  

The Pakistani generals are thus seeking the pretext not to act against the Taliban. They are under no illusions that India is about to roll over and hand the Kashmir Valley on a platter to them. Nor are they unaware of the hollowness of their strategy to 'eliminate' Indian influence in Kabul. As long as Delhi considers a billion dollar aid flow to be a worthwhile investment to make in regional stability, it will remain an influential player on the Afghan centre-stage. In any case, what is it that the Pakistani generals want -- that India shouldn't render economic assistance to Afghanistan?

India can only hope that the Pakistani generals crackdown on the Taliban under sustained US pressure. But that seems too much to hope for. India needs to prepare for the likelihood that Pakistan will shortly commence its own 'political solution' to the Afghan problem, built around a so-called reconciliation effort under some sort of 'Islamic' auspices. The aim will be to mobilise the insurgent Taliban and other Pashtun groups and keep them on standby for the withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan.  

M K Bhadrakumar is a former diplomat 


M K Bhadrakumar