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Mainstream, VOL XLIX, No 41, October 1, 2011

US’ Pakistan Policy in Tatters

Wednesday 5 October 2011, by Apratim Mukarji


The assassination of the former President of Afghanistan and presently head of the High Peace Council, Burhanuddin Rabbani, on September 20 at his heavily secured residence in Kabul marks yet another step forward for Pakistan in its campaign to sabotage the efforts to open up a dialogue with the Taliban.

Does it sound cynical to jump to accuse Pakistan of having a hand in an assassination which was clearly the Taliban’s handiwork? However, the time has arrived to call a spade a spade, and many responsible and knowledgeable people across the world are already doing this.

Perceptive scholars of Afghanistan, among whom are former United States diplomats and military officers, have for some time been quite brutally frank about Pakistan’s open and continuing patronage of the Taliban. Following the capture and killing of the Al-Qaeda chief, Osama bin Laden, earlier this year not only well within Pakistan but also close to a military cantonment and capital Islamabad, the question of still allowing benefit of the doubt to that country has simply evaporated.

Listen to a former US ambassador and President H.W. Bush’s special envoy to the Afghan resistance (also an old India hand and well-known in New Delhi), Peter Tomsen, saying: “The main source of the ongoing conflict will remain at Pakistani military headquarters in Rawalpindi. Washington and its coalition partners must proceed on the basis that their Afghan strategy and Pakistan’s Afghan strategy are in conflict.The coalition and the international community are trying to stabilise Afghanistan and suppress terrorism.Pakistan’s military continues to pursue Zia-ul-Haq’s vision, conducting its proxy war in Afghanistan and maintaining links to Pakistan-based terrorist groups that stoke regional and global instability and terrorism.” (‘The Wars of Afghanistan Messianic Terrorism, Tribal Conflicts, and The Failures of Great Powers’, Public Affairs, New York, 2011, p. 692)

And now to another eminent scholar of terrorism and South Asian politics, George Perkovitch, presently Vice-President for Studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and author of a forthcoming Carnegie publication entitled “Stop Enabling Pakistan’s Dangerous Dysfunction”,: “As the United States begins scale back its fighting role in Afghanistan, it needs to confront the more important question of Pakistan’s future. If Pakistan is dangerously dysfunctional, Washington helped it get that way. Withdrawal from Afghanistan means that the US will be less dependant on Pakistani supply lines into that country, giving Washington a rare opportunity to dramatically revise US policies and practices in the strategically important nation….Washington’s collusion with the Pakistani security establishment has amounted to enablement—the indulgence and augmentation of a friend’s self-destructive outlook and actions.” (‘A New Pakistan’, Los Angeles Times, September 19, 2011)

Fortunately, there is increasing evidence of the Obama Administration coming to terms with the fundamental flaws in the traditional US policy towards Pakistan. While Washington D.C. had been brutally frank with the establishment in Islamabad over the last few years, the difference now is that there are growing public demons-trations of its exasperation with the latter’s continuing recalcitrance. The question that has already come up in various fora is: if the US Administration would gradually overhaul its Pakistan policy in core and substance.

That would be a major development not only for the US foreign policy but for the South Asian region as well. While there has been no indication of any such shift in policy, the only logical conclusion one could draw from the diplomatic and security-related exchanges between the two countries is that it is now practically impossible for the US Government to ignore the reality and remain steadfast in continuing with the traditional Pakistan policy.

What indeed has been the traditional US policy towards Pakistan? The United States co-opted Pakistan into its military camp and diplomatic alliance during the early days of the Cold War after India adopted its non-alignment doctrine opting for maintaining an equidistance between the two military blocs. In the US point of view, however, India in effect chose to side with the Soviet bloc. Pakistan, on its part, was only too eager to get close to the US principally to score militarily and diplomatically over India, a process in which the United Kingdom happily played a catalystic role. Sixty years later, this remains the central point of the US-Pakistan relations.

At the same time, there has been a sea-change in India-US relations, from a distant and frequently hostile relationship to one of the warmest relationships for both the countries, engineered in the main by India’s emergence as an economic power. This dramatically altered the situation, coupled with Pakistan’s deeply ingrained alliance with political Islam and global terrorism—beginning with the promotion and patronage of the Taliban in Afghanistan and facilitating the conversion of the North-West Frontier Province, Waziristan and the border areas with Afghanistan into the largest and safest base for global terrorism and thereby positioning Pakistan today as the most dangerous source-country for attacks on US and Western interests, now needs to be reflected in a new and vastly altered US policy toward Pakistan.

THERE is still enormous ignorance about Pakistan’s current role in Afghanistan, and this is well-reflected in the published reactions to the assassination of Prof Rabbani. Almost all public comments view this incident as yet another set-back for the efforts to wean away “reasonable” elements within the Taliban from terrorism as a first step towards facilitating a broader-based government and eventual indigenisation of the security system. In short, to explore the potentially most beneficial ways and means of strengthening the Afghan Government and setting up of a wider and effective rule of law in the country.

In the view of the Pakistani military establishment, Pakistan is the only country which will not benefit from such a scenario. Why so? For, this means nothing but a weakening of the Taliban, which runs counter to Pakistan’s strategy which is to help the Taliban gain from strength to strength and facilitate the re-emergence of Pakistan as the principal player in Afghanistan in the near future. The Pakistan military wishes to see nothing short of the Taliban being restored to power in Afghanistan.

The spate of assassinations in recent months clearly point towards a well-plannned programme to weaken the Hamid Karzai Government (which is clearly the aim of both the Taliban and Pakistani military) and neutralise and deplete the support base for India in Afghanistan (which is Pakistan’s agenda).

For the Pakistan Army headquarters in Rawalpindi, there are already danger signals emanating from an increasingly frustrated Washington D.C. that India may be urged to play a wider role in Afghanistan than it has so far agreed to play. New Delhi has been consistent in stating that it wishes to play an effective role in the development process and nothing beyond it. But the Obama Administration apparently believes that India—along with Russia, China and Iran—will increasingly play a significant role in expanding, stabilising and securing the writ of the state in Afghanistan even as the US and coalition roles are diminished over the next few years. It is another matter that none of the quartet has betrayed any such intention on its part till date, and China in particular remains strongly averse to any such suggestions.

But Pakistan will take no chance, and is determined to secure an unquestioned base in Kabul before the ground situation in Afghanistan begins to change against its interests. Therefore, its military will continue to plan and help execute more terrorist attacks and assassinations of key anti-Taliban Afghans.

While this realisation must have percolated in the US Administration, there is no sign yet of any steps to begin a policy change, at least not yet. On the contrary, the current US military strategy is to continue with “pinpointed raids” meaning clusters of raids by the US Special Operations Forces aimed at devastating the Taliban command structure. Pentagon, which is the architect and practitioner of the US’ Pakistan policy, continues to believe that only more “sustained and punishing” military blows will eventually induce the Taliban to talk peace. The Pakistani military establishment is definitely out of its purview and calculations.

Therefore, while there is increasing awareness in US academia and among former practitioners of US diplomacy that it is Pakistan which needs to be dealt with before the Taliban can be made to bow, the Obama Administration and Pentagon continue to be in denial.

Apratim Mukarji is an analyst of South and Central Asian affairs.

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