The more things change, the more they stay the same

It is September 11, 2011. Al Qaeda is back in the news — and in a big way.

Moeed Yusuf September 11, 2011

Counterfactual experiments are always difficult exercises as you are left to toy with countless ‘what if’ scenarios. What follows is a thought experiment which illustrates one, rather grim but plausible outcome of a ‘minus 9/11’ world. I look back at the past decade, using hypothetical markers and events (please note than even though the discussion may seem to be depicting reality, I am creating a hypothetical scenario), to construct what could have been Pakistan’s geo-strategic outlook had 9/11 not happened. It challenges the premise that all of Pakistan’s current geo-strategic woes are courtesy of 9/11.

It is September 11, 2011. Al Qaeda is back in the news — and in a big way. Last week’s attack on USS Lincoln in the Persian Gulf was the deadliest terrorist strike against a US target since the American Embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998. Al Qaeda has claimed responsibility and, unusual as it is, it has emphasised that the attack was personally planned by the group’s ‘Afghanistan-based leadership’.

Alarm bells should go off in Islamabad; Pakistan is certain to face renewed pressure to revise its pro-Taliban policy. Already, today’s international press stories are suggesting that the US is contemplating “all options” against Al Qaeda presence and the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. Some are arguing that the UN should be leveraged to authorise limited use of force against the perpetrators and to sanction neighbouring states — read Pakistan — who have not done their part to enforce previous U.N.S.C. resolutions aimed at isolating the Taliban.

This may or may not happen. But what is becoming increasingly clear is that the world’s patience is running out with the Taliban and also with Pakistan, which is holding out as the lone supporter of the government in Afghanistan.

Pakistan’s Taliban policy is still dictated by the traditional security paradigm: the need for a friendly Afghanistan to avoid a two-front situation. Over the past decade, the Pakistani state has been widely criticised for persisting with this stance. At the same time however, the international community has been more than happy to use Pakistan, albeit quietly, as a conduit to the Taliban.

The reality though is that Pakistan is no longer in control of this relationship. Since the late-1990s, and increasingly in the 2000s the once pliant Taliban leadership has been charting a course quite different from Pakistani preferences. The Taliban rule has become increasingly radical; they have adopted an even more dogmatic and uncompromising stance towards the average Afghan citizen; they no longer seem concerned that their territory has become the global hub for ‘jihadists’ with varied international or country-specific agendas; and as the international financial squeeze on the Taliban has tightened, its leadership has openly courted Al Qaeda to acquire much-needed monetary assistance.

The Pakistani state has found itself in a tight spot. On the one hand, the Taliban do fulfill the mandate of being unthreatening to Pakistan and in supporting the Pakistani security establishment’s position on India. On the other hand however, Taliban tactics have embarrassed Pakistan on numerous occasions. Islamabad has been under constant international pressure — even more so after the Saudis and Arab Emirates “de-recognised” the Taliban owing to their growing links with Al Qaeda — for what is largely seen as a policy of appeasement towards Kandahar.

Insiders also tell me that the Pakistani state feels “stuck” and helpless. They argue that the Taliban wield more influence over the Pakistani security establishment than the other way round. Virtually all Pakistani efforts to convince the Taliban to moderate their views have failed; episode after episode has proven the Taliban to be defiant in the face of Pakistani pressure. In fact, courtesy of the Pakistani state allowing the Taliban a virtually free hand in terms of physical presence and ease of movement in Pakistan, and unchecked access to right wing Pakistani political parties, they have created a strong support base even outside the bordering Pakistani tribal areas. The Pakistani state worries that taking a U-turn on the Taliban policy may create a serious internal backlash, egged on by Al Qaeda and other affiliated militant outfits operating from Afghanistan.

Pakistan is also feeling ‘boxed-in’ on the principal pillar of its foreign policy: India.

Both sides have continued their tit-for-tat Machiavellian approach. Despite significant international pressure since the 1999 Kargil war, Pakistan has persisted with support to the insurgency in Indian Kashmir even though the level of support has ebbed and flowed depending on the circumstances and the intensity of international pressure at any point in time.

India, remaining true to the tradition of this rivalry, has also continued its interference in Pakistan. The Pakistani state has repeatedly alleged Indian involvement in the intermittently turbulent Karachi (where an Indian role was also alleged during the 1990s) and Lahore, and in Balochistan where nationalists have risen against Islamabad for various reasons. The extent to which New Delhi is meddling is unclear. But most Pakistani policymakers in the know insist that it is enough to keep the pot boiling.

The Pakistani state’s view is that the world has been unfair on the Kashmir issue. Despite a host of international resolutions and pledges, India has not been pushed to negotiate on Kashmir seriously. There is also resentment over the global indifference towards India’s meddling inside Pakistan and on what are perceived in Islamabad as deliberate Indian efforts to discredit Islamabad’s position through an aggressive public relations campaign in Western capitals.

Indeed, there is no doubt that Pakistan has been blamed for mistakes which are its own, and others, which objectively speaking, may not have been. But this can’t be the basis of a country’s foreign policy. Interstate politics is not about fairness — never has been and never will be.

As painful as it may be for a Pakistani mind, Pakistan’s India calculus has to be seen in a different light. The fact is that unlike Pakistan, India has begun to transmit positive energies; it has begun to attract the Western world through markets, promises of monetary returns, and in terms of its strategic value in countering rising China. Moreover, the India-US alliance has matured surprisingly quickly and while Pakistan has every reason to cry bloody murder on the defence deals and the civil-nuclear agreement between Washington and New Delhi, this is a game of interests — a game that India is winning.

