Monday, October 24, 2011

Pakistani wolf to guard Afghan henhouse....

Pakistani wolf to guard Afghan henhouse....?
By M K Bhadrakumar

The visit by United States Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to Islamabad last week turned out to be yet another defining moment in the endgame in Afghanistan. It took place under the heavy cloud cover of propaganda. Foggy Bottom habitually resorts to strident public diplomacy when Uncle Sam's tailcoat is on fire so that the awkwardness of dousing the flames remains a private affair.

This was literally the case last week. US diplomats strove to give spin to media persons amenable to listening, that Clinton was going to hand down a tough message to the recalcitrant General Headquarters of the Pakistani army in Rawalpindi: "Pakistan must crack down on the Haqqani network who take shelter in North Waziristan on the Afghan border regions and incessantly bleed the US and North Atlantic Treaty Organization forces, or else, the US would suo moto act."

The US spin doctors made it out to be that with or without Pakistan, the US was anyway going to fight the insurgents (as well as "talk" with them and also "build" Afghanistan), but Pakistan's relationship with the US was at risk unless its military leadership acted now.

Clearly, Clinton's was a do-or-die mission. Seldom if ever is it that the "good cop" and the "bad cop" undertake a joint mission. Clinton was accompanied at the talks in Islamabad by Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) director David Petraeus and the chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff, Martin Dempsey. What did Clinton's mission accomplish?

Dramatic u-turn
In the event, five things emerged. One, the US has publicly acknowledged the centrality of Pakistan's role in the Afghan endgame. Two, the US publicly accepted the consistent Pakistani demand that the Haqqanis should be engaged in talks and that excluding them would make the entire process fragile. The Haqqani network is one of the most important components of the Taliban-led insurgency in Afghanistan.

Three, therefore, the new approach will be to "squeeze" the Haqqanis so that they come to the negotiating table - rather than try to vanquish them as an irreconcilable insurgent group. Four, the US understood the range of factors behind Pakistan's hesitation in launching military operations in North Waziristan and would therefore switch tack and opt for "other forms of acting", such as sharing real-time intelligence and debilitating the network's lethal capabilities.

Five, Clinton conceded repeatedly Islamabad's "legitimate" concerns regarding the Taliban operating out of safe havens on Afghan soil to carry out cross-border terrorist attacks on its soil, and henceforth US troops would "up the military tempo" against those sanctuaries and prevent them from attacking Pakistan.

Clinton also made several demonstrative gestures to the effect that the US was prepared to go the extra league - even suspend its disbelief on occasions - in a determined effort to repair the rift in US-Pakistan ties. She admitted that the US had had "one preliminary meeting" with the Haqqanis "to essentially just see if they would show up for even a preliminary meeting", and, indeed, Pakistani officials "helped to facilitate" it.

She went a step ahead to reveal that the US and Pakistan were working to "try to put together a process that would sequence toward an actual negotiation" with the Haqqani network. Clinton virtually recalibrated the earlier US formula of "talk, talk, fight, fight". She said, "We [US] want to see more talking than fighting, but in order to get to the talking, we have to keep fighting ... we are now at a point where the potential for talking exists."

Clinton categorically denied that the Barack Obama administration recently considered the option of US ground incursions into Pakistani territory. "That has never been a serious consideration." On the contrary, the US is rebooting the strategic dialogue with Pakistan and is putting together a new work plan, "Because we got, as you say, diverted over the last months, and we want to get back to business."

Clinton also gave a "no-objection" certificate to the Inter-Services Intelligence's dealings with the Haqqanis. She couldn't have put it across in a nicer way:
Now, every intelligence agency has contacts with unsavory characters. That is part of the job of being in an intelligence agency. What those contacts are, how they are operationalized, who has them - all of that is what we are now working on together. But I don't think you would get any denial from either the ISI or the CIA that people in their respective organizations have contacts with members of groups that have different agendas than the governments.

So, I think what we are saying is let's use those contacts to try to bring these people to the table to see whether or not they are going to be cooperative ... it was the Pakistani intelligence services that brought a Haqqani member to a meeting with an American team. So you have to know where to call them. You've got to know where they are. So those are the kinds of things that we have to examine and understand how they can be beneficial.
Clinton revealed after the talks that in Pakistani army chief Parvez Kiani's estimation, Pakistan and the US were "90% to 95% on the same page". She shared the general's optimism. "I think that our cooperative relationships between our military, between our intelligence agencies, are back on an upward trajectory." The residual issues pertain to the "operational" parts.

Clinton said that "serious, in-depth discussions" took place with "specifics" as regards the "Afghan peace process, reconciliation, how do we do it, how do we make it work", and the two sides will now be taking forward "that conversation and operationalizing it over the next days and weeks, not months and years, but days and weeks". She explained, "We need a work plan to actually sequence out what we're going to do and how we're going to do it together." She revealed that the issue of a ceasefire in Afghanistan as a prelude to talks came up.

On the whole, the US leaves it to Pakistan to work out the particulars of "squeezing the Haqqanis", while there is "complete agreement in trying to move forward on a peace process". The US and Pakistan have passed the "challenging phase in the last few months", as Pakistani Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar put it.

