Sleeping with the enemy
The spate of mutually irritating exchanges between Pakistan and the US in recent days is reaching fever pitch. Stung by forthright accusations of harbouring the Afghan Taliban and especially the Haqqani network in safe havens on Pakistani soil and supporting their attacks on US/Nato/Afghan forces across the border, the government and the military have hit back with equally provocative rejoinders. Prime Minister Gilani advises the US not to send ‘wrong messages’, Foreign Minister Khar warns of the loss of an ally, COAS General Kayani rejects Mullen’s charges. All three nevertheless end on a ‘constructive engagement’ note.
In Pakistan, there has been a lot of noise and fury, full of hollow slogans and chest thumping about our ‘sovereignty’ and how the 180 million people of Pakistan are prepared to defend it against any US-led ‘boots on the ground’ inside Pakistani territory. Sceptics view this chorus as delusionary, misplaced nationalism. Soberer minds recognise that the game is one of brinkmanship, not taking on the world’s sole superpower which, despite its economic troubles, packs the most powerful and overwhelming military punch in the world. Both sides are pushing the envelope to the maximum. The risk is that given the polarisation between public opinion in the two countries, this brinkmanship can spill over into actual confrontation if care is not exercised. There are those amongst us who think we have the US over a barrel and therefore whatever the bluster out of Washington, as the prime minister put it, the US “cannot live with us and cannot live without us”. There may be truth in that assertion, although how far this can be pushed must be a cause for concern. Two points need noting here. Arguably, if we continue to nettle the Americans through our support to extremists who are giving them a bloody nose every so often, the US will, if it is not already, explore options that reduce its logistical dependence on Pakistan. A by-product of this will be immediate and perhaps long term strictures on the political, economic and diplomatic front, which will hurt Pakistan gravely. When and if the US’s hands are freed from the Afghan quagmire, it will not look kindly on our shenanigans. Retribution is the leitmotif of empires. Two, even if the US finds ways to live without us, the question remains, can we live without the US (goodwill)? This is not a time for emotional froth, it is a time for sober reflection where Pakistan’s interests lie and whether these are compatible any longer with the dual policy adopted after 9/11, in which the blood lust in American eyes was sought to be assuaged by cracking down on and delivering al Qaeda, while preserving the Afghan Taliban for a protracted campaign of guerrilla and asymmetrical warfare that has been the hallmark of all resistance movements to foreign occupiers in Afghan history.
As the withdrawal date looms, domestic politics and the exigencies of seeking re-election could tie Obama’s hands to adhere to the declared course. However, a question mark has arisen over the feasibility of the withdrawal plan as announced. In some ways it is natural that in the phase of withdrawal, the Taliban and Haqqani network are stepping up their attacks to strengthen their position in post-withdrawal Afghanistan. The bypassing of the ISI by the US and the Afghan government in negotiations with the insurgents may also be a contributory factor in the escalating seriousness of the ‘state of siege’, particularly in Kabul, which the Afghan government and its allies would like to portray as their secure base. The more that myth is shattered by bold attacks on the US embassy, Nato headquarters and other ostensibly secure establishments, the more the withdrawal plan begins to look unrealistic. The coming vacuum of power has not, and does not seem likely to in the foreseeable future, been filled by the Afghan security forces. Withdrawal of foreign forces may be the harbinger therefore of either a long civil war or the quick running over of the anti-Taliban alliance. Potentially, a Taliban government in Kabul this time will spell trouble for Pakistan in the shape of the Pakistani Taliban. We are crafting the tools of our own destruction unthinkingly.