Tuesday, November 03, 2009




    Anyone who ever thought that an asymmetric war or a proxy war is a very low cost option and far more effective than good, old-fashioned conventional conflict just needs to look at the experience of Pakistan, and perhaps also the US, to understand how false this notion is. The US spent some US$ 5-6 billion to fund the Afghan Mujahideen in their fight against the Soviets – by all accounts chicken-feed to defeat another super-power. Unfortunately, the forces of fanaticism unleashed by the Afghan 'Jihad' – al Qaeda and its local variants like the Taliban, the Lashkars, the Jaishs', et al. – have only created a new global strategic adversary, one that is in many ways far more destabilising and destructive and far less decipherable than the old adversary. Worse, these fanatics are now exacting a ruinous price from the very countries that at one point or another supported, sustained and sponsored their 'unholy wars', whether in Afghanistan or in Kashmir, or for that matter in any other part of the world.

    At last count, the US is spending some US$ 60-70 billion every year on the war in Afghanistan. Add to this the cost of the Iraq war and the figure runs into a couple of trillion dollars since 9/11. As far as the Pakistanis are concerned, the blowback of the 'low-cost' jihadist infrastructure that they nurtured so assiduously over the years, has cost the Pakistani economy anything between US$ 35-40 billion since 9/11. Even if this figure has been somewhat exaggerated in order to squeeze the maximum money out of the Americans and Europeans, it does not change the fact that the Pakistan economy is having to pay a terrible price for its setting up of the one product line in which no other country can compete with it – jihadist terror.

It can of course be argued that while the losses are notional in the sense of lost business opportunities, trade and investment flows, capital flight and a very uncertain economic scenario, the funds inflow is real and to that extent Pakistan is reaping the benefit of its nuclearised jihad factory. After all, the Pakistanis have already received over US$ 15 billion in direct economic and military assistance from the Americans. There is now the US$ 1.5 billion per annum that Pakistan will receive as economic assistance for the next five years under the Kerry-Lugar bill. In addition, some US$ 2 billion per annum of direct and indirect military assistance will also be available to Pakistan to fight the War on Terror. Then there are the aid packages from the so-called 'Friends of Democratic Pakistan and of course the loans from the multilateral institutions. Since everyone knows Pakistan can never repay its loans, ideally these loans should be considered grants, or if you will, disposable income!

Given that the dollar is still the world's reserve currency, the US is able to fund these wars by working double, even triple, shifts at the printing presses of the Federal Reserve. But for how long? Already moves are underway being made to challenge the dominance of the dollar. As if that wasn't enough, the wars being fought show no sign of an early closure, and certainly not on a victory note for the US. Given its utterly muddled approach, the best that the US can hope for is a long, holding operation, all the while sinking in money into the bottomless pit called Afpak. Even this would be well worth the investment if at the end of this holding operation, Afghanistan and Pakistan emerged something like Germany and Japan after the Second World War. What are the chances of even a rocket scientist calculating the probability of such an outcome?

    The predicament of Pakistan is even worse, caught as it is between the obsession of a very large number of its people with 'jihad' on the one hand, and the obsequiousness of its ruling classes towards America on the other. If it leans too much towards the US, the jihadists will destroy it from within; but if it casts its lot with 'jihad', then the US could pull the plug on it from without. Not surprisingly then, Pakistan has chosen to travel on two boats at the same time. The dollars and military assistance flowing in from the US is keeping the ship of state afloat, if only just. At the same time the military leadership continues to ride the 'jihad' boat and keeping its 'strategic options' afloat by not moving against either the top Taliban commanders like Mullah Omar, Jalaluddin Haqqani and Gulbadin Hekmetyar on the western front or the 'loyalist' jihadists like the Lashkar-e-Taiba on the eastern front.

The effort now, as it was in the past under General Pervez Musharraf, is to broker an agreement between the US and the 'good' Taliban so that the best of both worlds is available to Pakistan – the dollars and munitions continue to provide the necessary ballast for the Pakistani state, which in turn will underwrite that after its allies (Mullah Omar and company) are re-installed in Kabul they will no longer allow Jihad Inc. to use Afghanistan as its global headquarters. Alas, things are not so simple because regardless of the Pakistan military leadership's infinite capacity for self-delusion and self-deception, the fact is that the al Qaeda, Afghan Taliban, Pakistani Taliban, Punjabi Taliban or jihadists fighting against India cannot be delinked from each other.

If anything the Taliban (Afghan or Pakistani) and jihadists (good, bad and ugly) are but a localised version of the virulence that al Qaeda symbolises at the global level. And while they might have differences, and even clash, on issues of tactics or on identification of the immediate enemy, their long term objectives are the same – the establishment of an Islamic emirate that stretches from Pakistan to Central Asia to the middle east and to use this as a base from where to attack the infidels all over the world. Therefore, if the Americans withdraw from the region before cleaning the mess, as appears to be the case, this whole region will be consumed by the fires of jihad. The assurances given by the Taliban and the guarantees given by Pakistan on al Qaeda and other radical Islamist outfits not being allowed in Afghanistan have as much value as a Zimbabwean dollar simply because everyone knows that once America withdraws from the region, it is unlikely to return in a hurry.

Contrary to conventional wisdom in India, any US abandonment of Afghanistan will not give Pakistan it's much desired 'strategic depth'; rather it will push Pakistan into a strategic black hole. Economically, an unsustainable Afghanistan will depend on an already bankrupt, and increasingly dysfunctional, Pakistan. And militarily, the Islamists will make major inroads inside Pakistan. At that stage, Pakistan could do one of two things: one, it could try and control affairs in Afghanistan, and resultantly get caught up in the Afghan quagmire; alternatively, Pakistan could try and buy some time by diverting the Taliban and other sundry jihadists towards India. While the latter could trigger a conflict between India and Pakistan, which even if it doesn't turn nuclear will badly destabilise the entire region, the former could sound the death knell of Pakistan as we know it. The fallout of either event on India will be unimaginably horrific, making events 26/11 look like a Sunday picnic.

There is of course a possibility, remote though it may be, that Pakistan reforms itself and over the next few years actually makes serious efforts to get rid of the jihadist culture, with lots of help from not only the West but also India. But for that to happen Pakistan will have to make a break with its deeply ingrained militaristic culture. Since this is unlikely to happen in the foreseeable future, India needs to start putting in place a security architecture that pre-empts and insulates it, to the maximum extent possible, from a failed or imploding Pakistan. The future security and prosperity of India hinges critically upon this. Otherwise, be prepared for suicide bombers blowing up in shopping malls, hotels, schools, temples, offices, trains, buses and every other place possible.


    <1360 Words>                    3rd November, 2009



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