Friday, 13 May 2011

Can Pakistan Manage a Return to Pre 9/11 Days?

Pakistan had a good deal going until that warm September morning in 2001 when jet planes heavily laden with aviation fuel crashed into Manhattan’s twin towers and the Pentagon. Granted that in 2001 Pakistan’s relationship with the US wasn’t as warm as it had been during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, Pakistan nevertheless had ‘strategic depth’ in Taliban controlled Afghanistan. A nuclear power that had just been humbled in Kargil, it continued to arm and train Islamic fundamentalists who crossed the LoC in Kashmir to keep Indian forces on their toes. India screamed and ranted, but neither the US nor any other western power took much notice. The Taliban ruled Afghanistan by the Sharia rulebook, preventing widows from venturing outside their homes to earn a livelihood and stoning adulterers, but nobody really gave a damn. It was not that the Al Qaeda wasn’t active. It was. The Al Qaeda had detonated a truck bomb under the North Tower of the World Trade Centre in 1993. In 1998, US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania were bombed, killing a couple of hundred people. In 2000, an explosive-laden boat rammed into US naval destroyer USS Cole in the Port of Aden. However, neither Pakistan nor the Taliban in Afghanistan was held to account for any of these events. Why? Because until 9/11, western security experts had not seriously linked the Al Qaeda to either the Afghan Taliban or to Pakistan.

Osama bin Laden’s presence in Afghanistan when the 9/11 attacks took place made it clear that the Taliban in Afghanistan had provided sanctuary to the Al Qaeda. Retaliation from the US was swift and decisive. Shock and awe from the air was followed with boots on Afghan soil. Pakistan was arm-twisted and cajoled into taking part in the war again the Al Qaeda and their local guardians, the Afghan Taliban. Slowly the fighting spread across the Durand Line and Pakistani Taliban came into being. Swat and various federally administered tribal areas (FATA) were engulfed in the violence. Pakistani Taliban and other Islamic fundamentalists unleashed a wave of violence against Pakistani security forces all over Pakistan and not just in Swat and FATA. There were suicide attacks targeting Pakistani forces. Pakistani forces prevailed in Swat, but the fighting continues elsewhere.

Soon it became evident that though Pakistan was incurring heavy losses in men and materials in fighting the Taliban, it was going easy on some of the fundamentalist outfits, mainly the ones involved in the Kashmir campaign. The offensive against the Pakistani Taliban has not yet been extended to North Waziristan. The Haqqani network has not been targeted. And now, after Osama bin Laden was killed in Abbottabad, it seems obvious that at least a few ISI officers were protecting him.

Can Pakistan and the Afghan Taliban turn the clock back? Can the duo persuade the US administration and other Western governments that they no longer shelter the Al Qaeda (there isn’t much left of it anyway) and if left to their own devices, will not bother or trouble the West. The promise to not cause any trouble would not apply to Kashmir, of course.

A few days ago I watched an interview of Imran Khan, former cricketer and currently leader of the Tehreek-e-Insaf in Pakistan, by an Indian TV channel. Imran Khan suggested a solution to the current impasse on the lines mentioned above. Of course Imran worded it differently. According to Imran, the US should stop all drone attacks and stop violating Pakistan’s sovereignty. The US should also pull out its forces from Afghanistan as soon as a consensus government is formed in Kabul. In return for stopping drone attacks, Pakistan would guarantee that Pakistani territory would not be used for attacks on US targets or US interests. On Kashmir, Imran generously suggested that India and Pakistan should negotiate in good faith, going so far as to suggest that India was probably supporting insurgents in Balochistan and not denying that Pakistan has been supporting insurgents in Kashmir.

The billion dollar question is, can Pakistan get away with all the double-crossing it has done till date and turn the clock back to pre-9/11 days? With so many commentators (mainly Indians and Afghans) wondering aloud when the cuckolded US will divorce Pakistan, is the situation as bleak for Pakistan as it sounds?

As the Taliban in Afghanistan have got yet another credible spring offensive going, the US has come to realise that it cannot win the war against the Taliban in Afghanistan. In my opinion, the US can win this war only if it manages to stop the flow of funds to the Taliban from patrons in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere. This is a really tall order and would involve dismantling the USA’s relationship with the ruling Al Saud family, cutting down its reliance on oil, not selling expensive weaponry to Saudi Arabia and other Gulf States (at the cost of many defence sector jobs) and similar unthinkable measures.

