Wednesday, January 27, 2010




    A Pakistani lawmaker from the lawless Pashtun tribal belt, Zafar Baig Bhittani, has revealed in a TV talk show that the imminent defeat and almost certain ignominious exit of the American and other Western troops from Afghanistan marks the success of Pakistan's policy of not allowing the 'foreign occupation forces' to settle down in Afghanistan. The double-game being played by the Pakistan army in Afghanistan has long been suspected, but Mr Bhittani's mea culpa is perhaps the first occasion when this fact has been publicly admitted. Imperial hubris in Washington always discounted or disregarded warnings by Pakistan-watchers in India that Pakistan was keeping the Taliban option alive and kicking, and would use it at an opportune time to get back into the driving seat in Afghanistan. Now that the endgame has begun in Afghanistan, the Pakistanis are shifting gears and pushing ahead with their agenda more openly, even brazenly, than they have in the past.

    The policy that Mr Bhittani has referred to is a variant of the 'strategic defiance' doctrine that was first unveiled by the former Pakistan army chief, Gen. Mirza Aslam Beg, way back in 1990. The policy speech delivered at the Pakistan Ordinance Factory, Wah by Gen. Beg was against the backdrop of the First Gulf War in which Beg opposed joining the US-led coalition against Iraq. According to Beg, deterrence, when combined with defiance, becomes the most effective defence against external aggression. For Beg, the first Gulf war was an act of "'strategic defiance' by the people of Iraq against the 'strategic military intimidation' by the Western powers."

Beg went on to say: "Strategic military intimidation through the power of the weapons and the armament to break the will of a nation against the might of the mightiest of the world. What challenges this might is the spirit of defiance of the people of Iraq. Such a defiance is likely to become more meaningful if other nations also join in.... because if Iraq is cut to size and their armed forces are destroyed, who will be the next target?.... Such strategic defiance is very important for Pakistan... If we try to deter aggression and defy it, and that too single-handedly, then it may be difficult to withstand. Our policy objective must aim at getting the support of other friendly countries who think alike and have common perceptions. I think there should be no problem for Pakistan to establish such an understanding with Iran and Afghanistan with whom we have many things in common."

    The Beg doctrine of strategic defiance was a non-starter in 1990. But a decade later it was put into practice after the US invasion of Afghanistan following the 9/11 attacks. The 'spirit of defiance' of the Afghan people (read Taliban) became more meaningful after Pakistan, which felt it would be the next target, joined in, albeit covertly. In the initial years, the focus of Pakistani strategy was to preserve and protect its Taliban assets from obliteration. This was achieved by providing them sanctuaries and launching bases in the Tribal belt. Places like Quetta and Karachi provided rest, recuperation and resources. Indeed, the 'Quetta shoora' was in place within months of the ouster of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan.

The Taliban supremo, Mullah Omar, has been so beholden to his benefactors in Pakistan that he has absolved Pakistan of all blame and explained away Pakistan's support for the US-led international coalition by calling it 'Majboor-istan'. Omar has always dissuaded his followers from attacking targets inside Pakistan. But his edicts have often been flouted by elements in the Taliban fraternity who are not willing to view Pakistan's duplicitous policy as benignly as Mullah Omar. For their part, Pakistan security agencies have reciprocated by adopting a hands-off approach towards those Taliban elements that have by and large stuck to the quiet understanding that has been reached between Pakistan and the Taliban supremo.

    As far as Pakistan is concerned, it has managed to weather the most difficult period when, in the aftermath of 9/11, immense pressure was brought to bear upon it to make a U-turn on the Taliban. Without surrendering its real 'strategic assets', Pakistan was, at the same time, able to satisfy the Americans with its 'unstinted cooperation' in the War on Terror. Having successfully kept the Taliban option alive against all odds, there is no way that Pakistan will now give in to US pressure when they are almost on the verge of achieving their long term strategic objective. The way the Pakistanis see it, they have the Americans just where they want them: vulnerable, confused, without options, desperate for some sort of face saving.

Clearly, the tables have turned and the US now pleads, not pressures, the Pakistanis to 'do more'. The Pakistanis are increasingly becoming far more assertive in their demands from the US and are inclined to throw tantrums – for instance, over the Kerry-Lugar bill and the enhanced screening procedures at US airports that have come in the wake of the failed attempt to blow up an aircraft by the 'underwear bomber'. The Americans no longer shrug off these tantrums and go out of their way to assuage, even apple-polish, the Pakistanis and shower them with money and arms.

Until just a few months back the Pakistanis weren't quite sure how the Americans would react to hardball. In order to test the waters on how far they could go in pushing the Americans, the Pakistani establishment started taking one step at a time. The visa delays, the harassment of US diplomats, the propaganda campaigns over Kerry-Lugar bill, drone attacks, presence of American private security companies etc. were all part of shifting the policy of 'strategic defiance' from the covert to the overt mode. The diffident reaction to all these measures by the Americans only convinced the Pakistani establishment that they are now in a position from where they can lead the Americans, not follow them. They calculate, perhaps correctly, that the Americans now depend so desperately on Pakistan to deliver Afghanistan that they can no longer dictate terms to Pakistan, much less open another front against Pakistan.

To be sure, the Pakistanis won't push the Americans too far just yet. This means that while they will continue to remind the US of the leverages they hold, the Pakistanis won't stop the logistics support, the bases, the odd operation and intelligence sharing with the Americans. What the Pakistanis are likely to play for is getting the Americans to outsource Afghanistan to Pakistan. After all, someone has to fund Pakistan's Afghan venture. As the Pakistanis see it, while the US is a declining power and will most likely be replaced by the Chinese in the years to come. In the meantime, the Pakistanis will seek to extract all that they can from the Americans for as long as they can.

The fly in the ointment in all this highfalutin strategy is Pakistan's economy, which cannot survive without tons of money being poured into the country, money that might stop flowing in once the Americans realize how they have been done down by Pakistan's double game. While Pakistan might succeed in establishing its dominance over Afghanistan, how it will bear the burden with its already sick economy is obviously something that has not been thought through by the grand strategists sitting in Rawalpindi. Even more serious will be the impact of a Taliban government on Pakistan's social and political structure. Pakistan could of course use the dangers of its nuclear weapons falling into the wrong hands to extort money from rest of the world. But it is entirely possible that the rest of the world might be forced by this threat to once and for all end the threat that these weapons pose to civilisation.


    <1300 Words>                    27th January, 2010



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