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The trilateral consultations among the United States, Pakistan and Afghanistan, held in Washington on May 7-8, offer a rare moment of truth about regional security and stability. In hosting the event, the U.S. had three main objectives: to get Kabul and Islamabad to work together closely; to reiterate the Obama administration’s commitment that it would not “cut and run” from the war in Afghanistan, which is otherwise far from generating optimism; and to launch the trilateral consultations format as part of the U.S.’ new Afghan strategy.
The U.S. spokesman portrayed the talks, involving top diplomats and military and intelligence officials, as “very constructive” and “very substantive.” The concrete decisions taken at the conclave include continuance of the cross-border (Pashtun) Jirga process involving the governments and civil societies, opening of two Border Coordination Centres in Kandahar and FATA, the launch of a Regional Infrastructure and Trade Development Initiative and the scheduling of the next trilateral consultations “for this fall.” Equally, the statement of intention to pursue within this year the finalisation of a new Afghan-Pakistan transit trade treaty to replace the 1965 agreement and, secondly, to pursue a (Afghan-Pakistan) Joint Action Plan “outlining areas of common concern on issues of counter-terrorism, counter-narcotics, law enforcement, border security and management, and rule of law and to look for ways to increase cooperation” merits attention for its long-term strategic implications (emphasis added).
The Obama administration counts on pinning down Pakistan to a military campaign against extremists. On the eve of the Washington consultations, the Pakistan military launched a high-profile operation against the extremists in the Swat region. The operation commenced against the political backdrop of an apocalyptic threat posed by the Taliban to the Pakistani state. Senior U.S. officials underscored the threat perceptions in existential terms as threatening Pakistan’s survival. Yet, they apparently fell on deaf ears. What probably swung the case was the ultimate threat on April 30 by Centcom commander Gen. David Petraeus of dramatic changes in U.S. policy if the Pakistani government and military did not take more concrete action within the next two weeks. The “psywar” helped. The slide in the Pakistani thinking is supposed to have been sparked by an ill-advised slur against democracy by Sufi Mohammed, which ended his détente with Pakistan’s Islamist politicians (who enjoy links with the security establishment) and set the stage for a war of words that questioned the Taliban’s religious legitimacy. At any rate, the Pakistani elite is no longer questioning the wisdom of countering the militants with force.
In turn, the timely launch of the military operations helps the Obama administration steer through the U.S. Congress its massive aid package for Islamabad. The U.S. is almost doubling its military aid from $400 million to $700 million annually and is tripling non-military aid to $7.5 billion through a five-year period. All this is in addition to the multibillion-dollar pledges made at the Aid Conference in Tokyo last month by the international community on Washington’s urging. Clearly, the U.S. expects the huge volumes of budgetary support to spur the Pakistani leadership into a feisty participation in the U.S. war strategy. However, the State Department spokesman admitted that U.S. Congressmen voiced “very serious concerns about the [Pakistani] strategies” in dealing with extremists and that “there are differences of opinion on the Hill about the situation in Pakistan and Afghanistan.”
Any attempt to link the actual Pakistani performance in the war to the generous U.S. financial grant will run into problems. The Pakistani military has no record of caving in to overt U.S. pressure. To quote U.S. Joint Chiefs chairman Admiral Mike Mullen: “My experience is that knocking them [Pakistani generals] hard isn’t going to work. The harder we push, the further away they get.” Besides, Islamabad is vastly experienced in managing its equations with Washington and its multiple centres of power.
The Pakistani military operation is in its early stages. Of course, there would be nothing like the military handing out a quick, lethal defeat to the Taliban in Swat and then moving on to the deadly business of confronting the al-Qaeda and its affiliates entrenched in the inaccessible mountains of North and South Waziristan. But quick success in Swat is a long-shot scenario. After initial success, the military may get bogged down in the picturesque hills and valleys of Swat and the Taliban may resort to guerrilla tactics or launch diversionary attacks elsewhere in Pakistan. In such a scenario, civilian casualties will mount and public support for the campaign could wane. The government might get caught up again in the disagreement over the value of dialogue and confrontation. However, in sheer frustration, the U.S. may then step up its intervention, which could have serious consequences for regional security. Meanwhile, Mr. Obama’s expected re-election bid beginning by end-2011 will introduce an altogether new element in the not-too-distant future.
All in all, therefore, the implications of his regional policy are very serious. On the one hand, India should not demur when the U.S. builds up the sinews of the Pakistani military. On the other, Washington expects New Delhi to keep tensions under check so that Islamabad can focus on the operation against the militants and redeploy its resources on the eastern border. But herein lies the catch. According to estimates, the half-a-million-strong Pakistan Army has so far shifted about 6,000 troops from the border with India. As U.S. Defence Secretary Robert Gates told Fareed Zakaria in a CNN interview on May 5, the Pakistani strategic focus is overwhelmingly still on India. “For 60 years Pakistan has regarded India as its existential threat, as the main enemy. And its forces are trained to deal with that threat. That’s where it has the bulk of its army and the bulk of its military capability,” Mr. Gates admitted. Interestingly, he has also suggested that there is a conflict between the Pakistani and U.S. priorities. He said the Pakistani establishment was not particularly perturbed at an Islamist threat from the Pashtuns, since the Punjabis “so outnumber the Pashtuns that they’ve always felt that if it really got serious, it was a problem they could take care of.”
What it adds up to is that the basic premise of the Obama administration’s “AfPak” strategy itself seems flawed. Is the Pakistani military operation sustainable over a period of time? The fact of the matter is that national cohesion is lacking within Pakistan. And the military will be loath to go out on a limb and fundamentally change its view of its strategic interests, however much Washington pulls strings in Rawalpindi or leans on the civilian leadership in Islamabad and brings to bear Saudi pressure on the political opposition in Lahore. Already there are signs of internal disagreement among key elites who are creatures of habit. Again, Islamism runs into the Pakistani military and $700 million cannot dilute deep-rooted beliefs and tenets. Nor can it be overlooked that it is not in anyone’s power to change Pakistan’s strategic assessment of its own security interests. What we see as the Islamist surge in the border regions of Pakistan is viewed differently in the Pakistani Army’s doctrine.
The Taliban will remain a strategic asset for the Pakistani security establishment and degrading it is not in Pakistan’s interest when the imponderables are too many on the Afghan chessboard, no matter the transformative goals of last week’s Kabul-Islamabad bonhomie generated momentarily under Mr. Obama’s watchful eye. This is where the militants (and their Pakistani mentors) might choose to test the water. There is a very real danger in the coming months of another 26/11-type terrorist attack in India to spark an India-Pakistan confrontation.
The U.S. strategy is obviously based on self-interest, but the U.S. intentions are genuinely unclear. Conceivably, Washington wants the locus of the war to shift to the Pakistani territory so that western casualties will remain low and NATO’s open-ended continuance in Afghanistan within the geopolitical framework of the U.S.’ “Great Central Asia” strategy will not become problematic. India faces multiple challenges in this complex situation. Certainly, resumption of the composite dialogue with Pakistan ought to be a priority.
But India also needs to energise its moribund regional diplomacy. First off, we need to recapture the verve, so to speak, in India’s relationship with Iran and Russia, which constitute a factor of regional stability. Our outlook on the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation too must radically change. The SCO provides a useful forum to engage China and Pakistan on issues of regional security. The SCO processes on the stabilisation of Afghanistan serve India’s interests. Elevating our attendance at the forthcoming SCO summit meeting in Moscow in July to the level of Prime Minister will be a good beginning.
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