Until the US forces are withdrawn from Afghanistan, the US cannot afford to not have the outward show of co-operation it currently receives from Pakistan. Supply routes into Afghanistan run through Pakistan and if Pakistan were to be openly hostile to the US, US forces in Afghanistan will have a very tough time. Cutting off aid to Pakistan may result in the civilian government in Islamabad losing control to Pakistani Taliban, resulting in chaos. The US is already thinly stretched in Afghanistan and it just doesn’t have the capacity to open a new front in Pakistan.

After the death of Osama bin Laden, it will be possible for the Obama administration to convince the US public that the US has ‘avenged’ the 9/11 attacks and met the objectives behind the invasion of Afghanistan. If the US is unlikely to make further progress in Afghanistan and the US public’s thirst for revenge has been quenched, there is a very good chance that the US will walk out of Afghanistan, leaving behind Karzai to hold the fort as best as he can. It is unlikely that Karzai will last long once US forces leave Afghanistan, but would the US really care? Just before Kabul falls to the Taliban, the US might evacuate Karzai and offer him refuge in the United States. Provided Barack Obama woke up on the right side of his bed that morning.

Of course, it won’t be as simple as that to turn the clock back to pre 9/11 days. Granted the Afghan Taliban were never particularly keen on global dominance, can it be said that the Pakistani Taliban will not want to hold the reins of power in Islamabad? Would they not, after the departure of US forces from that region, made a grab for power from the democratic government in Pakistan? Capturing power in Pakistan would give the Taliban access to Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal. Most Pakistanis do not want Pakistan to be ruled by the Taliban, though they do want Afghanistan to be so ruled. However, how many Pakistani moderates are there who would grab the family rifle and head to the mountains to fight to keep the Taliban at bay? Islamic Fundamentalists on the other hand can be comfortable in the knowledge that their supporters are willing to give or shed blood for their cause.

In order to rid the region of US forces, it is possible that Pakistan may be able to persuade the Taliban to silence their guns. Both the Pakistanis and the Taliban would know that such a cease-fire would be temporary. However, Pakistan is so consumed by its desire to win Kashmir that it may be willing to place the entire country under the threat of a fundamentalist take-over and agree to a ceasefire with militants who have killed thousands of Pakistani security forces and who might use the cease-fire to rearm, regroup and prepare for a new war.

It is possible that the ISI officers sheltering Osama Bin Laden gave him up to the US forces, knowing full well that the US public would treat Osama’s capture as a victory over the dark forces and make it easier for Barack Obama to withdraw US troops from Afghanistan prior to the 2012 US elections. It’s even probable that Barack Obama, through the CIA, made a deal with the ISI. “Hand over Osama to us, dead or alive, and we’ll leave soon after,” the CIA might have told the ISI. The story that the US found bin Laden’s trail through bin Laden’s trusted courier Al-Kuwaiti might be just a smokescreen meant to save the informants within the ISI (and the ISI itself) from the wrath of Islamic fundamentalists. It is rather difficult to believe that the US SEALS managed to carry out a 40 minute long operation in the heart of Pakistan without Pakistani air force interceptors being scrambled or the local cops coming along to see what was going on. In normal circumstances, the US wouldn’t go out of its way to explain how it managed to track down bin Laden. The fact that so many detailed explanations are being given on how Al-Kuwaiti led them to bin Laden suggests that the real lead came from elsewhere. Here’s an Outlook India article which says what I am saying.

If the US agrees to turn the clock back to pre 9/11 days, it is very likely that a full-fledged civil war will flare up in Afghanistan. Most of the Afghan National Army units are composed of Tajiks and they are unlikely to stand by as the Pashtun Taliban return. Civil war will lead to an informal partition of Afghanistan into Pashtun, Tajik, Uzbek and Hazara enclaves and an uneasy truce thereafter. It is very difficult to predict if the Pakistani Taliban will manage to capture power in Pakistan. In my opinion, they are unlikely to do so outside the FATA (the fundamentalists do not have a leader who can rally the common man outside the federally administered tribal areas) though they may make an attempt and this could lead to a spurt of violence in the short term. However, it is easy to predict that the flow of money and fighters to the Kashmir valley will be renewed with vigour. Would the US or other western countries really care? No, because they didn’t care prior to 9/11.

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