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Pakistan and the Afghan End-Game: need for a rethink? February 11, 2012

Posted by sandygordon in : Afghanistan, Gordon, Sandy, India, Pakistan , trackback

Sandy Gordon

Washington has now moderated Secretary for Defense Leon Panetta’s statement that the US as a fighting force would be in the barracks by mid-2013.  US forces may now come out to fight as and when necessary till departure at the end of 2014.  But that doesn’t change much.  The fact is the Afghan endgame has been in play at least since the death of bin Laden.

On the surface Pakistan appears to be a highly dysfunctional country caught up in the current ‘AfPak’ uncertainty and poorly positioned to benefit from the endgame.  Perilously poised between a dysfunctional civilian government and an Army reluctant to seize power but willing to shape events from the wings, beset by terrorist and insurgency violence, with a failing and near bankrupt economy and shocking social sector indicators, on numerous occasions commentators have predicted Pakistan’s demise.

Pakistan’s Foreign Minister, Hina Rabbani Khar

No sensible analyst would claim Pakistan’s problems are anything but serious.  But behind the dirty windows of Pakistan’s facade, some other salient points need to be considered.  We mention them now because they are pertinent to the final outcome in Afghanistan.

First, we need to ask how it is that a country so apparently dysfunctional as to be on the point of collapse could have ‘played both ends against the middle’ so successfully for so long.  While remaining a beneficiary of considerable Western, and especially US, largess and managing to avoid outright war with India, Pakistan has managed simultaneously to run a proxy war against India involving blatant harbouring of terrorists, hosted the so-called Quetta Shura of the Afghan Taliban leadership (now reportedly moved to Karachi), possibly had governmental knowledge of the whereabouts of bin Laden, the man who killed three thousand Americans, kept close tabs on and provided support for the Haqqani network, the most feared of the Afghan insurgent groups, been complicit in the bombing of the Indian embassy in Kabul, built one of the most formidable nuclear arsenals in the region and managed to run a long-term, strategic relationship with China, which has provided, inter alia, the design of Pakistan’s nuclear weapon, and which gives ballast against India.

The picture of a nation of such capability alongside one of complete dysfunctionality just does not add up.  How it should be revised is a moot point: but our guess is that Pakistan’s ‘success’ in its dual role has something to do with circumstances but more to do with the nature of its elites.

The circumstantial factors are the more obvious and less controversial.  Pakistan is too important to let fail: in the sense of its nuclear status; of its key location as the central entrepôt for Afghanistan; and of the need to cooperate with its intelligence over terrorism targeting the West.  It is also favourably located in respect of China’s competition with India.

But its successes – if they can be called that – are surely based on more than position.  At some level within the Pakistani state there must be a consensus on key strategies, one that has been in place for many years and one that at least superficially has served the country well.  Again, one could argue that the key here is the Army, its hold on power either in government or out and its key instrumentalities such as the ISI.  The Army, it might be said, is Pakistan’s ‘steel frame’ and proving ground of talent in an otherwise feudal setup.  It is well capable of discerning and exercising both its own and the country’s key strategic interests.

That explanation may be important but is not sufficient.  Somehow, elite ‘management ‘ of Pakistan appears to go beyond the Army into business and government, although in this milieu it becomes far less functional.  One could argue then that there is an elite compact to keep the struggle with India alive, to keep Islamisation in view but not quite in reach, to protect and benefit from Pakistan’s nuclear umbrella and to ‘manage’ Pakistan’s complex sets of regional and global relations.  This agreement seems bipartisan between all shades of government and the Army.  It also involves a considerable degree of elite talent at diplomacy – witness the current Foreign Minister and new ambassador to Washington.

Whatever the explanation, the important point is that Pakistan should never be underestimated because of the seeming shambolic nature of its polity.  It now finds itself relatively well positioned for the Afghan end game.  Whatever disposition finally rules in Afghanistan, Pakistan will be far from isolated or deprived of options.  India’s strategic involvement, on the other hand, offers nothing but pain.  If Kashmir is difficult for India – and it is – Afghanistan after NATO would be more so, should New Delhi choose to remain strategically engaged.

Of course, all bets would be off if the elite domination of Pakistan were to crumble.  While a distinct longer-term possibility, we ought also to consider the successes of this elite in the past, at least as they perceive their interests on a relatively superficial level.

 

 

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