Looming challenges

As the second Afghan War is in its 19th year

M Ziauddin November 09, 2019
The writer served as Executive Editor of The Express Tribune from 2009 to 2014

During the first Afghan War when the US and now-defunct USSR were engaged in a mortal combat across our north-western borders, the thinking among our strategic planners was that since two superpowers were involved, it is going to be a never-ending war and as such a never-ending flood of dollars would keep flowing our way — the frontline state of the free world — from the four corners of the world.

We never thought how we would manage in the aftermath if the war ended sooner with the defeat of one of the combatants and the victor walking away from the battleground dropping the post-war mess in our lap and the flow of dollars drying up. That is, we had no Plan B or Plan C to meet any such eventuality. And that is why the country went into a spin in the decade following the end of the war. The 1990s were a disaster politically, economically and strategically. It was a lost decade for Pakistan.

And now we seem to be repeating the same blunder as the second Afghan War is in its 19th year. We have no Plans B or C to meet the anticipated eventualities: the war continuing for another decade or so; a peace accord with the Taliban and current Kabul government sharing power; no peace accord but the Afghan Taliban chasing US troops out of the country like the Vietcong did in Vietnam in mid-1970s; and perhaps many more post-occupation scenarios.

To be candid, it is never a good policy to position a country like Pakistan on the wrong side of the US. This we did in the 1990s, soon after the end of the Cold War and earned the Americans’ wrath that lingered until 9/11. But today it would be even more disastrous for us to try to become America’s most “allied ally” of the Cold War days again. We are certainly not welcome in the US. In fact, we stand friendless in Washington.

Meanwhile, clear signs are emerging on the global front pigeon-holing the US as a receding power and tagging China as an ascending one. Indeed, China, in the coming decades is expected to take the lead as the world’s largest economy. Together with Russia, China would soon be challenging America’s hegemonic position.

We are already well entrenched on the right side of China. And to be able to position ourselves in the right region when the anticipated tug of war for global hegemony begins with the US on one side and China-Russia on the other, we need to quickly mend our fences with Russia.

Therefore, Islamabad’s decision the other day to sign a deal with Moscow to settle a 39-year-old exporters’ claims case is certainly a most welcome development. These claims have remained unsettled since the disintegration of the USSR.

Under the agreement, the Pakistani government will return $93.5 million to Russia within 90 days of the signing and clear the pending exporters’ claims by $23.8 million according to the settlement agreements reached on October 6, 2016 and December 27, 2017.

Following the resolution of this pending dispute all legal hurdles in the way of Moscow investing $8 billion in Pakistan will hopefully be removed. Most of this investment is likely to come in the energy sector and the Pakistan Steel Mills.

We also must keep a close eye on ISIS’ Afghan affiliate, the Islamic State Khorasan (ISK). Presently, ISK faces disadvantages compared with the much larger Taliban, which aligns against it. But what if the two groups allied? Relative autonomy means the death of ISIS leader Al Baghdadi will have little effect, and a Taliban-government peace process could inject new support for ISK, from those who oppose it. For Islamabad, the stakes are likely to be high in case the two join hands. According to an Afghanistan-based US intelligence official in June, ISK represents “the most near-term threat” to US and European homelands. But it could also pose an existential threat to Pakistan as well.

Published in The Express Tribune, November 9th, 2019.

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