Sunday, October 9, 2016

Business Recorder Column for Oct 11, 2016

Day of the proxies over? Rashed Rahman The uprising in Indian Held Kashmir (IHK) that erupted more than three months ago in the wake of Kashmiri militant leader Burhanuddin Wani’s killing has set off ripples that have profoundly affected the region and exposed the risks emerging for Pakistan on the global stage. Although the uprising was clearly an indigenous Kashmiri outburst of protest at Wani’s killing, further fuelled by India’s heavy-handed repression of unarmed protestors, New Delhi attempted the usual tactic of dumping responsibility onto Pakistan. Although initially India found it hard going to convince the world of this diversionary gambit, the attack in Uri that killed 18 Indian soldiers just days before Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s address to the UN General Assembly proved a setback for Pakistan’s attempts at reaching out to the world community to highlight the longstanding Kashmir problem and India’s obdurate unwillingness to contemplate a resolution of the conflict. The Uri attack shifted global attention from the bloody repression by India against the Kashmiri protestors to cross-border ‘terrorism’ and Pakistan’s role in continuing the strategy of using non-state proxies for foreign policy goals in its neighbourhood, east and west. The US, our love-hate ‘ally’, had been sending signals of its unhappiness at this continuing stance for some time, but it was not being taken as seriously as it deserved. The penny finally dropped when Islamabad attempted to reach out to world capitals and the UN in a diplomatic offensive aimed at putting India in the dock vis-a-vis Kashmir and garnering support for Pakistan’s position. The diplomatic offensive proved a spectacular failure. Everywhere Pakistan’s ambassadors and special representatives attempted persuasion, they ran up against a brick wall of scepticism and questions about Pakistan’s continuing reliance on non-state proxies in IHK and Afghanistan. Groups such as the Hafiz Saeed-led Lashkar-e-Tayyaba and Masood Azhar-led Jaish-e-Mohammad in the IHK context and the Haqqani network in the Afghanistan context proved insurmountable obstacles to a sympathetic hearing for Islamabad’s envoys. These developments seem to have persuaded the PML-N government to go on the political offensive at home to drive home to the security establishment the by now undeniable truth that the day of the proxies is done. Unless there is a change in the longstanding policy of using proxies for foreign strategic reasons, the argument goes, Pakistan will not be able to avoid international isolation, if it is not there already. Whether the media reports (and their subsequent denial by the government) of some blunt talking between the civilian and military sides of the equation on this reality are accurate or not, the old adage of no smoke without fire may apply. What is being ‘debated’ between the two components of the civil-military divide is of course of long duration and a logical outcome of the persistence of the proxies strategy far beyond its sell-by date. Consider. The world changed beyond recognition after 9/11. Prescient observers were predicting since that fateful day in 2001 that these changes would profoundly affect Pakistan. However, complacency and policy inertia meant the warnings were not heeded. One, it was obvious that Musharraf, despite saying ‘yes sir’ to the US’s war on terror after a threatening phone call from Washington, had decided Pakistan’s strategic stakes in Afghanistan dictated a duality of policy whereby the blood-lust in the Americans’ eye would be satisfied by moving against al Qaeda while saving the fleeing Afghan Taliban by providing safe havens on Pakistani soil for a rainy day. The calculation may have been that like all invaders and occupiers of Afghanistan in the past, the Americans would eventually tire of an endless war and Pakistan and its Afghan Taliban proxies would be back in business. But then US President George W Bush ‘gifted’ our security establishment the Iraq diversion in 2003, opening the door for an incremental uptick in the sputtering Afghan Taliban insurgency. This produced incremental irritation in Washington, summed up in the ad nauseam repetition of the ‘do more’ mantra, which essentially translated as denying the Afghan Taliban the safe havens on Pakistani soil from which they could operate with impunity. Two, informed opinion had been warning since 9/11 that the unprecedented attack on US soil would expand the terrorism ‘basket’ to include all movements worldwide composed of non-state forces waging armed struggle, irrespective of the political context or aims of such movements. That unfortunately included the armed struggle in IHK that had been begun in 1989. Islamabad failed to heed the warnings about the long-term alienation of Washington because of the duality at the heart of our Afghan policy and our blithe ignoring of the perils of continuing to allow Kashmiri militant groups to operate from Pakistani soil or Azad Kashmir. The result was policy paralysis that locked Pakistan into the proxies box without any serious review of the pros and cons of the strategy in the light of the changed geo-politics of the post-9/11 world. The chickens of that policy inertia/paralysis are now coming home to roost. Pakistan may or may not be ‘isolated’ (the saving grace perhaps being Washington’s perceived need to retain Pakistan as a strategic ally despite its discontents), but unless it changes course in revisiting the costs and benefits of persisting with its armed proxies strategy on both its eastern and western borders, that looms as the almost inevitable outcome. Truly then, the day of the proxies may be over, and the sooner our civilian and military leadership forge a consensus on how to respond to the international, regional and neighbourhood emerging realities, the better for the future of Pakistan. In today’s world, isolation, whether a reality or looming risk, is the antithesis of what all countries need in today’s globalised reality: to be connected and march in step with the world in the light of our true interests rather than the persisting shibboleths of another time and context that may no longer be in our fundamental interests. Pakistan and its people have yearned for peace within and without for decades in order to offer their present and coming generations a chance at a different, better future that beckons.

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