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New Delhi — At its Chicago summit, NATO read out what has been the writing on the wall all through Obama’s first term. It is that its departure from Afghanistan is inevitable, with the addition being that it is now imminent. That this has not unfolded according to script is cause for some hand wringing among commentators. Ashley Tellis, Christine Fair and Robert Kaplan have in quick succession sought to point to Pakistan as spoilsport, with the former dwelling on Pakistan’s impending strategic defeat. Will his hope materialize?
All through the war in its vicinity, Pakistan has been scalded, but has avoided being burnt. The much reviled Musharraf took a wise decision by siding with the west. In retrospect, it seems as though it was the only choice he had. The blame for the west’s inability to push through its agenda of peace-building has been laid at Pakistan’s door. Its provision of sanctuary to the Taliban is taken as a willful challenge. Yet again Pakistan may have had little choice in this since it would have been unable in any case to wrap up the Taliban and their Pakistani affiliates. If the west could not succeed despite the ‘surge’, it is too much to expect of the Pakistan army to have had a better showing. From these two strategic choices made by the Pakistan army, based on a clear understanding of its limitations, it is clear that Pakistan can be credited with doing at least some things right.
So where does the responsibility lie? It is with Obama’s inability to convert the military surge into political gain. The surge was meant to represent the stick as part of a carrot and stick policy. It was to be supplemented by Pakistani army actions on its side of the Durand line, thereby choking the Taliban. In the event, the Taliban by forging a joint front with its ethnic fellows in Pakistan and Punjabi extremists, has been able to confront Pakistan with a dilemma: the more close it got to finishing the Taliban off in keeping with the desires of the west, the less stable it would get. The terror bombings in the later part of the last decade suggest as much. Pakistan, valuing its own survival above any doles the west could spare for its efforts, chose strategic prudence. Its holding out for an apology over the killings of 24 of its soldiers by U.S. forces at best provides a cover.
The gratuitous advice it has been at the receiving end of assumes that it could have gone the distance in taking on the Taliban. The west had got India on board to wind down tensions over time, after the spike in wake of the 26/11 terrorist attacks in Mumbai, India. This was to enable Pakistan to transfer its attention to the western front. Could the Pakistan army have succeeded as per western expectations?
Firstly, the terrain is forbidding. It has been seen in Kashmir where the going is easier and the foe is less formidable, that it takes considerable troop strength. Pakistan does not have those levels of troops, even if it could spare them entirely from the eastern border. Secondly, the tentacles that the Taliban has acquired due to anti-Americanism in Pakistan and religious extremism enable it to expand the arc of instability at will to include Lahore and Karachi. This would have stretched Pakistan’s suppressive capabilities to the extent of challenging their institutional integrity by internal ethnic and ideological fissures. If the Pakistan army cracked, then Pakistan could have gone under, there being no forces of equivalent strength in polity. This would have been to the advantage of extremists. That the Pakistan army judged the possible outcome and refrained from provoking it, is to its credit.
The expectation that Pakistan not playing ball has led to dissipation of the promise of the surge is therefore not a fair one. If Pakistan could arrive at a conclusion that it could at best be supportive and not hyperactive, the possibility should not have escaped Pentagon planners. To compensate they really should have weighed the carrot part of the strategy appropriately. This means that the peace process needed to have been an equally significant prong of strategy. It was instead geared to create fissures in the Taliban between the ‘good’ and irreconcilable Taliban. It was outsourced to the Karzai regime, with its notable legitimacy deficit as far as the intended interlocutors, the Taliban, were concerned. Their attitude was evident from the efforts of Karzai’s pointsman, Burhanuddin Rabbani, being rewarded with assassination. Only later, did U.S. special envoy Marc Grossman, the successor to Richard Holbrooke, get into the act; a case of too little too late. While it cannot be said for certain that the Taliban would have proved responsive, persistence with the military option, in the tradition of the actions post 9/11, foreclosed any possibility of finding out.
The US was either a victim of its own hubris or strategically ineffective due to its internal politics and institutional fights. Obama, having wound down the Iraq war, perhaps needed an arena to prove he was tough. The bureaucratic tussle, set off by the reaction to 9/11, between Foggy Bottom, Langley and Pentagon, played out in dysfunctional policies towards ‘AfPak’. The responsibility for a suboptimal outcome can hardly be laid at Pakistan’s door, even if, in election year, Obama needs a fall guy.
Highlighting this is important, since the refrain in the commentaries cited and extant largely is that Pakistan has stabbed the west in the back, despite receiving $ 20 billion as incentive. A consensus over the consequence for such double dealing is being built up in terms of pushing Pakistan over the brink, the euphemisms used being ‘containing’, ‘isolating’ etc. Pakistan needs being wary of an embarrassed superpower. It can safely be predicted that the ability of the army to hold steady despite internal political disarray, demonstrated in weathering a decade long storm along both its external and internal axes, will now be sorely tested.