Saturday, June 19, 2010

The ‘Great Game’ resumes

—Zafar Hilaly

The trouble with the role we have chosen to play in Afghanistan is its inherently contradictory nature. An interested party cannot play the role of an honest broker. The conflict of interest is too glaring

Hamid Karzai has finally decided to break with the Northern Alliance partners and return to his Pashtun roots for deliverance from the Taliban and the Americans. This, one feels, is the reason behind his brusque sacking of his national intelligence chief and his interior minister, both belonging to the Northern Alliance.

Pakistan’s response was immediate, namely, to begin brokering deals between those elements of the Taliban who are friendly to us and the government in Kabul. Our sole condition for engaging in this thankless task — of which we claim we are past masters, although our record suggests otherwise — is the elimination of Indian influence. Any enemy of India, however antediluvian, cruel or vicious, is our friend and vice versa. That is the way it has been and that is how it will stay until India and Pakistan manage to inject a degree of sanity into the hatred their respective establishments harbour for each other.

At the moment our Taliban ally is the father and son team of the Haqqanis. In an earlier period it was Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. Whether we will succeed will depend, not so much on retaining Karzai’s support as much as obtaining that of the Americans who, in the final analysis, call the shots in Kabul. Hence, it is inconceivable that our effort should have been undertaken without some encouragement from the US, if not an actual ‘go’ signal from Washington. It is also inconceivable that the Haqqanis and Pakistan did not independently get clearances from Mullah Omar. Without Omar on board, no deal that may emerge is sustainable.

So, once again, the Great Game has begun, or rather, the decades old ‘time out’ has ended. Needless to say, the Northern Alliance, India and Iran will not remain idle, and neither will Russia.

The defunct KGB, avowedly Putin’s first love, had long wanted to recover lost Soviet territories in spirit, if not in fact. And with the Americans preoccupied up to their gills in Afghanistan and Iraq, Russia has indeed made a remarkable comeback, so much so that Russian influence in the Central Asian Republics has never been more pronounced than today. Russia is often the arbiter in their incessant squabbling and even on domestic issues Russian support can often decide the outcome. Hence, with its clout in Central Asia restored, Russia can afford to return to participate in the Great Game.

Nor will India, like British India, let all the blood and treasure it has expended in Afghanistan go waste. A predicament in which Delhi would not have found itself had it resisted its instinct to step in and take advantage of any situation that can add to Pakistan’s discomfiture. As India manoeuvres to maintain its stake in Afghanistan’s future, its relations with Pakistan will commensurately worsen.

It is strange how puny players can alter the course of events by inveigling mighty ones to step in where angels fear to tread. In any case, India hardly needs any prodding. New Delhi is perpetually consumed by one idea and it is, invariably, the wrong one when it comes to Pakistan. That is not to say that our fixation with India is any less unhealthy.

Iran, of course, has kept all its options open. With the Taliban whom it is accused of occasionally arming; with al-CIAda whom it is accused of giving refuge to and as often denies; with Pakistan; with India; with Russia and, of course, with the Northern Alliance of which, at all times, it has remained the patron. Iran has one goal: discomfiture of the US, which the US reciprocates in spades.

As for the Americans, to them the intricacies of the Great Game are novel. Very shortly they will not understand what is going on in Afghanistan. To them it will be the “unspellables killing the unpronounceables”. Their goals are power, predominance, crush rivals, and subdue nature. They are eager, restless, and positive because they are superficial. They have their heart set on the means and seldom think of the end. Secretly they prefer a clear defeat to a messy stalemate because they know that they will not know how to deal with the latter. Iraq is a shining example.

The trouble with the role we have chosen to play in Afghanistan is its inherently contradictory nature. An interested party cannot play the role of an honest broker. The conflict of interest is too glaring. Moreover, the deeper we find ourselves enmeshed in the Afghan snake pit, the more likely we are to come off the worse for all our good intentions. That happened after the Soviet withdrawal. So much so that eventually the Taliban, whom we helped fund, train and lead, ended up telling us to stop interfering. Colonel Imam, for all the help that he rendered the Taliban, is now languishing in some grotto while his erstwhile pupils determine his fate.

What then is the alternative for Pakistan? Actually, a fairly simple one and, in the words of Benazir Bhutto: “To let the dust settle in Afghanistan where it will.” In other words, to let the Americans stew in their own mess till eventually they are driven out by American public opinion aided by murderous Taliban attacks. And, meanwhile, to cleanse our lands of the presence of those who use our territory to wage war on the US, India or anyone else. And, if this means that we will have to take on Haqqani and his ilk then to do so, because such is the contagion that they have spread stretching from the furthermost edge of FATA to Karachi, which eventually, as surely as night follows day, we will have to confront or else succumb. Currying support from murderous villains who pose as our well-wishers is delusory. It is a sign of weakness and not strength and casts doubt on our commitment to democracy and progressive Islam.

Pakistan must look to itself and not others for its security and well-being. The responsibility begins and ends with us. Befriending the likes of the Taliban and indulging their abhorrent mindset suggests that we have a low opinion of ourselves. Importuning the Americans does the same. And that is an impression that no self-respecting nation can afford.

The writer is a former ambassador.