A precarious situation in Pakistan

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By Tariq Fatemi

WHILE predictability hardly features in the unfolding of historical events, there is nevertheless considerable truth to the adage that history repeats itself, first as a tragedy and then as a farce.

In the case of Pakistan, it is difficult to discern the difference. Just over a year ago, there was genuine pride and excitement when general elections far exceeded expectations. Sadly, the latter appear to have gone sour.

In addition to the economic meltdown and rapidly disappearing writ of the state, challenges on the external front have assumed alarming proportions. On the eve of the US invasion of Afghanistan, Gen Musharraf had predicted that US action would be quick and focused and that our support for the US would secure Pakistan’s nuclear assets and promote the Kashmir cause. Instead, the global war on terror has brought us neither security nor development.

The US and its allies are still struggling to contain the Taliban-led insurgency. Credible analysts are expressing the fear that the war in Afghanistan may prove un-winnable and that the proposed induction of additional troops could land the US into a Vietnam-like situation.

What then can we expect from a “thinking” person in the White House? For one, he has demonstrated conviction and courage in charting new courses. Its first tangible evidence has been his decision to pull out forces from Iraq and devote America’s resources to defeating Al Qaeda in Afghanistan, while promoting peace in South Asia.

At the time of writing, details of the exchanges of Richard Holbrooke, Mr Obama’s special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, during his “orientation and exploratory trip” to Pakistan had not emerged fully, but important aspects of the administration’s thinking are already discernible. One is that the administration’s primary focus will be Afghanistan, and by extension, Pakistan, because as Joe Biden emphasised recently, “no strategy for Afghanistan can succeed without Pakistan”.

US officials confirm that Afghanistan and Pakistan are closely inter-linked and an unstable Afghanistan would continue to have a destabilising influence on its nuclear neighbour. In a TV interview, President Obama emphasised that Washington recognised that “Afghanistan has to be stabilised to ensure the stability of Pakistan”. It confirms the viewpoint that the primary source of the problem rests in Afghanistan and that extremism has to be fought in that country to stabilise Pakistan’s tribal belt. But it also means that Washington is now establishing an “umbilical cord” relationship between Afghanistan and Pakistan, henceforth holding us accountable for US setbacks in that country.

At the same time, Washington wishes to set “clear and achievable goals for Afghanistan in a comprehensive strategy for which Washington expects its allies to take major responsibility”. This means greater pressure on European allies to be more forthcoming on their commitments in Afghanistan.

Washington insiders claim that President Obama is willing to consider sending additional troops, but wants the defence chiefs to review their strategy and respond to: “what is the mission and endgame”? There are also reports that the joint chiefs propose to advise the administration to “squeeze Taliban and Al Qaeda sanctuaries inside neighbouring Pakistan, while de-emphasising longer terms goals for bolstering democracy” in Afghanistan.

Hopefully, the Pakistani leadership would have emphasised that notwithstanding the stigma attached to the Taliban, the reality is that there can be no military solution to the problem in Afghanistan. In fact, the larger the foreign presence, the greater the hostility. European countries appear to have recognised this, though Washington still believes that a surge could turn the tide.

Secondly, the Taliban represent members of the majority community, i.e. the Pakhtuns, and if they can be persuaded, with promises of political support and economic assistance, to soften their extremist views they could become key interlocutors in any political settlement in Afghanistan.

It is also hoped that Holbrooke would have been told that while the drone attacks may satisfy the “macho streak” and may occasionally net a high-value target, its overall impact is seriously detrimental to our anti-terror campaign. It is seen as a continuation of Bush’s doctrine of pre-emption that has created intense anti-US sentiments, weakened our democratic set-up and questioned the credibility of Pak-US ties.

Our leaders would also have urged that the broader strategic view of the region is not abandoned, and keep in mind Obama’s reference to the importance of promoting the Indo-Pakistan normalisation process and ensuring a satisfactory resolution of the Kashmir problem. This represented a fundamental change from the usual single-item agenda approach of his predecessor and a remarkable grasp of an extremely complex issue.

India reacted to this initiative with unbecoming haste, claiming that it would reintroduce the “zero sum game” in US relations with Pakistan and India. Some Indian commentators have begun to see merit in the regional approach. India must also recognise that it cannot have it both ways, seeking Washington’s help to put pressure on Pakistan and at the same time losing its cool even at the mere mention of the ‘K’ word, by the international community.

That a country the size and strength of India should suffer from such poor appreciation of its abilities is amazing. The reality is that the US lacks both the political will and leverage to make India grant concessions on Kashmir. In fact, with US blessings, Delhi may extract a steeper price from Pakistan. In the process, the US would increase its clout in both countries, but the advantage for Islamabad in any American “mediation” on Kashmir, would lie in the establishment’s enhanced ability to sell such a deal.

The coming months are likely to be critical, with little hope of relief. At a time when efforts are on to galvanise the final phase of the struggle for the restoration of democratic institutions, Islamabad faces the formidable challenge represented by a resurgent Al Qaeda, a hostile India and a determined America that is no longer willing to countenance our transgressions.

Source: Daily Dawn, 12-feb-09


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