Sunday, February 28, 2010




    On the face of it, the exit of the international security forces from Afghanistan and the return of a Taliban regime in Kabul will be a huge strategic setback for India. Not surprisingly, the prospect that Taliban ascendancy will leave India with no feet to stand on in Afghanistan is being welcomed in Pakistan with unmistakable glee. But both Pakistan's triumphalism and India's concerns are somewhat misplaced because there is a very good chance that, more by default than by design, the return of Taliban in Afghanistan will cause far greater harm to Pakistan than the damage it will do to India. Rather than fret about American withdrawal from Afghanistan, India should actually welcome it because this will be the beginning of the end of the unnatural alliance in the War on Terror between US and Pakistan, an alliance that has propped up Pakistan for so long and rewarded it for recalcitrance and double-dealing.

The international community's approach to Afghanistan and, by extension Pakistan, in 2011 is likely to be very different from what it was on the eve of 9/11 in 2001. If Pakistan thinks that it can turn the clock back to the time when the West turned a blind eye to Pakistan's shenanigans in Afghanistan and allowed it a free run in using jihad as an instrument of state policy, it is mistaken. If anything, as and when the Americans pack up and abandon Afghanistan, Pakistan is going to come under even greater international pressure, and what is worse, it will have lost most, if not all, the leverages that it is currently exploiting to make the Americans follow its line on Afghanistan.

Apart from the rising economic costs of fighting the war, there are two big compulsions that will confront the US as long as it remains in Afghanistan: one, body-bags of American troops engaged in anti-insurgency operations; two, supply lines that run through Pakistan. Once the US leaves Afghanistan, it will no longer be hobbled by these debilitating compulsions that are probably preventing it from pushing the Pakistanis too hard. Quitting Afghanistan will, however, not mean quitting the region. In all likelihood, the US will move out of Afghanistan into Pakistan. The kind of investment that the US is making inside Pakistan suggests that the US intends to increase its presence in Pakistan manifold. Even though there won't be US troops present inside Pakistan, there will be a large number of diplomats and spooks who will be keeping a hawk-eye on developments in Pakistan.

Perhaps the Americans are beginning to understand that their real strategic challenge lies not so much in Afghanistan as in Pakistan. Much of the support, sanctuary, resources, recruits, training, and what have you, for the Islamists comes through Pakistan. If the West can control Pakistan, it will be able to get a hold of Afghanistan, even ignore it. Within Pakistan, the problem is really the army. Civilian leaders are sensible enough to realise the destruction fostered on the country by the jihadist policies of the Pakistan army. Left to themselves, the civilians would be more than amenable to move decisively to dismantle the jihadist infrastructure. The problem is that the Pakistan army will not let the civilians decide the national security strategy. And given the structural weaknesses in Pakistan's polity, the civilians succumb easily to the line drawn for them by the military. Therefore, if the West really wants reform inside Pakistan it will have to empower the civilian leadership and make the military subservient and obedient to the civilian authority.

As long as the US remains dependent on the Pakistan for its operations in Afghanistan, it will be difficult for it to force compliance on the Pakistan army. But once the US is rid of its Afghan compulsions, the boot will be on the other foot. From that point on, the leverages will be in US hands and the compulsions will be all Pakistan's. The single most important leverage that the US holds is aid and trade. The US is already giving nearly $ 5 bn per annum in direct assistance to Pakistan. Add to this the multilateral funding, the assistance that US allies give Pakistan and the Friends of Democratic Pakistan programmes and the figure reaches close to $ 10 bn per annum. This huge amount of money is just enough to keep Pakistan afloat.

If the US pulls the plug on Pakistan, it can ravage the Pakistani economy. And one is not even talking about the market access that US and its allies give Pakistan or the defence equipment that Pakistan gets from the West. The bottom line is that the Pakistanis need the Americans more than the other way round and this factor will come into play once the Americans withdraw from Afghanistan. The compact between the US and Pakistan will start to loosen up because the Americans will lean more heavily on Pakistan and insist that it delivers on its side of the bargain – keeping a tight leash on the Islamist mafias and militias. This will be a catch-22 situation for the Pakistanis: if they try to deliver on American demands, it will pit the Pakistanis against the Islamists, even those Islamists who for tactical reasons continue to act on the behest of Pakistani intelligence agencies and often assist and protect Pakistani interests by attacking Indians in Afghanistan; on the other hand, if the Pakistanis continue with their double-game, it will pit them against the US and its allies.

