Walking a tightrope

Updated 26 Aug 2017


WALKING a tightrope is not for the fainthearted: sooner or later, a gust of wind can threaten your balance.

Ever since the Americans attacked and occupied Afghanistan in 2001, Pakistan has teetered on the edge of Washington’s tolerance for what it sees as our double-faced policy of running with the hares and hunting with the hounds. Time and again, policymakers in Islamabad and GHQ have been exhorted publicly and privately to stop supporting and sheltering the Afghan Taliban and the Haqqani network.

So much so that the mantra ‘Pakistan must do more’ has become background noise in our relationship with the US, and goes into one ear, and out the other. But now Trump has turned up the heat with his ‘new’ policy on Afghanistan.

However, apart from his threats to Pakistan, Trump is treading the same path taken by his predecessors: more troops who, according to the US president, will now ‘fight to win’. As opposed to earlier American efforts designed to lose?

The reality is that as long as we cannot seal off our border with Afghanistan completely, insurgents there of every stripe will continue to cross over to recuperate and rearm. Anybody who has travelled in some of the border areas will know how tough the terrain is, and how difficult it is to close it completely. By the same token, Afghan and US forces cannot prevent cross-border movement from the other side either.

History tells us that when one side has a neighbouring land where it can shelter, the fight can go on for a very long time. Thus, North Vietnam provided sanctuary and arms to the Vietcong. China did the same for North Korean forces during the Korean War in the early 1950s. Russia is today providing Ukranian separatists with bases and arms.

We have often been exhorted to stop supporting Afghan insurgents.

By contrast, the Tamil Tigers were cornered with their backs to the sea by the Sri Lankan army in 2009 and crushed. Although the cost in civilian lives was appallingly high, the 25-year civil war was over. And when it came to the crunch, nobody could help the Tamil Tigers, and they had nowhere to run to.

So what do these different conflicts teach us? Basically, it becomes next to impossible to defeat even a much weaker foe if there’s a neighbour willing to provide sanctuary. For years, we were accused of doing just that, for instance, providing housing and security to the ‘Quetta Shura’ in the Balochistan capital, despite official denials.

Earlier, as we developed nuclear capability in the 1970s and 1980s, we escaped US sanctions partly because of the war against the Soviets in Afghanistan, but also because we parried every question regarding our nuclear ambitions by claiming we were engaged in peaceful research.

And while plausible deniability has been honed to a fine art by our diplomats, it doesn’t work forever. Thus, when the Soviets withdrew from Afghanistan, US sanctions kicked in, sending Pakistan into a deep sulk.

However, there are lessons for Washington here as well: Pakistan’s security concerns do not necessarily overlap with America’s. The worst nightmare for our military planners is a nexus between India and Afghanistan that would encircle us. Thus, the security establishment feels it needs proxies to keep the pro-Indian Afghan government off-balance.

But this stance runs contrary to the US policy of strengthening Kabul so they can leave as soon as possible. After a trillion dollars wasted, over 2,000 lives lost and 16 years of stalemate, America needs a scapegoat, and we are the best candidate around.

Also, Washington does not see India as a threat to Pakistan: on the contrary, it sees Pakistan as the aggressor in the region, sending jihadis into India-held Kashmir and India to commit acts of terrorism, and shielding people like Masood Azhar and Hafiz Saeed. The truth is that Pakistan stands isolated, with only China and Russia bailing us out diplomatically.

In Washington, politicians and pundits lambast us regularly for the double game we are perceived as playing. In the eyes of the public there, once we accepted billions of dollars from Washington, we agreed to help their country, and not their enemies.

This might be a simplistic explanation for the pressure from Washington, but then Americans are not very good at nuanced messaging. We now have to somehow balance our security needs with America’s.

Although Trump’s invitation to India to help in Afghanistan will be a red flag to our generals, they now need to wake up and smell the coffee. The security paradigm in our neighbourhood is shifting, and we must take a cold, hard look at our regional policy.

We cannot afford to antagonise America as it is too big, too powerful, and under Trump, too unpredictable, to turn our back on what has been a productive relationship. Despite brave words about sovereignty, we still have a begging bowl in our hands.


Published in Dawn, August 26th, 2017