Thursday, April 28, 2011

Pakistan stares at Bush's pledges... "Karzai to dump US".

Pakistan stares at Bush's pledges...
"Karzai to dump US"....?
By MK Bhadrakumar

It overshadowed a shake-up of Barack Obama's top security team and the mowing down of nine American servicemen at Kabul airport by an irate Afghan. The Wall Street Journal reported on Wednesday that Pakistan Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani had counseled Afghan President Hamid Karzai to throw off the American yoke and enter a new sphere of geopolitics in which Afghanistan, Pakistan and China would live happily ever after.

In "Karzai to dump US", the WSJ reported that Karzai was in two minds over which road to take. Perhaps he is probing as to whether the Pakistani overture could be used to extract better terms of patronage from Washington.

The story had three important points:

  • The Afghans without exception are a bunch of bazaaris who at the end of the day are moonlighting for profitable deals from whichever patron without any scruples or honor.
  • Pakistan is in a confrontational mood with the US and a "point of no return" has been reached.
  • China is straining at the leash to move into Afghanistan's blood-soaked civil war and to pick up the stirrups from where the Americans might leave them if and when they are finally booted out by Karzai or by the force of circumstance.

    Karzai knows his way around

  • All three contentions are highly tendentious. Consider the following. Of all three protagonists in the WSJ story, it is Karzai who is most fed up with the Americans. He knows the Americans have been trying their damndest for the past two years to remove him from the Afghan chessboard. He remains in the presidential palace only because the Barack Obama administration is stuck with him for want of an alternative.

    Karzai is fully aware that Washington has been openly patronizing - with possible funding and political support - implacable adversaries like his former Afghan intelligence chief Mohammed Saleh and his former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah.

    Karzai is equally aware that Washington has been covertly encouraging non-Pashtun elements of the erstwhile Northern Alliance to challenge and erode Karzai's agenda of reconciliation with the Taliban. Washington has carried matters to such an extent that it has spread calumnies about Karzai and his family - even to the point of insinuating that the Afghan president is a drug addict and a mental case.

    Such below-the-belt attacks on a proud Pashtun tribal chieftain leave indelible marks on his psyche; they are deeply wounding; they demean him in front of his tribe and his people; they are antithetical to the culture of the people who inhabit the Hindu Kush.

    Most important, Washington is completely exasperated with Karzai's seeming incapacity or lack of will to wrap up a status of forces agreement (SFA) that would ensure a continued American troop presence in Afghanistan. The US has spent hundreds of millions of dollars bringing the Soviet-era military bases in Afghanistan to a par with American standards, and constructing new military bases. Now it is a case of "all-dressed-up-with-nowhere-to-go".

    The entire Pentagon strategy in Afghanistan pivots on the conclusion of a SFA. The US objective is to build up reconciliation with the Taliban on the foundations of an SFA. This hope is that while American troops will no longer have to fight and die in a futile war, the US can perpetuate a military presence on the strategic Afghan chessboard and stay neatly tucked in between four nuclear powers (five, if one includes Iran).

    However, the US knows that none of the regional powers - including India - would reconcile with the prospect of an open-ended American military presence in the region. Most important, Washington knows the Afghan people would oppose tooth and nail any such foreign occupation of their country and, therefore, Karzai wouldn't easily play ball, either.

    The US has been plainly ignoring Karzai's sensitivities regarding Washington bypassing his government in vital matters such as aid or excessive security operations. Karzai isn't a fool and knows that even a recent controversy regarding Kabul Bank has an extra political dimension. He does not have to be reminded that the Americans have been inciting the Afghan parliament to be a counterpoint to his presidential authority and to constantly create roadblocks for him.

    In sum, Washington's equations with Karzai are in a bottomless pit already and the latter doesn't need Gilani to enlighten him about the highhandedness, stupidity or arrogance - depending on one's point of view - of American policy in the AfPak region. Worse still, Obama keeps him at arm's length.

    China won't take risks

  • The biggest surprise in the WSJ story is regarding China. Anyone who has a remote knowledge of Chinese policy in Afghanistan or any of the planet's "hotspots" - be it the Thai-Cambodian border region, Syria, Bahrain, Yemen or Myanmar - knows that Beijing treads extremely warily when it comes to spending its resources and political capital. On the contrary, husbanding resources and remaining highly focused on core concerns, vital interests and its economic development has been an unfailing feature of China's neighborhood policies all over Central Asia.

    This is why despite constant US urgings for the past three years to come into the Hindu Kush and to play the role of a "stakeholder", Beijing hasn't shown the least bit of interest. A minimal aid program; a commercially sensible investment program; excellent government-to-governmental ties; a watchful eye on the progress of the US strategy - these are the firm cornerstones of China's Afghan policy.

    Beijing is clear-headed about the range of security threats that arise or can possibly arise out of Afghanistan. And it has made the appropriate diplomatic and political moves both bilaterally with Kabul and Islamabad as well as regionally within the ambit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization to ensure that China's national security interests are safeguarded.

