Af: Geopolitics no 1 Prefix

Afghanistan is going to make a comeback in the international political arena. It shouldn’t be, going by what everyone seems to believe. The United States is pulling out of Afghanistan. The Taliban and Hamid Karzai will duke it out, but ultimately the rest of the world will just yawn. Afghans killing Afghans. The oldest story in Southwest Asia.

But here’s another way to look at it.

First, the next phase of the Afghan war will really be about the future of Pakistan. And that is a country whose standing as the most dangerous place in the world will be unmatched for some time to come. This war could literally make or break Pakistan.

Second, the US, India, Iran, much of Central Asia and even China all have a huge stake in how things develop in this coming conflict. Not all the fallout need be negative. It could mean peace between India and Pakistan if one set of variables materialise in one set of ways. Another group that matter in all this are those nefarious NGOs: Al Qaeda, Lashkar e Tayyeba and their ilk.

Here’s why.

Pakistan’s fundamental problem is its military which stunts its political development, plays patron to its many militant groups and which is obsessed with installing a puppet regime in Kabul — the preferred candidate being Taliban affiliate and Al Qaeda fellow-traveller, the Haqqani network.

But the military’s grand strategy to move into the space left behind by the US withdrawal isn’t working the way it was supposed to. The US is giving up its nation-building war and replacing it with a special forces -cum-drone strategy. Hamid Karzai Looks set to also get several billion dollars a year of international backing for quite some time.

Afghanistan will not be a vacuum; it will be a battlefield for the future of Pakistan’s military. No, Rawalpindi won’t send its troops to die there. But it will expend a lot of treasure, much of its domestic credibility and puncture its overweening status within Pakistan in pursuit of “strategic depth” that it cannot achieve.

The consequences are already starting to become evident.

One, the military has completely alienated its traditional overseas backer, the US, by allowing the Haqqani’s free rein to attack US soldiers and even the US embassy in Kabul. The US is now squeezing Pakistan in return, trying to get it to get the Haqqani network to negotiate with Karzai or the US.

Two, stuck deep in the Afghan mud, the military is grudgingly making concessions to India that it had sworn never to allow for decades. Granting normal trading relations with India is a perfect example. Until this year that was strictly tied to a Kashmir settlement.

Three, which is what will be the most interesting thing to watch, if Afghanistan draws Pakistan into a long-term military engagement over the mastery of Kabul the costs to Pakistani society and the military’s standing within that society may become the biggest casualty of the conflict.

The Obama administration adopted the term AfPak to describe its view that the two countries were now two faces of the same problem. It even played with PakAf to show it thought Pakistan was actually the bigger migraine. Islamabad’s objections have buried both phrases, at least in officialese. But the phrases are apt. And because Pakistan is making them so. Af is set to come back. And Pak will be where the blowback takes place.

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