Pak’s Hope for Af in its AfPak Policy
Pakistan’s military thinks it’s winning the Great Game. It thinks.
The Pakistani military is triumphant. It believes it is winning the Great Game – which in the contemporary situation means control of Afghanistan. There has been a recent resurrection by Rawalpindi of its old claim that Afghanistan is necessary for Pakistan’s “strategic depth.” The evisceration of the Tehreek e Taliban has, for now, put an end to the main terrorist threat facing the Pakistani state. The recent Afghan conferences have put Pakistan’s prescription of bringing Taliban into the Kabul fold to the forefront. Finally, the civilian Pakistani president, Asif Ali Zardari, is reeling from a battle with the judiciary – as a consequence of cases, New Delhi has noted, all filed by retired officers of the Pakistani military’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency. “The army is centrestage again,” say senior Indian officials.
Unsurprisingly Pakistan has suddenly begun cooperating with the US in the capture of senior Afghan Taliban commanders – though some seem to be ones who have had differences with the Taliban supremo Mullah Omar. Nonetheless, it is building up their street cred with Washington. The final piece of the puzzle would be to persuade the US to begin withdrawing troops from Afghanistan and fill the vacuum with Afghan militant groups like the Haqqani network who have traditionally been close to Islamabad. Pakistan can see the light at the end of its tunnel.
Afghanistan will be ruled by the Taliban again. And the Taliban will take their cue from Pakistan. Islamabad could rebuild what an Indian minister once called its “jihad machine” under which it used Afghanistan to recruit terrorists, station training camps to teach them and grow heroin to finance it all. Kashmir could burn again. At the very least, Pakistan could force India to negotiate with it on Kashmir from a position of strength.
Let’s see how things play through this year. But there are more than a few reasons why Pakistan may find itself in a soup. One, whatever they may think, the Tehreek e Taliban is not a finished force yet. It’s not over in Waziristan until the fat mullah sings. Two, Pakistan’s assumption it can pull the strings of any Taliban government is questionable. This is not the same Taliban as existed in the Eighties. It is pan-Islamic, it is more jihadi and owes far more of its ideology to Osama Bin Laden than to the Rawalpindi brass than ever before. This is clearly a key reason the US worries about a Taliban takeover: they fear a Taliban Afghanistan would try to conquer its nuclear-armed neighbour and former colonial master.
Three, Pakistan also assumes the US “surge” will not work and that Barack Obama will be so desperate to get out of Afghanistan that they will take the crumbs that Pakistan will offer and get out. The surge is beyond my ken to predict. But I think Obama is in this, reluctantly, for the long run. My conversations with US Pentagon types indicates a greater interest in expanding the war deeper into Pakistani territory rather than decamping for New Jersey.
This doesn’t mean India is guaranteed to do well in Afghanistan itself. India is largely marginal to what is happening there. Its Great Game strategy is really about persuading the US to stay, ensuring a nationalist sovereign Afghan government is in power in Kabul and depriving Pakistan of any undue influence over its northwest neighbour. India’s is a negative game. But one forced on it by geography and resources.
Watch the next two years to see how the dust settles.