A grand bargain
What explains the dramatic u-turn in the US's strategy? In a nutshell, the Obama administration sized up that Pakistan was hunkering down and an impasse was developing, which was unacceptable, given the timeline ahead for the US withdrawal from Afghanistan by 2014. The heavy pressure tactic to the point of brandishing the sword failed to produce the desired result and is unlikely to work.

In sum, Washington sees the futility of visualizing Pakistan as a hostile power and of trying to impose an Afghan settlement that is unacceptable to the Pakistani military. The US has, therefore, switched to a startlingly innovative strategy. The mantra is to "incentivize" Pakistan by inviting it to play a major role in Afghanistan, but on conditions, which also ensures that the US's strategic interests remain protected.

It essentially devolves on conceding Pakistani primacy in Afghanistan and putting the Pakistani leadership in charge of negotiating with their counterparts in Kabul a settlement accommodating the Taliban that would stop the bloodshed and stabilize the country.

This may seem to detractors of Pakistan (in Afghanistan, the region and internationally) as a mild version of putting the wolf in charge of the henhouse, and it certainly assumes that Pakistan has had a change of heart with regard to its past agenda of dominating its weaker, smaller neighbor that has shown the temerity or tenacity - depending on one's point of view - to refuse to accept the Durand Line, which makes Pakistan's 2,500-kilometer border and the attendant unresolved Pashtun nationality question existential themes for Pakistan's integrity as a sovereign state.

But the US sees this as part of a grand bargain that Pakistan will be sorely tempted to accept if it is made sufficiently alluring. The US expectation is to make it a "win-win" situation by making the stabilization of Afghanistan form an integral part of its so-called New Silk Road vision.

Indeed, history might record that the main thrust of Clinton's mission to Islamabad was to clear the (temporary) hurdle of the Afghan endgame so that all protagonists can bite the succulent fruit of the low-hanging New Silk Road project that aims at exploiting the vast mineral resources of Central Asia.

Significantly, Clinton also included Tajikistan and Uzbekistan in her regional tour - the two countries other than Pakistan that would have crucial roles to play in developing the communication links connecting Central Asia with world markets. Her focus in the regional capitals was on the "New Silk Road vision", which she will be presenting at an Istanbul conference on November 2 in an "effort to get the region to buy into it" - to use Clinton's words.

While in Islamabad, she was candid that without Pakistan's active support, the New Silk Road project was not going to work. She exuded optimism that under the canopy of the "New Silk Road vision", even the intractable India-Pakistan animosities could be sorted out as the two South Asian rivals become accustomed to the name of the game, which is that the ultimate aim of all good politics is about creating wealth and prosperity in their impoverished lands.

The Barack Obama administration has careered away from its path of spearheading the search for an Afghan settlement by directly engaging the Taliban, bypassing Pakistan and creating a fait accompli for Islamabad. Put differently, Pakistan has scored a resounding political victory by correctly judging the range of the US's vulnerabilities in the given situation and carefully factoring in Pakistan's "strategic assets" and by adopting a unified civil-military stance.

So far so good. It is almost certain that the apple cart will not be upset before Clinton unveils the US's "New Silk Road vision" at the conference of Afghanistan's neighbors and major powers in Istanbul a week from now. But what happens beyond that?

Many imponderables remain. First and foremost, it might be that Pakistan is taking up much, much more than it can chew. The assumption that Pakistan has decisive influence over Taliban groups will be put to the acid test. Specifically, what about the US's intentions regarding establishing a permanent military presence in Afghanistan? Are the Taliban willing to accept it as the price to pay for political accommodation - and if not, will Pakistan want to arm-twist them? Meanwhile, Pakistan's own stance on the issue remains ambiguous.

Equally, non-Pashtun groups would view Pakistani intentions with great suspicion. Not only does the US's new Afghan policy refuse to factor in Iran as a key player, Clinton even utilized the regional tour to indulge in some high-voltage characterization of the Iranians as bad boys hopelessly wedded to dangerous pastimes. Iran will be closely watching every baby step that Pakistan takes from today onward.

Equally, Pakistan's appetite has been whetted and how it presents its own "wish-list" to Obama (which it will do some day soon) will be keenly awaited in the neighboring capital of New Delhi. The New Silk Road has a long gestation period and such fruits have a tendency to turn sour quickly in the Central Asian steppes.

At any rate, Delhi would assess that in the long run, we are all dead, and, therefore, its emphasis would be on the now and the tangible. The US may need to work on Delhi to roll back its influence in Kabul; it may at some point try to mediate on the Kashmir problem between India and Pakistan; it may resuscitate its robust military partnership with Pakistan; it may invite in China as a "stakeholder" in South Asia.

Learning to live with the Americans in the neighborhood isn't exactly turning out to be a pleasant experience for Indian pundits. One day they were told that the Haqqanis were the murderers who attacked the Indian Embassy in Kabul - and, indeed, the US Embassy too - and now they overhear tit-bits of conversation that the US has had a change of heart.

Conceivably, they would hope to hear from US National Security Advisor Tom Donilon, who arrives in Delhi this week, how such phenomenal shifts take place in US policies and where this leaves its one and only "indispensable partner" in South Asia and the entire Indian Ocean region - India.