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Our Afghan policy

July 17, 2012

THE decision to re-open transit routes for Nato supplies can be defended on a single count: Pakistan in its current state — dysfunctional economy, social disarray, worn-out infrastructure and, above all, a fragmented political class disconnected from the people — cannot afford the luxury of international isolation.

The outcome has also enabled Pakistan to escape from a self-created conundrum over the issue. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has tacitly acquiesced in her Pakistani counterpart fudging portions of her artful statement on issues like the ‘apology’, the equal acknowledging of mistakes that led to the tragedy at Salala and the curious case of an astronomically inflated transit fee.

What may amaze even Ms Clinton, though, is the triumphalism with which Hina Rabbani Khar has claimed the beginning of a new relationship with the United States. What we have witnessed is a thaw without the promise of an impending spring. Pakistan may get the long overdue reimbursement of more than a billion dollars in coalition support funds. Washington has, however, lost no time in demanding action against the Haqqani network, rendering even these transactional relations fragile.

For many of us the case for ending the impasse over transit routes was strengthened by Pakistan’s need to focus on its Afghan policy. The situation in Afghanistan is, to say the least, dynamic, and may gravitate towards greater crises, including civil war or many mini civil wars. Pakistan must anticipate possible mutations of the situation and decide which Afghan developments warrant engagement and which ones don’t.

Washington is re-defining its objectives in Afghanistan within the larger context of the strategic reconfiguration of Asia that it seeks. It will maintain an effective military presence in Afghanistan legitimised by treaties with Kabul. International financing is being secured for the Afghan National Army (ANA), which would ostensibly take over counterinsurgency responsibilities but in practice become a multi-tasked proxy force. Much would also depend on the modalities of disbursing the assistance of $16bn pledged at the Tokyo conference; the chaotic inflow of foreign money in the last decade introduced grave distortions into the Afghan body politic. If current trends persist, as much money will flow out of Kabul as comes in. Not to be forgotten is the fact that Afghanistan is a new destination in the global competition for energy resources and mineral wealth.

Consider also that the principal purpose of the strategic reconfiguration of Asia is the containment of China. America’s pivot to the Pacific entails the commitment of substantial military resources as well as diplomatic initiatives to build economic and trading communities that do not include that country. Washington seeks to reverse the gravitational pull that is binding Asian states economically to China, and it knows that its new policy will generate tensions, some of which may become explosive.

In this tangled strategic design there is a preferred place for Japan and India, even though China is India’s second largest trading partner, while Pakistan is viewed with distrust, if not as an obstacle. Washington’s Iran policy may destabilise the region further. In Pakistan’s case it will harden American opposition to projects such as the Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline.

Pakistan should also feel concerned that ground realities militate against the success of Washington’s revised Afghan project and that there will be blowback. The US has often relied on ill-conceived improvisation. There is the ethnic imbalance in the ANA, with a number of officers reportedly focused on the coming internal conflict. They may thwart the current effort of some senior Pashtun and Tajik officers to create a truly national ethos in the institution.

Another improvisation now coming home to roost is the policy of encouraging local militias to fight the Taliban with Western arms and money. By now these militias control taxes, tolls, the allocation of financial opportunities and the administration of justice. The scheme has spawned a new, lower order of warlords existing alongside traditional ones. Pakistan must draw up contingency plans for the spillover of a possible internecine conflict in Afghanistan.

But Pakistan’s policy formulation is often hindered by three factors. One, the political class has poor knowledge of Afghan affairs. Two, Washington remains ambivalent about Pakistan’s role; it wants to use the military to whittle down the Haqqanis without any substantive Pakistani role in developing a post-2014 order. Three, the internal discourse in Pakistan is hampered by old biases. In particular, so-called liberals still strive to keep the military on the back foot by harping on the long-discarded concept of strategic depth. They should at least read Gen Kayani’s memo to Nato countries recently published by Steve Coll in The New Yorker.

Ours is a world in flux. The only constant in our Afghan policy should be a quest for a relationship of trust, mutual assistance and cooperation with Afghanistan. At the tactical level, Pakistan will have to develop flexible but well-calibrated and disciplined responses.

When it comes to the US, Pakistan and America have different default settings on Afghanistan. Ms Clinton understandably bestows the recent transactional progress with the aura of a new beginning. Pakistan’s Foreign Office faithfully amplifies it. But powerful elements in the American establishment, Congress, the analyst community and the media continue to treat Pakistan as a hindrance to American strategic objectives.

If Pakistan can assist Kabul in developing a meaningful dialogue with the Taliban and other insurgent entities, it should do so ungrudgingly. It should also sound out every regional capital, including New Delhi, to find out if regional cooperation on Afghanistan can gain any traction. Washington seems to be settling for a degree of manageable instability in Afghanistan dealt with by the ANA and American special forces. Such a scenario will hurt the interests of most regional states. For Pakistan, it will be a nightmare.

The writer is a former foreign secretary.