Zafar Hilaly: Strategic Alliances

Former Ambassador Zafar Hilaly has a most interesting column in The Daily Times today in which he makes a very convincing argument that Pakistan must make strategic alliances with other nations like US and India in order to effectively fight the Taliban menace that continues daily to attack our country.

The US effort in Afghanistan has as yet to begin in earnest. Thus far it has been irresolute and ill conceived, hence ineffective. However, if the surge does succeed in degrading the power of the Taliban, at least to the extent that the Afghan Taliban are prepared to be more amenable to dialogue, Islamabad will be no less pleased than Washington

Befriending India, touting India as a global power and laying praise in the right places is now a familiar penchant of officials in Washington. Admittedly, seen from the US perspective there are many compelling reasons why the US and India should forge a ‘strategic’ alliance. For example, to contain China, which India fears and the US also feels will shortly challenge its status as the sole superpower.

But having chosen India as its strategic partner in South Asia, why should Washington expect Pakistan to court disaster in pulling the US’s chestnuts out of the fire in Afghanistan; or take on the Afghan Taliban which, in contrast to the pernicious domestic variety, has condemned the killings of innocent civilians by the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP); or acquiesce in the bombing and invasion of our villages, towns and even cities such as Quetta because the Taliban may be hiding there; or allow the CIA a free hand to operate in Pakistan?

The US wants us to reconcile the distinct, diverse, and opposite to what our interests dictate in return for $ 7.5 billion over five years. No one here thinks it is doable or a good bargain.

To George Bush’s credit, when he realised that the US cannot hold contradictory stances simultaneously and believe both or, in every day parlance, have one’s cake and eat it at the same time, he plunked for India-Israel in preference to China-Pakistan. The civilian nuclear deal with India, which boosted India’s ability to manufacture and refine nuclear weapons, was the first dramatic assertion of the US’s new India-centric policy; opening up the US’s armoury to Indian purchases was the second.

Obama, who is actually pursuing the policy that Bush charted — honeyed phrases and warm sentiments towards Pakistan notwithstanding — must accept that having made its choice the US must now live with it. Of course, Pakistan will play along for a while. A rich man’s joke is always funny; however, what Pakistan will not do is buy into the US’s Afghan strategy. The US’s dismal standing in the polls — it is in single digits — is an accurate reflection of public feeling and noticeably, even Mr Zardari felt that he needed to put some distance between him and his American mentors. Why else did Barrister Kamal Azfar have to say that the CIA is out to get Zardari or Mr Zardari refuse to oblige Obama by sending the army into relatively peaceful North Waziristan?

There will be much double-speak in future dealings between the two countries as each seeks to pursue divergent and often conflicting goals without actually causing a rupture in their relationship as both have too much to lose. That said, the army, which sets the parameters of foreign policy, will have to be wiser than they are and the civilians wiser than they seem. At the very least the Presidency and the GHQ must be on the same page. Coordination between the two will have to be near perfect if their endeavour to prevent a vital relationship going sour is to succeed. Their guile, diplomacy and patience will be sorely tested in the days ahead.

Of course, both Pakistan and the US have interests that are common. Both are keen that the pro-al Qaeda and the antediluvian segment of the Afghan Taliban led by Mullah Omar are neutralised. Pakistan’s righteous anger against the selective use of drones and perhaps the US Special Forces will be muted if they succeed in killing or capturing Mullah Omar. However, if such attacks and bombing of the Pakistani territory targeting the Taliban in general cause civilian causalities, the resultant public furore could bring about a hiatus in the relationship. Pakistan’s democracy may be imperilled and so, in due course, the hold of senior military officers counselling calm on the younger lot. In short, mindless US bombings and incursions into Pakistan will prove disastrous for the alliance. It would be doltish on the part of the US to let its preoccupation with a score or two of al Qaeda terrorists blind it to the consequences of putting a part of the subcontinent in turmoil.

Eroding the military capabilities of the Taliban on both sides of the border is something else on which the US and Pakistan agree. The army is in the midst of a brave effort to do so. The US effort in Afghanistan has as yet to begin in earnest. Thus far it has been irresolute and ill conceived, hence ineffective. However, if the surge does succeed in degrading the power of the Taliban, at least to the extent that the Afghan Taliban are prepared to be more amenable to dialogue, Islamabad will be no less pleased than Washington.

And yet the confluence of interests is less than their differences. These are complex and many. Pakistan, for instance, is aware that the regime in Kabul is not even remotely representative of the Afghan people. It is an American artifice created and sustained by US bayonets. What is more the Northern Alliance-dominated regime has demonstrated a degree of animus towards Pakistan that has virtually ensured that nothing lasting or positive will emerge from the relationship. Only for the sake of pleasing the US is a contrived bonhomie being maintained.

Similarly, while Pakistan supports a continued US presence in Afghanistan, it is apprehensive that the surge may drive the Afghan Taliban into Pakistan. In other words, it prefers a subdued rather than a robust US presence. A curious stance considering that a weakened Taliban, wherever they may be located, is far more preferable to a resurgent adversary. But then in this game self-interest plays all sorts of roles.

Just about every kind of fear and foreboding has been advanced were the Americans to leave Afghanistan; all of which stem from the fear of our inability to cope with the consequential military, social and economic breakdown of order in Afghanistan while tackling the threat posed by home grown terrorists. This is a pity because a solid, well-governed, democratic Pakistan is the best insurance against the spread of the Taliban menace. We can only achieve this by the dint of our own efforts. Alas, progress in this direction is far too slow. Many would prefer that we fend for ourselves and fall and bleed as we grope our way out because eventually a collective effort, initiative and exertion will determine not only whether we survive but, more importantly, how we live.

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