WITH Holbrooke pottering around the neighbourhood, the Afpak policy under review and the Obama administration flagging the Pak-Afghan border as ground zero in the fight against militancy, change seems to be in the air.
What hasn’t changed though is that the US expects to end its Afghan adventure on a positive note. Sure, the Obama administration has tried to dampen expectations, talked down nation-building and done away with the hyperbole of the Bush era. Yet Obama wouldn’t be sending more troops to Afghanistan or fixing his star so firmly to that country if he believed that all is already lost.
But what if he’s wrong? Newsweek’s cover story last week was ‘Obama’s Vietnam’. The magazine noted: “The analogy isn’t exact. But the war in Afghanistan is starting to look disturbingly familiar.” Can the Americans salvage something from Afghanistan? Nobody can know for sure right now. But that doesn’t stop people from taking a hard look at the situation and betting on the outcome.
What many Pakistanis may not realise as yet is that their very future may hinge on the answer — more specifically, our security establishment’s answer — to that question.
Ever since the Americans charged into Afghanistan, the question has haunted security analysts: is Pakistan betting against an American victory? As Newsweek points out: “The Pakistanis have a strategic interest in keeping Afghanistan — which has developed close ties to arch-enemy India — weak. Since many Pakistani leaders are convinced that America will eventually leave, they’re covering their bets for the future.”
America will leave because America will lose; at least that’s what the world thinks the Pakistani security establishment is thinking.
Of course, the Pakistanis wouldn’t be alone. In November 2001, when Rumsfeld’s army had just entered Afghanistan, Milton Bearden, CIA station chief in Pakistan from 1986 to 1989, wrote a piece in Foreign Affairs entitled ‘Afghanistan, graveyard of empires’. The circumstances and context were different then, but for many Bearden’s warning still rings true today: “The United States must proceed with caution — or end up on the ash heap of Afghan history.”
Right now some Pakistanis are salivating at the idea of Obama’s regional strategy in Afghanistan which will, they hope, force concessions from India on Kashmir and Afghanistan and thus save South Asia itself. Obama’s idea has intrinsic appeal to those hoping for a less violent future for this part of the world, and especially Pakistan — all the big problems on our eastern and western borders addressed in a neat quid pro quo: Pakistan tackles the menace in Fata and is simultaneously weaned from its India fixation.
But the regional-strategy hype is based on one big assumption: that America can come through in Afghanistan. If our security establishment continues to bet against that possibility, then nothing Obama puts on the table will jolt it out of its reluctance to take down its long-time assets, the militant proxies.
Think about it: they’ve already seen off one US president and two terms. And Bush was as bellicose as they come. What’s another four years, or maybe eight? Sure, the security boys will grab with both hands whatever goodies the Americans offer, just like Musharraf did. And they’ll be tickled that Obama may turn the world’s focus on Kashmir, especially since we don’t really have the means to wrest from the Indians on our own.
But get rid of our militant networks? Don’t bet on it. Like a parent who can’t believe her child has grown up, the Pakistan security establishment is in denial about the fact that the proxies it nurtured for so many years have moved on. More dangerously, it hasn’t grasped that it is an irreversible process.
The Long War Journal reported this week that Al Qaeda has “re-established the predominantly Arab and Asian paramilitary formation that was formerly known as Brigade 055 into a larger, more effective fighting unit known as the Lashkar al Zil, or Shadow Army”.
What his this Shadow Army been up to? “Inside Pakistan, the Shadow Army has been active in successful Taliban campaigns in North and South Waziristan, Bajaur, Peshawar, Khyber and Swat.”
Sound familiar? Those happen to be the very places Pakistan is struggling to quell militancy, and where it’s unclear if inflicting a comprehensive defeat is on the Pakistan Army’s agenda.
More from the Long War Journal: “The presence of the Shadow Army has been evident for some time, as there have been numerous reports of joint operations between the Taliban, Al Qaeda, the Haqqani network, Hizb-i-Islami, Lashkar-i-Taiba, Harkatul Jihad-i-Islami and other terror groups.”
The nightmare scenario for Pakistan is that our security establishment stays rooted in the past, desperately clinging on to its militants in the hope of pursuing the chimera of strategic depth in Afghanistan and bleeding the Indians in Kashmir — and blocking out all evidence that those militants no longer respond to their erstwhile puppet master.
The fact is, Al Qaeda has infected many of the ‘good’ Taliban and Kashmiri militants and the evolving toxic brew of militancy can no longer be harnessed to achieve the state’s security objectives. Betting on them in a post-American Afghanistan is really betting against Pakistan, for in the long run (and in many ways, we’ve already entered that phase) this country is the ultimate prize.
Put on your militant cap for a minute. On one side is a shattered country with no central authority and primitive infrastructure. On the other side is a well-developed central authority, a functional economy, a strong coercive arm of the state and an increasingly conservative population. Which would you rather control? It’s a no-brainer.
Even if this threat is pooh-poohed, Pakistan faces another grim reality: militancy is dangerously isolating us in a nasty neighbourhood where friends are in desperate need.
Start with the much-vaunted Pak-China friendship. The Chinese gave us missile and nuclear technology and so we like to think of them as our best friends. They, on the other hand, are bothered by the idea of militants traipsing up the Karakoram Highway and stirring up the Uighurs.
Iran has always been worried our Baloch problem will spill over into their Baloch areas and isn’t too keen on having Sunni Al Qaeda as its neighbour. Saudi Arabia meanwhile may have long used Pakistan to fight its sectarian war with Iran but 9/11 chastened them and Al Qaeda is their enemy. They want them taken out.
India, well, another Mumbai or two and a few years down the road they may actually have beefed up to deliver on their threat of surgical strikes. And in Afghanistan, Pakistan is virulently hated by those who bore the brunt of the Taliban’s rule.
Anyway you look at it, it’s a bleak picture — unless you have your head buried in the sands of the past, of course.