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Does Pakistan have an Afghan strategy?

By Imtiaz Gul

 The Friday Times, July 06, 2012


Does Pakistan have an Afghanistan strategy? Is it still a carry-over from the cold war era policy embedded in the desire for using Afghanistan as a strategic backyard in case of a conflict with India? Can the Pakistani military decouple its Afghanistan strategy (if there is any) from the perceived Indo-Afghan-American nexus that this establishment views as inimical to Pakistan's interests? And will Pakistan ever take into account the criticism that flows from its alleged nexus with certain shades of "good Taliban"?

These questions - critical of an army that is already stretched out, particularly on the western border, spread out in parts of embattled Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Tribal Areas, and dealing with an insurgency in Balochistan - are being asked inside and outside Pakistan. The international community is closely watching the role of Pakistan Army.

Financially, for the military itself, engagement in Balochistan as well as in FATA has turned out to be an extremely expensive affair. The roughly four billion dollars the US now owes Pakistan for the 140,000 plus deployment in FATA is a case in point. It has spent this money on the US request but is still waiting for reimbursement.

A series of discussions with senior military officials clearly suggests that the past romance with the idea of "strategic depth" has made way to greater realism. Most of officials, also in the ministry of foreign affairs, are reconciled with the fact that Afghanistan will remain under the gaze of the US-led NATO and virtually in the control of the non-Pashtun dominated security establishment for a long time to come. This "nightmarish" prospect simply works against the obsolete idea of placing or desiring a "friendly" government in Kabul. And the increasing collaborative framework among New Delhi, Kabul and the USA serves as another almost immovable stumbling block against any plans Pakistan Army may have for Afghanistan.

It is no revelation, nor a coincidence that all three nations share concerns against the Pakistani security establishment for having been either in cahoots or in working relations with several non-state actors; for India, Lashkar-e-Tayyaba alias Jamaatud Dawa and Jaish-e-Mohammad are the Pakistani military's first line of defence. For Kabul and Washington, the so-called Quetta shura and the Haqqani Network , which are striving to end the "foreign occupation" of Afghanistan, are the "veritable arms" of Pakistani security establishment.

India, Kabul and the USA are convinced that such groups constitute an essential part of the instruments that Pakistan Army has deployed to pursue its foreign policy objectives. As a consequence, there is ever greater unity among the three countries on the issue of countering Pakistan for its "abetment of terrorist forces operating on the western and eastern borders."

Pakistani Army as well as elements within the Ministry of Foreign Affairs still appear to be in a reactionary mode. Without charting a clearly defined way for Pakistan, they all say in unison that "without knowing what the Americans want in Afghanistan and in the region, we cannot devise and spell out our policy." They still maintain, and in this case legitimately, that for Pakistan, Afghanistan is a long-term reality and it cannot frame its policy in the "endgame context."

This appears to be a faulty approach as predicating our own policy on external factors thus far has taken us nowhere. It cannot be helpful in future either. Unless the Pakistani security establishment is clear itself and abandons foreign policy instruments that serve as the basic ingredient of discord in its relations with India, Afghanistan, and the United States, it will not be able to pursue even well-intended objectives in Afghanistan. 

Pakistan's Afghanistan policy, or the military's strategy for that country to be precise, still seems to be pegged to the American endgame in Afghanistan as well as to future political set up in Kabul.

Given the broader US policy matrix on the region, one can safely assume that even the United States will not think of a conclusive "endgame" in Afghanistan. Nor can it afford to think of exiting from that country lock stock and barrel.

American and Indian presence in Afghanistan is now almost a constant. So is Pakistan's interest in Afghanistan because of the geographical proximity. Pakistan's security establishment shall have to factor that in when thinking of its engagement with Kabul. Washington and Kabul shall also have to accord recognition to this Pakistani interest. This might create a middle ground for all the four countries to hammer out a mutually acceptable collaborative framework, which could also help remove mutual mistrust.

But, in the words of Carolyn Brooks, a political analyst and a former insider, "If the US et al would stop badgering Pakistan about the Haqqani Network, I am sure that Pakistan would gladly give him up. But unfortunately the US knows nothing of face saving. Pakistan is still upset about the NATO incident last November and the unfortunate deaths of the Pakistani troops."

Brooks, in a reference to the Pakistani security establishment's reactive bent of mind, also says that "Pakistan needs to find a way to come into more of a Western way of thinking if it wants to continue to receive money from the west."

The Pakistani economy is in doldrums. The impact will be visible in a few years as the population increases and unemployment rises. Pakistan cannot afford a perennial state of conflict with the US or even India. If it does, that means economic disaster. And the disaster will be even more pressing for the military establishment itself. Unless it wants to turn the country into another Afghanistan, Sudan or Somalia, the army and its supporters in the civilian government will have to get into a proactive, economy-oriented policy framework.

The writer is executive director of the Centre for Research and Security Studies  

Email: imtiaz@crss.pk