Finally, the Nato supply routes to Afghanistan have been reopened. The decision followed a public statement from the US Secretary of State wherein she carefully selected a few apologetic words, allowing the Pakistani authorities some measure of face-saving at home. The resolution of this key transaction took nearly eight months and it is absolutely mind-boggling to understand what prevented the US from making such a statement earlier? Or for that matter why could Pakistan not use diplomatic channels for a quicker resolution of the dispute?
The answers to these questions lie in the proclivity of both the sides for grandstanding and posturing mainly to whip up public opinion as well as play a game of needless brinkmanship. Pakistan’s demand for an apology was a fair one. As a long-standing ally, the deaths of its soldiers in US airstrikes in November 2011 was unpalatable for a military embroiled in a difficult war. That said, sections of America’s disparate policy machinery also hold the Pakistani state responsible for the Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan. Did they not know all along that Pakistan was not going to dump some of the Taliban factions even when it pursued al Qaeda?
On the other hand, Pakistan’s abrupt closure of supply lines made little sense in the larger perspective, especially as far as its own national interest was concerned. Rational states anchor their policies in pure self-interest. For nine years, Pakistan had allowed Nato supplies to pass through and halted them in the 10th year when Nato/US troops were planning to start a phased withdrawal from Afghanistan. The war in Afghanistan and its spillover into Pakistan’s border areas have been major sources of instability for Pakistan. The non-transparent and narrow parameters for policy setting have meant that achieving strategic leverage in Afghanistan and countering India’s influence are the two key policy drivers. Whilst these are important considerations, the larger issue of Pakistan’s own survival as a society and state has been missing from the discourse.
The Taliban in Afghanistan have a Pakistani counterpart — the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). Al Qaeda is weak but has not disappeared and, according to several reports, has found bases even in urban areas within Pakistan. More importantly, the repeat of a 1990s-style Taliban march on Kabul is not likely anymore. So what are the policymakers thinking here? Is there a plan, a strategy of sorts on Afghanistan other than the outdated overarching quest for strategic depth? No one really knows. The contradiction between the officially stated and on-ground positions is also intriguing. On the one hand, we are comfortable with a few factions such as the Haqqani network and on the other we also complain of incursions and sanctuaries across the Durand line.
Most importantly, Afghanistan is not just a land of the Pakhtuns. There are scores of other ethnic groups with different aspirations for the future. What about the growing middle class, youth and civil society in Afghanistan, which seeks stability, and supports a pluralistic governance model? The country and the region have suffered from the imposition of a bigoted version of a so-called Islamic culture in the past. Why should we condemn ourselves to repeat history?
Despite the growing chasm between their respective strategic interests and goals, Pakistan and the US cannot do without each other, at least not until 2014. Much has been said globally on Pakistan’s present or future ‘defeat’ in Afghanistan. The challenge of mending the strained US-Pakistan relations is huge. It is, therefore, time to let diplomacy prevail with a robust set of Track II initiatives, media exchanges and search for alternative solutions, which are independent of military interests on both the sides. Pakistan faces an immense challenge in the wake of US withdrawal and has to tackle the homegrown extremists. It simply cannot delay thinking about these imperatives.
Similarly, the US must not contribute to strengthening the irrational anti-American voices through its aggressive posturing. Instead, it should think of securing regional peace through engagement and not military diktat. The latter is obviously not working in Afghanistan.
Published in The Express Tribune, July 5th, 2012.
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