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The more Pakistan changes the more it stays the same

By Sushant Sareen
July 27, 2009 14:03 IST
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If ever there was any doubt about Pakistan having realised the folly of using medieval and barbaric Islamists for fulfilment of strategic designs, these doubts now need to be put to rest. For the Pakistan army, the real enemy is India; the Taliban remain a strategic asset.

The interview of the Pakistan military spokesman, Maj Gen Athar Abbas to CNN a couple of weeks back, was the first open acknowledgement of this immutable reality. The subsequent denial by his office of the deep links and continuing contacts between the Pakistan army and the Taliban leadership turned out to be hollow, especially after senior ISI officials briefed New York Times reporters that they 'consider India their top priority and the Taliban militants a problem that can be negotiated'.

And yet some people in India continue to live in cuckoo land, insisting that 'Pakistan is changing'. Yes, indeed, Pakistan is changing, but the problem is that the more it changes the more it stays the same.

It had become clear long ago that Pakistan's real government (read military) had kept the Taliban card up their sleeve even after they publicly broke their association with the Taliban after 9/11. At that time, Gen Pervez Musharraf tried very hard to sell to the Americans the concept of 'moderate' Taliban; only, the Bush administration didn't bite. Today, the nomenclature has changed from 'moderate Taliban' to 'reconcilable Taliban'. Not surprisingly, there are enough woolly-headed liberals in the Obama administration who are receptive to the idea of opening a dialogue with this strange and rather elusive animal.

No one has, however, bothered to ask what will be the basis of reconciliation with the 'reconcilable Taliban'. If reconciliation is to be the result not of capitulation but negotiation, then the question arises as to what the Taliban will want and what will they concede. At the very minimum, any reconciliation with the Taliban will tantamount to an acceptance of their worldview.

While the US can probably afford to walk away from the region by declaring victory after 'reconciling' with the Taliban, Pakistan and rest of the region will have to contend with the devastating fallout of a radical Islamist regime in the neighbourhood.

But perhaps the Pakistanis won't be too averse to living in a Talibanised environment.

Right from day one of the so-called War on Terror, the Pakistani policy was 'don't touch the Taliban, don't spare the Al Qaeda'. As a result, while Pakistan flaunted the arrest of quite a few high profile Al Qaeda operatives, not a single Taliban commander of any significance was ever apprehended by the Pakistani authorities.

Clearly, the Pakistanis were playing the waiting game. They had correctly calculated that it was only a matter of time before the Americans would pack up and quit Afghanistan, outsourcing it to the Pakistanis, who in turn would get the best of both worlds -- enormous amounts of money plus the 'strategic depth' that they always sought inside Afghanistan. The icing on the cake is, of course, what Gen. Abbas told the CNN: in return for any role as a broker between the United States and the Taliban, Pakistan wants concessions from Washington over Islamabad's concerns with long-time rival India.

The strategy that the Pakistan army has adopted on Afghanistan -- keeping the Taliban option alive even as it participated as an ally in the US's War on Terror -- has obvious dualities because of which Pakistan's allies cannot seem to decide whether the Pakistan army is part of the problem or part of the solution. While hardly anyone disagrees that Pakistan has legitimate interests in Afghanistan, the question that confounds everyone is that if Pakistan's interests are served by keeping the Taliban option alive, then what sort of a war is Pakistan fighting against the Taliban?

On the one hand, the Pakistan army is engaged in military operations against the Pakistani Taliban and is classifying them as the biggest threat to the Pakistani State and society. But on the other hand, the same army is providing support and sanctuary to the Afghan Taliban using the disingenuous argument that there is a difference between the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban. If anything, the Pakistani Taliban are clones of the Afghan Taliban and they both stand for the same thing -- a medieval, brutal, tribal interpretation of Islam that is incapable of tolerating any dissent or living in peace with any other people who don't subscribe to their worldview.

The question is, how come the Taliban are acceptable to the Pakistanis in Afghanistan, but not in their own country? A simple answer to this question is that the Pakistan army doesn't really have any problem with what the Taliban stand for. In fact, many in the Pakistan army subscribe to the Taliban worldview. The reason why the Pakistan army is fighting the Pakistani Taliban, rather a section of them, is because they were no longer playing the role assigned to them by their military masters. Not only did the Pakistani Taliban start to disobey orders, they went even further by carving out their own Emirates and displacing the Pakistani State in areas they controlled. It is this, and not their barbarism, that the Pakistan army could not tolerate.

Indeed, if the Pakistan army had a problem with the Taliban version of Islam, it wouldn't have propped up groups like the Abdullah Mehsud group to take on Baitullah Mehsud. Nor would the Pakistan army tolerate a terrorist 'ideologue' like Hafiz Sayeed. According to the ISI officials who spoke to the New York Times, 'there would be no effort to imprison [Hafiz] Sayeed again, in part because he was just an ideologue who did not have an anti-Pakistan agenda'. Clearly, Sayeed's handlers in the ISI don't consider his efforts to impose on the people of Pakistan the hard-line and barbaric Wahabbi version of Islam to be 'anti-Pakistan'!

By all accounts the diabolical policy that Pakistan has followed on Afghanistan has been motivated in large measure by its unrelenting enmity towards India. It is a different matter that in its quest for attaining 'strategic depth', Pakistan has ended up creating a 'strategic black hole' that could one day devour it. Even today, the Pakistani strategic thinking is centred on what Gen. Abbas called 'an over-involvement of Indians in Afghanistan'. According to him, 'an over ingress of the Indians into...[the Afghan] government, their ministries, their army. The fear is, tomorrow what happens if these Americans move out and they're replaced by Indians as military trainers? That becomes a serious concern.' Ergo, the Taliban, an instrument that the Pakistanis were confident will always be antagonistic towards India.

The bankruptcy of Pakistan's blinkered strategic vision, however, becomes evident from two simple facts: first, regardless of the inroads India makes in Afghanistan, it can never replace the natural influence that Pakistan will always exercise in that country. And yet, while India is spending enormous amounts of money to build social and economic infrastructure in Afghanistan, all that Pakistan has given to the Afghans is death, destruction and a dreadful version of Islam; second, after all the investment Pakistan has made and all the cost it has borne in raising and nurturing the Islamist militia in Afghanistan and allowing it to operate with impunity inside Pakistan, today Pakistan is reduced into making a spectacle of itself by accusing India of backing the Taliban. The irony of it all is both funny and tragic.

Sushant Sareen is a consultant to IDSA

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