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A perilous endgame

June 04, 2012

THE Nato summit in Chicago would be a landmark in the history of the military alliance less because of the decisions taken about its future role, described by Washington as being the hub of global security, and more because of its endorsement of the American plan by which Nato-Isaf would end their combat role in 2013 and disengage very substantially from Afghanistan by the end of 2014.

Beyond that date, Nato would optimistically delegate Afghanistan’s security and stability to a large Afghan National Security Force to be raised, trained and sustained with foreign, largely American, money. The trumpet of success at the summit was so loud as to drown such voices as might have warned that decisions taken without a credible peace process already in place would have inherent vulnerabilities. Not surprisingly, independent observers have expressed fears that Afghanistan may be on the verge of being abandoned again. Given the fragility of the planned endgame, such misgivings must be taken seriously particularly by Pakistan that would share its consequences for good or bad.

Understandably, commentaries on the Chicago summit abound. This newspaper alone has run several of them. Ironically, the central theme of Afghanistan has often been eclipsed by apprehensions about the state of Pakistan-US relations confirming the perception that Afghanistan is at the heart of the current impasse in this relationship. Notably, most analysts have used the summit as a peg on which to hang their all-too-familiar views.

Consider the following from one commentary: “If we work sincerely using the levers we have to promote this intra-Afghan dialogue — one lever being the expulsion of those seeking to destabilise Afghanistan — we can succeed” (Dawn, May 23). If it is a clarion call to launch a military campaign in North Waziristan that will certainly last well beyond the magic year 2014, then it has to be sidestepped as unrealistic and dangerous.

More likely, what it seeks is an expulsion of individuals or groups of individuals whose mission is to destabilise Afghanistan. Given that no conduit for this particular ‘rendition’ exists, the recommendation remains equally impracticable. The individuals or groups would insist that they are engaged in a holy war of national liberation and train their guns ferociously on Pakistan as a long-term enemy.

Consider again the other end of the spectrum. From a highly respected source comes an apocalyptic vision of war between the United States and Pakistan with nuclear weapons thrown in for good measure. It sent a shudder down my spine; I could not but conclude that the scenario was sketched only to revive another old message: Pakistanis are mad enough to unleash the Armageddon in the region. The intervening space has mostly been taken by a lobby that includes retired diplomats and generals, media people and academics who probably genuinely believe that Pakistan has no option but to stay the course with the United States, whatever it may cost.

Another article (Dawn, May 28) advocated a policy of placating a furious America: “If public sentiment is truly driving Pakistan’s recent stances towards the US, then it is forcing the world’s sole superpower to lose patience with Islamabad...” Some of the ideas in this analysis were stated more bluntly by columnist Sadanand Dhume in the Wall Street Journal : “Pakistan’s dismal favourability rating in America means there’s no real political cost to bringing Islamabad to heel by stepping up drone strikes, giving it a diplomatic cold shoulder and withholding financial support — all at the same time.”

It is an oversimplification to think that Pakistan’s policy is being driven by uninformed public sentiment; a more pertinent cause is a paralysing frustration with and incomprehension of the US policies in the region. Islamabad faces isolation partly because, overburdened with the war on terror, it has simply not invested enough diplomatic capital and energy in diversifying its international relations.

The Chicago summit left Pakistan bruised and diminished. The protracted disconnect with the United States of which this was a consequence happened because of acts of omission and commission by both the countries. Enduring rifts in Washington and the progressive unravelling of its strategic vision for this region had Pakistan reeling with uncertainty.

Ironically, Pakistan heard of the Qatar experiment from a European power and not from the United States. Washington had simply not bothered to hold out any credible assurances to Pakistan about its strategic concerns. Islamabad made things worse with conflicting messages to Washington reflecting its perennial disarray. Pakistani leadership has been singularly inept at anticipating Washington’s responses accurately. The American media harped on the toughness with which Hillary Clinton handled President Zardari in Chicago. According to well-placed western diplomatic sources, he was so taken aback that he offered to take the Pakistan-US file away from his own foreign office and entrust it to a minister who sails close to Washington because of the compulsions of his job.

Pakistan would find it difficult to re-enter a US-sponsored peace process, even if it is revived at all. Nevertheless it should not rush to the judgment that the United States has decided to permanently lock it out of the Afghan endgame. Pakistan would also have to undertake contingency planning for the eventuality that Afghanistan ends up as a checkerboard of a few relatively secure cities and foreign bases and large swathes of countryside torn apart by many mini conflicts or even a real ethnic, tribal and ideological mega civil war. Since Pakistani armed forces would bear the brunt if the Nato-approved plan collapses, they should take a more proactive and transparent interest in formulating this contingency plan.

Pakistan is morally bound to assist Washington in implementing its exit strategy but only in ways that are affordable. A superpower is about to lose one of its biggest gambles in Afghanistan’s treacherous terrain. There are limits to which Pakistan can help salvage the situation for it. For a rational and viable policy, neither the appeasement bandwagon nor the chariot of nuke-toting hawks provides a safe vehicle.

The writer is a former foreign secretary.