President Karzai may not have a clear solution beyond holding out rather empty threats but do we have a coherent and sustainable alternative to these rhetorical outbursts?
President Karzai achieved a significant success if his intention was to create a shockwave in Pakistan. The media tended to act outraged by his threat to mount some kind of expedition with his embryonic national army across the international frontier to hunt down the elements fuelling the Afghan insurgency. The studied note of intimidation in his press conference was quickly seen as interference in Pakistan’s internal affairs as well as an affront to its sovereignty. It led to a temporary loss of objectivity that has otherwise increasingly characterised the Pakistani media’s coverage of the Afghan conflict though part of it, notably this newspaper, maintained a comprehensive unbiased overview of the troubles on both sides of the border.
Three easily identifiable factors might well have heightened the shock effect. Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi had visited Mr Karzai before the Paris moot and there could not possibly be a more peaceable messenger of the new elected government in Islamabad than him. On his part Rehman Malik had strengthened the same approach to Kabul, an approach free of a self-righteous strain. Karzai was suddenly seen as deliberately breaking the rhythm of these helpful conversations between the two countries.
Secondly, he appeared to be insensitive to the grief and indignation witnessed in Pakistan over the loss of precious lives of Pakistani security forces manning a regular post that had somehow come under aerial attack. The natural instinct among the people was to try to pierce through the usual fog of war to find out how this tragedy occurred. Just when analysts were establishing the sequence of events that culminated in what looked like a disproportionate resort to American air power, President Karzai shifted the locus from accidental collateral damage caused in the heat of a battle that might not have respected the international frontier to the plane of deliberate punitive action threatened for several weeks. He altered the framework in which a bloody incident had taken place.
Third, in doing so President Karzai raised a fundamental question about his credentials. Was he giving expression to Afghanistan’s protracted agony which, incidentally, resonates most sympathetically with a vast majority of the people in Pakistan or was he fulfilling the task of giving substance to intimations of a harsher attitude reportedly being fashioned in Washington and various NATO chancelleries? Was this thunder his own or did it contain echoes of another storm brewing on a distant horizon?
Either way, it would be better to concentrate our minds on the widening gap of perceptions about a conflict that has most serious implications both for Afghanistan and Pakistan. If Mr Karzai has dramatised this gap by accident or design, he might even have done us all a favour. The troubled landscape in which he stood up to explain the failure of his government to overcome a multi-dimensional insurgency right after a spectacular Taliban operation to whisk away more than a thousand prisoners from the jail in Kandahar is under sharp international scrutiny. The criticism he faces undermines his ambition to win another presidential term next year. This is partly the reason why in his latest utterances he has tried to strike the posture of the defender of Pashtuns on both sides of the border. The Taliban, after all, tap into ethnicity as much as into religion to sustain their desperate struggle.
In doing so, Mr Karzai is obviously skating on thin ice. But on another plane, he is positioning himself on what he thinks is the right side. Afghanistan is poised for an escalation that may have major consequences; it is heading towards being the main theatre of military intervention in the region. It will suck in more troops. It may also see an ominous shift in tactics.
For months now, the Western media has carried leaks about military commanders in Afghanistan demanding a widening of the war. The strategic community in the United States is increasingly using a hyphen to describe the crisis as an Afghanistan-Pakistan war that NATO has to wage.
One must not lose sight of this semantic shift; nor should one dismiss it lightly. The RAND study — National Defence Research Institute’s “Counterinsurgency in Afghanistan” — is notable mostly for having gathered into a single volume themes and recommendations under discussion for months. Its language could not be more explicit.
The RAND study postulates a dangerous continuity in Pakistan being the source of external support for the Taliban insurgency. It identifies two traditional components: assistance from some officials in the Pakistan government and the freedom to operate on Pakistani soil. Having done so, it builds, rather impressionistically, a narrative that connects the mid-1990s to the present phase of the conflict. The allegation routinely made by Mr Karzai’s ministers that the Pakistan army puts down Al Qaeda resolutely but goes soft when it comes to the Taliban is quoted with approval. The peace agreements between the Pakistani government and the militants receive the usual attention as being instrumental in prolonging the Taliban resistance.
Pakistan faces a difficult political transition with several imponderables that are difficult to evaluate at the moment. Most of the issues have time as a major parameter but none more urgently than the articulation of a well-considered policy towards the conflict centred on Afghanistan. It needs a broad consensus in the political class as well as with other stakeholders such as the armed forces. It cannot be a string of ad hoc responses as the uneasy situation in Afghanistan is likely to last several years and it will never be easy to quarantine it from the situation on the Pakistani side of the border.
It is time for the national planners to see things in a perspective of at least a decade. Are our institutions, including the Foreign Office and the think tanks, geared to that momentous task? President Karzai may not have a clear solution beyond holding out rather empty threats but do we have a coherent and sustainable alternative to these rhetorical outbursts?
The writer can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
Daily Times, 20/6/2008