Mini cold war on Afghan frontier – by Dr Mohammad Taqi

– You know something has gone really awry in the Pak-US relationship when the Pakistanis bring out their heavy political artillery against the US. Now who would not take Pakistan’s Defence Minister Chaudhry Ahmed Mukhtar seriously? Speaking to a television channel, the defence minister has threatened to withdraw Pakistani troops from the Pak-Afghan border as a response to the US decision to suspend roughly $ 800 million in military aid to Pakistan.

One can imagine that this tit-for-tat reaction from a minister who is indispensible to Pakistan’s security planning must have sent Admiral Mike Mullen, along with the joint chiefs committee, looking for cover. So indispensible is the minister that he was on a personal trip to the US — attending graduation ceremonies at Harvard, among other things — when the defence committee of the cabinet met twice in the wake of the OBL fiasco this past May. Can it not get more farcical than the security establishment firing from Chaudhry Mukhtar’s shoulder while General Kayani pretends to be a cool customer presiding over the corps commanders’ meeting?

Under the prevailing situation along the Durand Line, with both Pakistan and Afghanistan alleging that the other is violating the frontier, Pakistan would not venture into pulling back a single soldier. More than that, the Pakistan Army officials have declared on record that many of the Taliban-affiliated groups are their strategic assets. A pull-back would mean loss of protection for these assets rendering them to be likely targets for the ISAF, especially if the militants try to escalate things. So who is the Pakistani establishment kidding? Even the lamest bravado has to be tad tangible.

A few weeks ago, I had noted in these pages: “Osama bin Laden’s lair, less than a mile away from the Pakistan Military Academy, Kakul, is not a pinprick that the world, let alone the US, would forget so easily. The Pakistani parliament may have been duped with it, but there is every indication that the US Congress and the White House consider the ‘intelligence failure’ excuse an insult to their intelligence. Senator Kerry’s soft but measured tone indicates that the Pakistani brass still has some time, perhaps through July, to make serious amends but all options, including moving the UN, remain on the table. The senator also seems to have spelt out some of the bare-minimum metrics for any rapprochement…the dismantling of the Haqqani network is at the top of the confidence-building agenda. The military events surrounding Senator Kerry’s Pak-Afghan visits suggest that the US is not about to blink first” (‘Pakistan and the US: beyond the tailspin’, Daily Times, May 19, 2011).

So here we are in mid-July and the US has issued what is still a relatively mild rebuke, through suspension of the military aid. However, the way the geopolitical narrative in the post-OBL phase is shaping up, the current US measures have the undesirable potential of snowballing into more robust sanctions and further isolation of Pakistan. Both the US and Pakistan have few good options in the mini cold war, which they are fighting on the Afghan frontier but obviously the Pakistani choices are much more limited. The much-trumpeted Chinese support will subsidise neither the technological nor budgetary shortfall. Also, the détente that exists between the US and China and is not about to change soon. Admiral Mullen took off for China immediately after his remarks that implicated the Pakistani brass in Syed Saleem Shahzad’s murder. Short of threatening a regional destabilisation by militant proxies, including through blocking NATO routes, or its perpetual staple of ‘you cannot mess with a nuclear-armed country’, Pakistani deep state has little to fall back upon.

For some reason, the Pakistani establishment — and indeed a large section of the population — remains of the view that the world, especially the US, is out to get them and the regional and world powers are setting up tripwires for them at every step. This is followed by the perennial chorus about how the US ditched us after the Soviet withdrawal and the relations with the US having been transactional and utilitarian rather than strategic. The establishment, then, like Don Quixote, riding on his horse Rocinante –the right-wing media in this case — goes tilting at the US-Indo-Zionist windmills. But what really takes the cake is invoking the anti-US sentiment prevalent in Pakistan and how it will become worse if the aid spigot is turned off. What is lost on the Pakistani brass is that a zero-sum security paradigm is ancient history.

The Pakistani military leadership has been betting on a US withdrawal from Afghanistan that leaves the field wide open for them. It is an erroneous assumption and will likely result in the Pakistani security establishment biting off more than it can chew. It is equally wrong to assume that Afghanistan would portend any threat to Pakistan in foreseeable future. Also, in the wake of Ahmed Wali Karzai’s assassination, a continued US presence in Afghanistan after 2014 is almost a foregone conclusion. Three large US bases along with at least 25,000 troops, supported by robust air power is what the Pakistani brass will be grappling with if they are eyeing the Kabul throne for their chosen militants. The Pakistani civil and military leaders must recognise that their objective of imposing a 1996-style Pakistani puppet government in Kabul is neither legitimate nor attainable. After his brother’s murder, even the capricious Hamid Karzai — known for his occasional footsie with Pakistan — is unlikely to go along with any Pakistani designs on Kabul.

The mood in the US is reflective of an Americanism: “Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.” The Obama administration had bad and worse choices vis-à-vis Pakistan to select from. The US government is not known to rush into making decisions and the present one is no different. It appears to be a considered opinion of the US administration and the lawmakers that in the fight against the extremist forces, the Pakistani army and the civilian government cannot be counted on due to lack of will and power, respectively. What the US must not lose sight of is the difficult but imperative task of helping ensure a relatively stable Afghan government, without which a prolonged US presence in Afghanistan is meaningless. And equally important is continued US support for Pakistan’s democratic dispensation, which is likely to get caught in the crossfire as the mini cold war escalates.

Courtesy: → Daily Times

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