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The (un)manageable crisis

September 22, 2011

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COHERENCE isn't exactly something American and Pakistani policymakers excel at.

The Haqqanis are back in the news and, to hear the Americans tell it, Afghanistan would be a land of milk and honey were it not for the Haqqani thorn.

Fair enough or plain rubbish? Doesn't matter really.

It's what the Americans have decided for now and Pakistan will have to live with it until the Americans decide that the Haqqanis aren't the central problem after all.

Similarly, the official Pakistani response to American cage-rattling has been recycled, boilerplate stuff: go fix Afghanistan; interdict the Haqqanis on the Afghan side of the border if you want; we're doing enough from our side, etc.

But scratch the surface and a shift is visible: we have started to own the Haqqanis.

For years, the security establishment pretended it had nothing to do with the war in Afghanistan. We won't help them, but we won't harm them either was the official line on the Afghan Taliban.

And as the North Waziristan hub of terror grew, the security establishment even suggested it understood the necessity of an operation and that selective action in the non-Haqqani areas would begin once SWA was sorted out and the NWA environment had been 'shaped'.

But now the pretence has dropped. In private, circles close to the establishment readily admit what they used to dance around before: the Haqqanis are our assets; they are our boys; they are the ace up our sleeves.

(Of course, claiming total ownership is as much posturing as total denial once was: the Haqqanis may be amenable to listening to Pakistan, but they are no puppets on strings.)

Along with that ownership claim, there is a new willingness to sketch out a narrative of what has gone wrong in the region since 9/11, at least according to the army-led establishment.

This is the narrative.

Afghanistan is a mess, always was a mess and probably always will be a mess.

But turmoil is relative. As long as foreign forces are waging a full-blown war in Afghanistan, the turmoil will remain at its maximum.

For reasons of history and culture, the establishment narrative goes, the Afghans will never accept a massive foreign footprint on their soil.

Unhappily, the American superpower thought it could rewrite history. Its war machine felt it could defeat the Taliban and tame Afghanistan.

What was Pakistan to do as the mighty American bull snorted and dug at the ground with its hooves? Get out of the way and let it charge at the puny Talibs, that's what.

The result was always going to be the same. The cunning Afghans would dodge the charging American bull forever and plunge their rusty swords into its back whenever they could. The mightiest war machine in history would eventually be brought to its knees, exhausted and out of money and the will to fight.

But turmoil at its maximum in Afghanistan for an indefinite period isn't good for Pakistan, according to the narrative.

For one, the knock-on effects inside Pakistan would be difficult to control while jihad is going on next door.

For another, shaping an Afghanistan that is more favourable to Pakistan would prove infinitely more difficult while regional and global powers are all active in the Afghan equation.

But the Americans can be stubborn, so they needed to be encouraged to see common sense sooner than they would have of their own accord.

Hence, the helpful allies like the Haqqanis and others.

What happens to Afghanistan, and Pakistan, after the Americans respond to the only language they understand, the sting of a military defeat?

If they withdraw fully, the turmoil will subside and become more manageable for Pakistan, according to this narrative.

Factional warfare in Afghanistan wouldn't have the jihadi flavour that tends to turbo-charge turmoil. Afghanistan would still be messy — remember, it's always been, always will be a mess — but at least Pakistan could go to work then and figure out a way of managing the perma-crisis that is Afghanistan.

As for the turmoil in Pakistan, it is linked, like conducting atoms, to the jihadi turmoil in Afghanistan. Starve the fire here of the jihadi oxygen in Afghanistan and it will slowly burn itself out.

And what if the Americans opt to keep some troops back for a CT-heavy agenda, as is expected?

Well, no approach is perfect in a place like Afghanistan. With the foreign presence successfully diminished, Pakistan could recalibrate its approach to deal with the revamped American objective.

The focus, according to the establishment narrative, should be on what happens to Afghan society and its people while foreigners are stalking its land for prey: Afghan society will remain in a state of acute, though not always visible, agitation and that would have devastating consequences for Pakistan and its interests.

It's a neat narrative. An active American war machine in Afghanistan equals maximal turmoil and an unmanageable crisis. Remove the direct American element from the equation and Afghanistan would settle down to its old equilibrium: unrest and turmoil, but of the more manageable variety. Here's the problem: there's no real reason to believe that an Afghanistan in which the Taliban are ascendant, or big players at least, would be any more 'manageable' for Pakistan.

The Tailban tend to do what they like, and last time round it didn't quite work out to Pakistan's advantage.

Another problem: bringing down the jihad temperature in Afghanistan may not make it any easier for the establishment to deal with the domestic threat from militancy.

Militancy here probably no longer needs the oxygen of an Afghan jihad to sustain itself: Pakistan may continue to burn long after the second Afghan jihad is extinguished.

And yet another problem: does it make sense to count on eventual rationality from the American superpower in Afghanistan and to risk its ire for hastening what we believe is the inevitable?

The narrative may be neat, but its fallout could be anything but.

The writer is a member of staff

cyril.a@gmail.com