It is rather remarkable that, ten years after having drawn Pakistan into its war in Afghanistan, the US is still not clear on the motivations that underlie Pakistan’s stance in this war, where they’re coming from, where they’re going. This doesn’t just apply to the self-styled ‘experts’ in Washington’s numerous think tanks; it also seems to apply, surprisingly, to administration policy makers.
Typifying this confusion is the US government’s invention of the AfPak term to describe the theatre in which the war is going on. A term that had to be hastily dropped by officials, at least for public use, after Pakistan made it clear that it wasn’t amused. However, the US still thinks of it as the AfPak war, in which Pakistan’s function is to backstop and bolster US operations in Afghanistan. The generals conducting that war find it convenient to ascribe their lack of success to Pakistan’s failure to deliver, and keep demanding that Washington do something about it.
This has led to the US alternately trying the carrot and the stick to get Pakistan to meet its requirements. Sometimes, money in the billions is offered as aid, on other occasions officials go to Islamabad, pound the table and make dire threats. So far, nothing seems to have really worked. The Pakistanis have been promising to clean up North Waziristan (as the US demands) for a long time, but won’t say exactly when. In public, US officials make sweet talk about strategic partnerships and such, in private, they probably grind their teeth and use unprintable language. It might be more constructive if they understood the problem they are dealing with.
The basic reality is that, in return for the substantial aid that the US is providing it, Pakistan will go along with US needs and requirements as far as it can, but it will not cross the red line where its own security is jeopardised. That line also extends to North Waziristan at present (as discussed below). The other red line for Pakistan, the one it will not let any other country (including the US) cross, is its sovereignty.
Pakistan considers the biggest (perhaps the only) threat to its security comes from India. Its other major border (longer even than the one with India) is that with Afghanistan. Even though this border is not well defined in part, and sometimes disputed, Afghanistan in itself is not considered a security threat by Pakistan. However, it becomes a threat when it is under the control (or even influence) of a hostile power (exactly what the British thought when they ruled India). That is why Pakistan played such an active role in the war to oust Soviet troops from Afghanistan in the 1980s. Not because of the money the US gave it, but for its own security.
The current threat that Pakistan sees arising from Afghanistan is from the influence that India has acquired there, and the possibility of that increasing in the future. Pakistan will do whatever it takes to prevent Afghanistan from becoming an Indian client state. It would like, if possible, to ensure a future Afghanistan that is friendly, and it will do what is possible to bring that about. If that doesn’t happen, it will be content with a neutral Afghanistan. But it will not allow Afghanistan to become a hostile country.
The US AfPak war is over. Everyone knows that ‒ the Afghans, the regional powers, the Europeans, and now even the Americans (though some Permanent Warriors still have difficulty admitting it). So, what did it achieve, this 10-year war that killed and maimed tens of thousands of people, including lots of young Americans, and cost the US billions upon billions of dollars? About all it did was to knock down the Afghan chessboard, which deep war weariness in the country had enabled the Taliban to stabilize.
Now the board is being set up again, the Afghan pieces are manoeuvring to place themselves in the best opening positions, while the outside players are picking the pieces they are going to back. The US finds itself left with little choice but to back Hamid Karzai, upon whom it cannot fully rely. Karzai is also supported by India, which also backs some of the old Northern Alliance leaders. Iran has its players in the Karzai administration, and, possibly, Gulbuddin Hikmatyar in the insurgency. Pakistan will back the Taliban and the Haqqani insurgent groups.
Based upon its past experience, Pakistan would be under no illusion that its protection and support of the Taliban and the Haqqani insurgents would translate into any kind of allegiance if they established themselves in Afghanistan. All it could count on would be their goodwill. The major attraction they have for Pakistan is that they can be relied upon to never come under the influence of India or Russia or the US. An Afghanistan ruled by them, or one in which they had adequate say, would not be a security worry for Pakistan. That is why it has a vital interest in their being strong players in the game about to begin.
Looked at from this angle, what the US is asking Pakistan to do is to attack and weaken its own pieces in the upcoming Afghan power game in order to strengthen the US’s (and India’s) piece ‒ Hamid Karzai. It is quite unrealistic to expect that Pakistan will thus undermine its own future security, whatever bribes and bullying the US resorts to. Impatient with Washington’s inability to get results, Gen Petraeus recently attacked the Haqqani group in North Waziristan ‒ without Pakistani permission. This crossed the second of Pakistan’s red lines ‒ its sovereignty ‒ and the response was immediate, and crushing : the US supply line into Afghanistan was cut. That particular tactic now appears to be effectively closed for the US.
Some time back Pakistan made an interesting proposal to the US : instead of depending on Karzai to protect and further future US interests in Afghanistan, why not support Pakistan, which would undertake to do so? Naturally, the ‘world’s only superpower’ gave that short shrift. That leaves the US playing a weak hand in the coming Great Game. Its player, Karzai, could easily turn rogue, or he could lose effective power. Addicted to the use of military force, the US probably thinks it can restore the balance by employing it again, this time in ‘surgical strikes’. Nothing is more likely to ensure that this whole area remains a continuing threat to US security.
The bottom line about AfPak would appear to be this. The US cannot win there ‒ because nobody can, nobody ever has. And, Pakistan cannot lose ‒ because it cannot afford to, and because geography and history are on its side.
© FB Ali (Oct 2010)