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Pakistan's dilemma

Publication Date : 04-02-2013

 

The Pakistani establishment has been as much a victim of its successes as it has of its failures over the years. The Afghan policy during the 1990s that manufactured the Afghan Taliban’s rise to power and shut India out of Afghanistan was celebrated as a victory.

We are now living through the blowback it created.

At Kargil, the plan was to launch a limited tactical operation but the ease with which the infiltrators managed to capture unattended peaks led the advance to go well beyond its remit. The result was that Pakistan lost tremendous international standing and its stance on Kashmir has since never been entertained seriously.

Afghanistan is likely to put the establishment to the test again.

Virtually all of Pakistan’s actions in the "endgame" phase in Afghanistan can be explained by one overriding objective: pushing for a reconciliation process in Afghanistan which includes the Afghan Taliban, gives their demands adequate weight, and consequently allows them space in a power-sharing structure post-2014. Pakistan’s ideal is to get the Taliban in but not on top.

Any military solution in Afghanistan would go against this outlook. Neither a US military victory that would degrade and split the Taliban nor a Taliban triumph that would inevitably be preceded by a bloody civil war — with the attendant negative spillover into Pakistan — and be seen as a success of the Islamist ideology could be attractive.

Pakistan’s propensity to allow the Taliban sanctuaries to continue perpetrating violence in Afghanistan coupled with the multiple policy failures of the international coalition and Afghan government have brought the on-ground reality closer to the establishment’s desired outcome. The quest for military victory for the US-led campaign is all but over.

Moreover, recent developments clearly suggest that all capitals, including Islamabad, are scrambling to get a reconciliation process going. The tough talk vis-à-vis the Taliban is giving way to non-opposition to provocative plans that seek to give the Taliban a way back into the power structure while allowing Pakistan a role to facilitate the process.

The “road map to peace plan” floated by the High Peace Council is a pertinent example. Indeed, it is becoming increasingly clear that the realistic options at this point seem closer to Pakistan’s position than to the somewhat more hopeful end-results touted by Western capitals and Kabul.

If the present trend continues, the Pakistani decision-makers may well get an outcome they could consider their latest tactical victory. Herein lies the establishment’s dilemma.

First, while it may have moderated its position from the pre-9/11 days, the change does not constitute the much-touted strategic shift. The strategy still relies on the Afghan Taliban and even though the biggest driver of policy today is the concern about domestic instability, Pakistan’s actions (or in some cases the lack thereof) have still been Machiavellian and are partly responsible for allowing the Taliban insurgency to fester.

The official line is that once the Afghan Taliban vacate the sanctuaries, Pakistan will be able to go after the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan in a decisive manner. Till then, however, we will spare the Pakistani Taliban’s centre of gravity in North Waziristan; de facto, the state has accepted a certain level of violence and the TTP’s ability to continue spreading its ideology as a fait accompli in the interim.

Worse yet, how can we say that the Afghan Taliban, relieved of Pakistani hospitality post-2014, will not back the TTP? They may have shown restraint in this regard thus far but they have never denied ideological linkages. In fact, their links are well-known; the establishment even uses the Haqqani network to rein in the TTP from time to time.

As for the Quetta Shura, it is important to recall that even during the 1990s, when push came to shove, Mullah Omar’s regime didn’t budge — not on the Durand Line issue, not on the Bamiyan Buddhas, and not even when Pakistan asked for sectarian militants to be handed over. With the Quetta Shura’s resentment towards the ISI only having grown over the past decade, why could the same, or even worse, not happen this time round?

But let us assume that the Taliban, given their own constraints and dependence on Pakistan, do not hit back in this manner. What about the other extreme? Would some in the establishment get carried away and see the Afghan situation as a window of opportunity to spread Pakistan’s influence westward again?

Will this lead a segment of the establishment to either redeploy a ‘forward policy’ or to force the Haqqani network and Quetta Shura to do their proxy bidding? Will some be tempted to do unto India what the establishment feels India has done to it in the past 10 years, i.e. fish in troubled waters?

The good news is that the establishment’s appetite for such shenanigans is much less than before. There isn’t any sense of triumph or much longing for ‘victory’ in Afghanistan; there is more worry, concern and panic about the situation.

This may not be enough, however, to keep the most adventurist from being tempted when the opportunity arises.

What Pakistan desperately needs is a change in mindset on the Taliban. A complete divorce from any group espousing Islamist ideology must be a primary long-term objective.

Between now and 2014, Pakistan must, at the very least, pressure the Afghan Taliban to enter negotiations and agree on a power-sharing arrangement with other Afghan political factions. It must signal its unwillingness to allow the Taliban to continue waging war from its territory once serious negotiations are under way.

Moreover, Islamabad must work to moderate the Taliban. For this, it ought to view northern political factions in Afghanistan (that will also be part of post-2014 Kabul according to the establishment’s vision) as partners, not opponents. An unchecked Taliban presence on Pakistani borders will invite an ideological spillover into a Pakistan that is far more susceptible to such thinking than it was in the 1980s and 1990s.

Is there another tactical victory in the making for the establishment? If so, will it again turn into a strategic blunder? Or has the establishment learnt from the past? We will know soon.

The writer is South Asia adviser at the US Institute of Peace, Washington, D.C.

 

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