The Pakistanis are, of course, convinced that they will be able to deliver in large measure to the American demands. As they see it, with the Americans out of Afghanistan the issue at the heart of the conflict will be removed and things will settle down in the Afpak region. What is more, the Pakistanis believe that with Afghanistan being outsourced to them by the Americans, not only will Pakistan gain its much desired 'strategic depth', it will at the same time earn top dollar from the West for its services. The problem is that while all this sounds good in theory, its practise will be an altogether different thing.

The main reason for Pakistan's confidence is the influence they have on the Taliban supremo, Mullah Omar, who all the Islamists acknowledge as the Amir-ul-Momineen (leader of the faithful). The Pakistanis think that they can use Mullah Omar to break the Taliban-Al Qaeda alliance and get the international jihadists and Islamists expelled from Afghanistan. This, the Pakistanis feel, will be enough for the Americans. Mullah Omar who is probably in the safe custody of the Pakistanis has always dissuaded his followers from targeting Pakistan. But while Mullah Omar has stayed loyal to his Pakistani benefactors, and might continue to follow Pakistani diktats after regaining power in Afghanistan, the big question is whether his followers will follow this line? Even now, there is a large section among the Islamists who pledge allegiance to Mullah Omar but don't listen to him when it comes to attacking Pakistan army.

Unlike Mullah Omar, who having enjoyed Pakistani hospitality might be amenable to break links with Al Qaeda, his followers, who have been fighting on the ground and who have been radicalised over the last nine years, are not likely to follow Omar's edicts either in letter or spirit. Field commanders like the Haqqani's will want to keep their links with their fellow combatants in Al Qaeda alive. They are also likely to espouse Islamist causes all over the world because after having defeated the sole superpower they will be inclined to spread their virulence in lands near and far. At the very minimum, both Islam as well as tradition will be used to provide sanctuary to all sorts of terrorists, fugitives, desperadoes from around the world, making the Afpak region Terror Central all over again. If Mullah Omar opposes the Islamists, he could be repudiated, accused of selling out and even removed from the scene. After all, history is full of instances of self-proclaimed Amir-ul-Momineens being assassinated by their followers.

Notwithstanding the self-serving gloss being put by the Pakistanis on the motives of the Taliban – that they are fighting a war of national liberation, that they do not subscribe to Jihad International, that many of the combatants are seeking revenge for the deaths of their loved ones, that Pashtun xenophobia is driving the resistance etc. – the incontrovertible fact is that the primary motivation of the Islamists is a extremely barbaric and intolerant interpretation of Islam that is incapable of living in peace with any other peoples who do not subscribe to their world view. Therefore, if Mullah Omar treads the moderate path on Pakistani instructions, he will be going against his own followers. And if he sticks to the radical path then he will be going against his benefactors in Pakistan. In either case, Pakistan will get sucked into the Afghan quagmire, which in turn will increase its dependence on American monetary and military assistance.

Pakistan can, of course, choose to defy the rest of the world and cast its lot with the jihadists. Unlike the jihadists, the Pakistanis have a lot to lose and cannot really afford to face the wrath of the world. The Pakistanis know that once the international community walks out of Afghanistan, the entire burden of an economically unviable Afghanistan will fall on Pakistan's head, a burden that Pakistan cannot afford without international assistance, which will not be forthcoming unless Pakistan delivers on the concerns of the international community.

The reason why India doesn't need to lose too much sleep over being forced out of Afghanistan is that the dialectics of the situation will ultimately benefit India. If Pakistan succumbs to American pressure, it will continue to be engaged in a long war of attrition on its western borders, something that suits India. If Pakistan resists American pressure, it will be isolated in the world, and the international community will have to fall back upon India to put a firewall around the Afpak region. All India needs to do now is to hold its nerve and position itself to exploit the situation as it evolves in its favour.


    <1700 Words>                        28th February, 2010



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