Thursday, February 04, 2010




    In an effort to capitalise on the gains made in the Istanbul and London conferences on Afghanistan, Pakistan has gone on a diplomatic overdrive to not only allay any distrust, fear and suspicion in the West of Pakistani objectives in Afghanistan, but also acquire a lead role in determining the future course of events in that country. While the Pakistani diplomats are working the seminar and lecture circuit to sell their viewpoint in the West, the Pakistan army chief, Gen Ashfaq Kayani, has taken a public relations initiative of his own. In a rare briefing to Islamabad based foreign correspondents, he sought to beguile international public opinion by projecting a rather benign and benevolent approach of Pakistan towards Afghanistan – "our objective is to have peaceful, stable and friendly Afghanistan...We cannot wish for Afghanistan anything that we don't wish for Pakistan... We want a strategic depth in Afghanistan but do not want to control it... A peaceful and friendly Afghanistan can provide Pakistan a strategic depth."

    Having run out of answers, and perhaps even options, on Afghanistan, the West has all but shut its eyes to the Pakistan army's deception. But it is not only the Pakistan army that is indulging in deception; all the players in Afghanistan are engaged in deceiving their partners, their public and most of all, themselves. How much of the deception is witting, and how much unwitting, is debatable. What is clear, however, is that there is utter disarray in the political and military strategy of the international coalition. The Obama administration has already done three reviews of its strategy in less than a year and still appears as confounded as it was when it started the review process. Nothing exemplifies this better than the self-defeating plan to reintegrate and reconcile with the Taliban and the subsequent self-serving clarifications issued by the architects of this plan that effectively nullify whatever little they had hoped to achieve through the policy of trying to salve some grace and dignity while throwing in the towel.

    The reality is that no great intrinsic value can or should be attached to a dialogue between combatants in terms of its potential for stopping a war and bringing about a peaceful solution. A dialogue only helps usher in peace by accepting and formalising the situation that obtains as a result of fighting on the ground. What a dialogue does is that it provides a channel of communication that comes in handy to decide the modalities and terms of surrender or, in the event of a military stalemate, of a deal. In Afghanistan, there is no military stalemate – the Taliban are on the ascendant while the resolve of the coalition forces to stay the course and pacify that country and rid it of the Islamist menace is weakening by the day. This means there is little incentive for the Taliban to enter into any sort of power-sharing deal with their adversaries and opponents. What is more, any assurance that they give to sever their links with Jihad International Inc., a.k.a. al Qaeda, will be nothing but a ploy to hasten their victorious return to power. These assurances will be observed more in their violation than anything else. After all, how is the international coalition going to ensure that the Taliban stick to their pledges?

    Even though the possibility of the Taliban accepting a power sharing deal is negligible, for a dialogue to have any chance of working, it must be held with the relevant people. But when US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton says that there will be no talks with the "really bad guys" (read Mullah Omar and warlords like Jalaluddin Haqqani and his son, Sirajuddin) because they are "not ever going to renounce Al-Qaeda and renounce violence and agree to re-enter society", then the entire logic of the reintegration and reconciliation plan stops making any sense. Quite aside the unconfirmed reports of CIA officials having used the ISI to hold direct talks inside Pakistan with the top leadership of the 'bad guys', Hillary Clinton's stance begs the question as to what purpose will be served talking to people who are bit players in the Islamist insurgency and don't really call the shots.

People like the former Taliban foreign minister Wakil Ahmed Muttawakil, the former Taliban ambassador to Pakistan, Mullah Zaeef, and others like them have been living under a close watch of the Allied forces for years now. It is reasonable to assume that by now these characters would already have been milked for whatever they are worth. What can they deliver at this late stage when the imminent withdrawal of the Western forces is staring everyone in the face what they could not deliver when the situation was not so dismal. What possible influence can these fellows have on the second rung Taliban leadership that the West is trying to wean away from the 'bad guys'? The lure of lucre must not be over-stated in present day Afghanistan. In all likelihood, there could be many who will take the dollars and continue to support the Taliban leadership, more so since it is almost a truism by now that a Taliban takeover of Afghanistan is inevitable. In any case, the whole idea of publicly announcing the policy of using bribes to drive a wedge in the Taliban ranks makes one hold ones head in disbelief over the desperation, if not mindlessness, that is guiding the reintegration scheme.

Even more perplexing is the complete dependence on Pakistan for bringing peace in Afghanistan. Pakistan's usefulness hinges on its ability to influence not so much the 'reconciliables' as the 'bad guys' who receive support, sustenance and sanctuary inside Pakistan. After all, Pakistan's 'strategic assets', are the 'bad guys'. And, having preserved and even used (as in the bombing of the Indian embassy in Kabul) these assets in the face of such great odds, what are the chances that the Pakistanis will discard these people at this stage when they are on the verge of winning the war? The big question that the Americans seem to be ducking is that if indeed the Pakistanis continue to exercise influence on the 'bad guys', then aren't the Americans fighting in the wrong country and also allying and relying on the wrong country. On the other hand, if the Pakistanis don't actually pull the strings of the 'bad guys', or if they aren't in a position to influence the 'bad guys', then what is it that the Pakistanis are bringing that they are being given a seat on the high table.

While it makes a very good copy when Gen Kayani says somewhat disingenuously that Pakistan doesn't want a Talibanised Afghanistan ("we can't want something for Afghanistan which we don't want for ourselves"), the question is why the Pakistan army continues to retain the Taliban option and treat the most violent Taliban groups with kid gloves? The bottom line is that the Pakistan state and society will have a big problem on its hands if the Taliban resurgence is due to the support they have received from Pakistan because as and when the Taliban take control of Afghanistan, Pakistan will almost certainly be sucked into the vortex of fanaticism that the Taliban represent. On the other hand, Pakistan will have an even bigger problem on its hands if they have not assisted the Taliban victory because then it will have to contend with a force that after having defeated the greatest military machine ever in the history of mankind will look upon the Pakistan as ripe for the picking. For anyone to imagine that this won't happen is nothing but self-deception and self-delusion.


    <1250 Words>                        4th February, 2010



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