More of the same

The Friday Times; Dec 3-9, 2010
Ejaz Haider

For better or worse, Pakistan seems to be now embarked on a strategy that, with minor adjustments, still draws heavily from the old paradigm

Here’s the latest. We have told the United States that our “frames of reference [for Afghanistan] can never be the same”; the “destinies of Pakistan and Afghanistan are intertwined as ONE”; we expect that whoever is in Kabul would be “mindful of Pakistan’s legitimate security concerns”; we do not wish to confront India or to get into an arms race with that country, but neither can we rely on intentions which can undergo a change nor remain unconcerned about unresolved issues.

News this may be, information culled from a deep-end official briefing session last Sunday that went fairly deep into the night, new there is nothing in this, which is why the French are right about plus ça change, thank you.

There are two broad, symbiotic issues here. One deals with Pakistan’s domestic power configuration, the other with Islamabad’s response to the regional security challenges as the war in Afghanistan crawls to the finish line. Consider.

In less than two years, the army has not only regained the space it had lost to the civilians, it has acquired more. From the army’s institutional perspective the credit goes to General Ashfaq Kayani, now in his second term. His strategy: exercise control in areas of concern using the civilian government as a shield. If territory can be secured by letting the proxies deal with incoming fire, be my guest.

[NB: what saith those now who, through the lawyers’ movement, assumed in a bout of misplaced passion that there was a linear, causal linkage between getting rid of Musharraf and correcting the civil-military imbalance? For confirmation you now have wikileaks!]

The army closely monitors performance on the economic front because deeper pockets help it both directly and tangentially (it’s quite another matter that its approach to economic recovery remains deeply flawed); it retains full control of how Pakistan is to deal with the US both in relation to Afghanistan and India; and, finally, it has developed a sophisticated model of managing the media and shaping public opinion. Ask anyone on the civilian side off the record and he would concede this.

This is the domestic ground work the army needed to effectively address its security concerns both internally and externally. The three rounds of strategic dialogue with the US have seen Kayani take the lead in getting the government to put together position papers. The army says all it wants is for everyone to be on the same page. Right! The problem is, the page is from the army’s Regional Security Manual, its appreciation of the regional situation, its perception of Pakistan’s concerns and the strategies to address those concerns.

Pakistan has produced three papers in the three rounds. The slick move, says a highly-placed official, was to work to get an audience with US President Barack Obama and be prepared for it with a position paper that “comprehensively” but succinctly put together Pakistan’s roadmap for Afghanistan.

The opportunity came in the third round in Washington last month when President Obama walked into a session. He left there with the paper, and as the official told this writer on the condition of anonymity, “he now knows directly what we have been telling his aides since he took over”. This was corroborated by a senior military officer privy to the exercise – “We didn’t know how Pakistan’s view was being reported to Obama. Now he knows.”
At last Sunday’s briefing, which was in-camera, a select group of media persons was informed that the US needs to understand that “idealism will have to operate within the confines of hard ground realities”. One of those hard ground realities, presumably, is that “peace and stability [in Afghanistan] must be defined in the Afghan context [because] stability is essentially a function of balance [and] balance is about reconciling the extremes”.

The security establishment’s thinking seems to be to convince the US to pursue a minimum agenda in Afghanistan with broad public support. Essentially, the argument is that given Afghanistan’s variables, the country is unlikely to have complete peace or stability in the way those concepts are understood in the West.

“We have tried to tell them that Afghanistan is unlikely to have an uncontested power centre because the country historically has had multiple centres of gravity,” says an official. The third position paper stresses that the US must adopt an “all-inclusive” approach to seeking peace and argues that Pakistan must be included in the equation because it is part of the solution and because “we have suffered the most as a result of turmoil in that country”.

Translated this means that the US should understand the historical, cultural and demographic realities of Afghanistan and include the Pashtuns in any peace process. Also, there should be no preconditions attached to this process and the US should sequence its demands rather than expecting acceptance of them by the other side as a package of preconditions to talks. And, finally, Pakistan’s concerns must be addressed.

Those concerns relate to how Kabul views Pakistan and how it deals with India. Pakistan seems to think that the three conditions of de-escalation of violence, renunciation of Al Qaeda and the acceptance of the Constitution of Afghanistan have to be tempered in the context of the country’s geography, history and culture.

The first two conditions in the long term is the converging point, though de-escalation in the interim is a problem. Pakistan neither wants Al Qaeda to operate from the region nor does it want any extremist ideology backwashed into Pakistan. But it also relies on the Pashtuns and they are mostly linked to the Taliban ideology. The hope seems to be that eight years of war will have infused in the Taliban a greater sense of pragmatism. Also, that they could be induced to share the government in some measure with other ethnic groups not amenable to pan-Islamic millenarianism. Broadly it assumes a high degree of control of or influence on the Taliban groups by Pakistan. That is a disputed issue.

Be that as it may, Pakistan seems to be now embarked on a strategy that, with minor adjustments, still draws heavily from the old paradigm. It sees India as a problem that needs to be tackled rather than a player that might be co-opted. It also looks at Afghanistan from the Pashtun prism without a visible strategy on how to deal with other ethnic groups there or how the non-Pashtun interests could be reconciled with those of the Pashtun groups.

Whether this approach will work any better now than it has over the past decades is a moot question.

The writer is Contributing Editor of The Friday Times

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