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Pakistan’s triple front

February 03, 2013

PAKISTAN is at another inflexion point in its eventful history. It confronts strategic challenges simultaneously on three fronts: internal, western and eastern.

The internal challenge is most palpable: economic stagnation; growing poverty and inequality; looming financial collapse; pervasive corruption; regional disaffection and endemic terrorist and sectarian violence. A political system controlled by feudal and money power appears impervious to cleansing change.

In the coming days, three possible scenarios could unfold. Optimistically, the strict and fair implementation of the constitution’s Articles 62 and 63 could result in the election of new, honest and competent representatives. But the odds are that the entrenched system will beat back reform. Either as a consequence, or anticipating this, Pakistan may experience yet another military intervention to impose change.

If business continues as usual, the country confronts the real prospect of economic collapse and popular revolt. This will intensify the threats from the western and eastern fronts.

Afghanistan is the second front.

US President Obama is determined to withdraw quickly from “America’s longest war”. Unless managed well, for Pakistan, an Afghanistan without America could be as bad as one with the latter.

One factor in determining the future conditions in Afghanistan is whether the US leaves behind troops there and how many. There is an internal debate between the US generals, who want a large rump presence not only to train Afghans but to continue to conduct counterterrorism operations “against Al Qaeda”, and the White House, which does not want to throw good money and lives after bad in Afghanistan.

While a continued US military presence may help to prop up the regime left behind in Kabul, it would probably foreclose any possibility of a peace deal with the Afghan Taliban during and after the US withdrawal. Also, both Pakistan and Iran will construe this as posing a threat of future intervention.

Despite hopes engendered by recent informal engagements and Pakistan’s release of Taliban prisoners, the prospects of peace talks and a settlement between the US and the Taliban are not bright. Differences on both process and substance are too significant. The best one can hope for is a truce during US withdrawal. The real negotiations for the future governance of Afghanistan are likely to take place among the Afghan parties after America has left.

Pakistan will need to make a strategic choice: whether to revert to a frontal endeavour to secure a friendly government in Kabul; or to work with others for genuine national reconciliation in Afghanistan. The choice is obvious. Without peace in Afghanistan, there will be no peace on Pakistan’s western border regions.

But the choice is not entirely Pakistan’s. Other powers may decide to play the “hard game”. Pakistan’s internal turmoil and strategic confusion may encourage India, and some of its friends, to shut out Pakistan’s legitimate interests in Afghanistan and to persist in alleged interference in Balochistan and complicity in cross-border attacks against Pakistan.

Islamabad must make clear that its desire to contribute to genuine peace in Afghanistan is accompanied by a determination to respond vigorously to threats to its security, territorial integrity and vital interests.

The eastern challenge is by far the most pervasive.

The recent outburst of war talk from India should be a wake-up call for those among our leaders who naively thought that bonhomie and unilateral concessions by Pakistan are the path to peace with India.

The reality is that Pakistan and India have an adversarial relationship rooted in history; epitomised by Kashmir and other unresolved disputes; and manifested in the wars fought and their ongoing military rivalry.

On more than one occasion in recent years, Pakistan would have been attacked by India were it not a nuclear power. This strategic capability remains vital for Pakistan’s security. The current and prospective chaos in Pakistan could create a justification and an opportunity for those who have plans to neutralise this capability.

Without a serious dialogue on their disputes or their military relationship and nuclear doctrines — and with an uncontrolled arms race propelled by India’s Great Power ambitions — the danger of a Pakistan-India war happening sooner or later, and escalating to the nuclear level, is very real.

It is time for those who wish to avoid an epic catastrophe — particularly the US which has done the most to feed India’s delusions of grandeur — to bring the Indian hawks down to earth.

It is only through a sincere and sustained dialogue, based on mutual respect and reciprocity, that Pakistan and India can address their deep differences and manage their difficult relationship. Indian arrogance and belligerence and Pakistani turmoil and pusillanimity are a recipe for eventual disaster.

Today, more than ever, Pakistan needs wise and honest leadership to face its triple-front challenge.

The writer is a former Pakistan ambassador to the UN.