Regional instability and our options —Shaukat Qadir

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Our Saudi masters have finally demonstrated the strength of our mutual ties by refusing any worthwhile assistance in this, our hour of need. The American USD1.5 billion assistance annually will actually amount to about a quarter of the sum announced

The fact of Indian involvement in Balochistan and Pakistan’s tribal areas is no longer considered a moot point. Not only is it recognised internationally, Manmohan Singh’s tacit admission, when he accepted that Balochistan was an issue between the two countries ‘as well as other areas’ in the joint statement issued by the two PMs after their meeting at Sharm-Al-Sheikh, has put all doubts to rest.

In the latest development, the top US and NATO commander in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal, in his initial assessment report on Afghanistan submitted to his president, in addition to asking for more troops, has suggested that Indian influence is ‘jeopardising US efforts to defeat the Taliban and Al Qaeda extremists’.

McChrystal has gone on to express the view that growing Indian political and economic influence in Afghanistan is likely to ‘exacerbate regional tensions’. He has also accused Pakistan’s ISI and Iran, of assisting some chapters of the Taliban. Quite obviously, his view is that Pakistan and Iran are seeking to counter India’s growing influence in Afghanistan, and can only do so by assisting those Afghans who are not favourably inclined to India; being neighbours, they are both directly concerned with the security situation there; this potpourri is obviously, in his own assessment, making his job difficult.

In the post 9/11 scenario, India has invested over a billion dollars in Afghanistan; it is by far, the largest regional donor. Helped by its excellent relations with Afghanistan’s northern neighbours in Central Asia, India has also established its first overseas military (air) base at Farkhor in Tajikistan; which is viewed as strategic encirclement by Pakistan and, from the American viewpoint, it could not have happened without support from Russia; which is beginning to reassert its influence in Central Asia; not to mention China, which is also expanding its interests in the region.

All of a sudden, Afghanistan seems to have come centre-stage in the many-sided ongoing version of the ‘great game’ — the only question is: For how long?

My assessment is that this situation is unlikely to last too long. Already there are individuals in the US who are suggesting a timetable for withdrawal from Afghanistan, the war is losing support of the American people, the expense of the war is mounting and there is no light at the end of the tunnel, and US forces have started working on an ‘exit strategy’.

So, what should Pakistan do? Traditionally, both India and Pakistan are involved in a tit for tat response and continue to do so. Given the opportunity, India assists anti-state elements in Balochistan and NWFP and, when some of them attack Mumbai, India wants to hold Pakistan responsible. Pakistan does what it can in Afghanistan, Indian Kashmir and, through other countries, assists the insurgents in Assam, Nagaland, and wherever possible.

This is an unending cycle; headed nowhere.

Pakistan would be far better off looking to consolidation for the future, particularly in the light of the distinct possibility that the US might not stay the course and bail out prematurely. Such an eventuality might seriously jeopardise the future of the Karzai-led government and recreate the anarchical situation that existed in the pre-Taliban era. But nature has its own way of finding its course for survival; whether through the Balkanisation of Afghanistan or the emergence of a dictator, strong enough to hold the country together. After all, despite the many complications and the strong presence of Al Qaeda, Iraq is finding its own route to survival — and doing a better job than under American occupation!

Perhaps a more sensible approach would be to select areas where Pakistan could assist friendly Afghan tribes in their reconstruction, particularly those that share our borders. I also think that it is high time we started mending fences with Iran; the oil/gas pipeline is a good beginning, but we have to be more proactive in this endeavour. Our political leadership has shied away from this for many years, for fear of displeasing our American and Saudi masters.

Our Saudi masters have finally demonstrated the strength of our mutual ties by refusing any worthwhile assistance in this, our hour of need. The American USD1.5 billion assistance annually will actually amount to about a quarter of the sum announced. What is more, they need us more than we need them, particularly if they bail out — a stable, secure Pakistan contesting terrorism and, with assistance from Iran, also helping stabilise parts of Afghanistan, will become an international necessity.

Alongside China, Pakistan should jointly seek to make inroads into the Central Asian countries. The most logical route for commerce from Central Asia is via Afghanistan through Pakistan. However, in the event that this route is unavailable, which it is, for the foreseeable future, the next most logical route is via China through Pakistan; particularly if the proposed rail link between Urumqi and Havelian (Pakistan) onto Gwadar is initiated.

It is time and more to liberate ourselves from the American apron-strings and look to our own future; a future of modest economic prosperity — very possible due to commerce from Central Asia, enhanced security, less dependence on aid, and very good governance — which is asking for the moon, but therein lies hope for the future.

We need friendly ties with India, but India seems reluctant. Let us back off a little and await developments to see when that is possible. An American withdrawal from Afghanistan might well be the catalyst for this as well.

This article is a modified version of one originally written for the daily ‘National’. The writer is a former vice president and founder of the Islamabad Policy Research Insititute (IPRI)\10\10\story_10-10-2009_pg3_4

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