Islamabad can get upset but it can’t change reality simply by objecting to it. This is international relations 101: India offers positive returns and its present interests align with the U.S. more neatly. Therefore, it will get concessions; its narrative will sell better; Pakistan’s pleas to examine India’s meddling inside Pakistan will go unheeded but Pakistan’s Kashmir policy will get battered; India’s military build-up will be appreciated as a right of the world’s largest democracy but Pakistan’s efforts to upgrade its nuclear arsenal in response will be seen negatively.

To be sure, the world, including the US, cannot afford to ignore Pakistan — after all it is a nuclear weapons power with a large population and a strategically important location — but it is finding reason to tilt decisively in India’s favour. So while Pakistan will not be abandoned, it will not be satisfied either.

Finally, a word about the ‘all weather friend’: China. From Pakistan’s perspective, this is the silver lining. As Islamabad has come under increasing pressure from the rest of the world, and as the US-India alliance has marched on, Beijing has found reason to intensify its support to Pakistan. The multiple defence agreements, a civil nuclear deal, and even direct economic assistance (which goes against China’s investment-driven assistance model) are all signs that the Chinese see added utility in supporting Islamabad.

That said however, I see the Pakistani leadership reading too much into these overtures; a feeling of growing isolation is prompting them to see China as a substitute to the rest of the world. This is unlikely to pass and Beijing itself will be unhappy about this.

Chinese mercantile instincts will never allow it to rupture ties with New Delhi for Pakistan’s sake; nor will Beijing upset a superpower beyond a point solely to appease Islamabad. China is certainly a fallback option, but its best use for Pakistan is as a supplement to positive ties with the rest of the world, not as a substitute. From China’s point of view, they have sent enough signals to make this clear: their neutrality during Kargil; their constant praise for the India-China economic relationship; and their decisions not to veto the U.N.S.C. sanctions of 2003 and 2007 against the Taliban all point to this sentiment.

So where do we go from here?

How about realising the need to genuinely reorient the traditional strategic mindset? I say this not only because Pakistan is becoming increasingly friendless in the world but also because the ‘jihad factory’ may be getting out of control even if we don’t realise it.

The ultra-right, which the state has patronised, has spread its tentacles gradually, but smartly. Their social networks have won them ardent supports — often times even recruits — and the garb of holy preachers that their social wings operate under also makes their fund raising campaigns resounding successes. The confidence with which they are glorifying jihad is quite striking. There are even reports that some organisations have begun to bad mouth their state patrons for being insincere to the cause of jihad — for not being ‘Islamic’ enough.

If the state waits much longer, it may find that it cannot tame the militant outfits even if it wants to. The naivety in believing that ‘jihad’ will always remain purely externally oriented may then be exposed in a nasty manner. Pakistan has not felt any serious violent blowback from its pro-militancy and pro-Taliban policies yet — but this may change if Islamabad continues to remain complacent.

A strategic rethink doesn’t mean giving up on core interests. It only implies reassessing and reorienting policy to best align national interests with global realities.

How about a gradual reversal of the pro-militancy policies? How about intensive de-radicalisation, de-mobilisation, and rehabilitation of the anti-India groups? How about seeking to pull back from the Taliban regime gradually without rupturing ties and forcing them to fuel trouble in Pakistan? How about mending fences with other Pashtun and non-Pashtun elements in Afghanistan and investing more in Afghanistan’s development? How about opening up economic ties with India? How about a simultaneous re-prioritising of domestic resources to build up Pakistan’s export and market potential which would attract the world and, over time, create a vital stake for them in addressing Pakistan’s concerns? How about seeking Chinese (and other partners’) help in approaching Pakistan more from an economic rather than a strategic lens? And how about keeping up the military’s upgradation but without allowing it to overwhelm the state’s resources?

To be sure, the world cannot escape blame for failing to facilitate Pakistan’s move in such a direction. Just like I am pleading more realism in Pakistani policy, the world, including India also has to be more realistic in its approach. Kashmir remains central to Pakistani thinking and thus requires India to be more forthcoming. The world must also offer extensive economic support, remain patient, and rather than ignoring Pakistani geo-strategic concerns and compulsions, use its newfound leverage with countries like India to provide Pakistan space to alter its policies.

If peace in South Asia is a common interest, as is professed to be the case, this is the quickest way to get to it: Pakistan has to change and the world has to create the conditions that will allow it to do so.

Now back to the real: readers should note how similar the situation would have been (at least under this scenario) for Pakistan even if 9/11 had not occurred. Pakistan would have been spared the violence it faces today; it would not have had to bear the brunt of a war next door; and terrorism would not have become a household term. However, Pakistan would still not have been sitting pretty. Its policies would have come under increasing criticism and it would have felt just as ‘boxed-in’ thanks to India’s rise and the world’s frustration with the Taliban’s Afghanistan (presuming, as I have, that they held on to power throughout).

Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, September 11th,  2011.


Sunny | 10 years ago | Reply

Excellent write up. I think Pakistan has to realize that they cannot hope to match Indian influence in international fora. India is too big and too strong for that. It is best if both the countries sit together and align themselves to have more trade and people to people relationships. Its the only way forward. False bravado would not get Pakistan any where.

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