    Finally, China is keeping its options open in the highly fluid Afghan situation. In the ultimate analysis, China will deal with any regime that emerges out of the current civil war. As far as China is concerned, it is a matter of the wishes of the Afghan people and China's focus will be on strengthening the ties with the established government in Kabul that enjoys international legitimacy.

    In sum, Gilani would have been out of his mind to prescribe to Karzai a "Chinese option". Grant it to the Pakistanis to know that much about their "all-weather friend", China.

    Therefore, the WSJ article raises disturbing questions. As Vladimir Lenin would have asked: "Who stands to gain?" The question is not really a hard one to answer. The article is calculated to raise hopes in Karzai's mind that Uncle Sam may consider paying a better price if he collaborates on the SFA. Curiously, the WSJ article appeared even as the US special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, Marc Grossman (who is the point person negotiating the SFA from the American side) arrived in New Delhi.

    The specter of a potential Sino-Pakistan axis in Afghanistan is calculated to raise hackles in the Indian mind and goad it into making precipitate counter-moves in the Hindu Kush. But the Indians would need to be downright naive to bite the American bullet.

    Anyway, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is visiting Kabul next week and can hear the tale straight from the horse's mouth. New Delhi is confident that it enjoys transparency in its discourses with Karzai and can ask a few pertinent questions rather than go with Grossman's version or the WSJ account.

    US double-crosses Pakistan

  • What the WSJ report really does is illustrate the state of play in US-Pakistan relations. The fact is that as much as Washington will claim that tensions emanate from Pakistan's clandestine links with the Haqqani network, it is crystal clear that the issue is actually about the bottom line of the impending Afghan peace talks.

    Plainly put, Islamabad is increasingly apprehensive about US strategy in Afghanistan. It gets an ugly feeling that the US is working on an agenda that would have profound meaning for Pakistan's future and Islamabad is being kept in the dark.

    It is simplistic to call this a mere "trust deficit". Through the six-week-long, gruelling interrogation of Raymond Davis, when the US Central Intelligence Agency contractor was being held in Lahore, the Pakistani military has garnered all that it was afraid to ask the Pentagon and the CIA, and all that it needed to know about the American gameplan.

    The Pakistani military and the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) have a fair idea today about the extensive American intelligence infiltration of the Taliban and the various Pakistani militant groups. The US is increasingly effective in its drone attacks due to the real-time intelligence it is directly gathering.

    Suffice to say, the US is getting quite close to dispensing with the help of the Pakistani military and the ISI - altogether if a need arises or at least whittling it down - that was needed to sustain its dealings with the Taliban and other militant groups.

    But what truly unnerves the Pakistani military is that incrementally, the US might be able to use insurgent groups or elements within them - if it is not doing already, as Iran has alleged - as instruments of its regional policies in Afghanistan and in the surrounding regions.

    Thus, the Pakistanis are demanding that the US work with Pakistan on the drone attacks and observe the so-called "Reagan Rules" with regard to dealings with the insurgent groups has a broader context. The "Reagan Rules" describe the CIA-ISI relationship of the 1980s, when the agency provided ISI with money and arms to aid the mujahideen.

    This is an non-negotiable demand for the Pakistani military as it concerns Pakistan's sovereignty, territorial integrity and the safety of its nuclear stockpiles from American reach. Not the least, it concerns Pakistan's entire Afghan strategy, which has been based on the exclusivity of its ties with the friendly elements of the Afghan insurgency fostered through the past three decades at enormous cost and sacrifice and at considerable risk.

    However, it will be virtually impossible for the US to meet the Pakistani expectations and to settle for an operational blueprint that strictly confines to the four walls of the "Reagan Rules". The current war is vastly different from the Afghan jihad of the 1980s.

    Thirty years ago, Washington was settling scores with the Soviet Union for the humiliation in Vietnam and it was expedient not to be seen at the barricades. Today, America's "homeland security" is in the firing line and it is suicidal not to lead the fight right from out there in the barricades. Today's war cannot be reduced to a "proxy war" fought through the ISI and strictly within the parameters of a US-Pakistan network of mil-to-mil and intelligence level collaboration.

    The strategic divergence in the respective strategies and objectives of the US and Pakistan has finally welled up to the surface and is visible to the naked eye. Quite conceivably, Gilani solicited Karzai's cooperation in moving into a Pakistan-Afghanistan condominium to steer the peace process in a rapid sequential way so as to present the US with a fait accompli.

    But this is a sideshow, and it is patently intended to display to the Obama administration the imperative need to recognize Pakistan's legitimate interests and not to go back on the word given by the previous George W Bush administration: that in any Afghan settlement, Pakistan would play a key role and in any eventual peace settlement, Pakistan's legitimate interests would be duly accommodated.

    The big question is whether Obama or the administration he heads considers itself to be the inheritor of all the pledges that Bush or Colin Powell or Donald Rumsfeld made to the Pakistani military headed by Pervez Musharraf in the heat of the night after the September 11, 2001, attacks.

    In any case, the Pakistani military should have known - even if Musharraf chose to overlook it - that in the American scheme of things, the winner invariably takes all.