By Najam Sethi
18 May, 2012
In principle, the civil-military leadership of Pakistan has decided to re-engage with America by restoring the NATO pipeline and attending the Afghanistan moot in Chicago. This is good news. But it is extraordinary how the recent public debate in Pakistan has revolved around questions like "what's in it for us monetarily" and "drones must stop because they violate our sovereignty". Neither position was taken by the media and public during the seven years of the US-Pakistan relationship from 2001-2008 when Pakistan was ruled by the military establishment under General Pervez Musharraf or from 2008-2010 when the civilians under President Asif Zardari were supposedly in charge. Clearly, if drones strikes were kosher then, why not now?
One major factor has changed. The Bush doctrine of "strategically partnering" Pakistan to "wage a war without end" against Al-Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan has been replaced by the Obama doctrine of swiftly degrading Al-Qaeda via drones, increasingly fighting with the Taliban by means of a refurbished "Afghan army", strengthening President Hamid Karzai economically and militarily, and pulling out NATO from Afghanistan by 2014. The Bush doctrine "suited" Pakistan's military establishment - American money and weapons flowed in unconditionally and the military's "strategic assets" in Mullah Omar and the Haqqani network weren't seriously degraded. But the Obama doctrine is threatening to derail the military's carefully laid plans of a "friendly" Talibanised Afghanistan as in 1996-2001.
Initially, the Pakistani military resisted the new Obama strategy by citing lack of resources for its inability to "do more" against the Haqqani network and the Taliban. It also explained why it wanted not just a stable and peaceful Afghanistan but also one that was "friendly" towards Pakistan. In reality, however, its game plan was centered on the Afghan Taliban: frustrate the American plan by various means until time runs out in 2014, then help the Taliban overrun Kabul just as the Mujahidden had done with Pakistan's help in 1992 after the Soviets withdrew in 1989.
Problems arose when the Obama White House determined to challenge the Pakistani military's game plan in America's own "national interest". Unilateral drone strikes went up four times and eliminated 80% of the Al-Qaeda warriors in FATA. The Americans unilaterally "took out" Osama bin Laden from Abbotabad in May last year. Then, in October, they accused Pakistan's ISI of playing a "treacherous double game" with them - Pakistani generals' avowed best friend, Admiral Mike Mullen, CJCSC, said the "Haqqani network (which has taken a heavy toll of American lives by its audacious attacks on US interests in Afghanistan) was a veritable arm of the ISI". The Salala raid a month later was in the same vein of unilateralism. Stung, humiliated, and fearful of further unilateral acts by the Americans to undermine Pakistan's game plan, the Pakistani military establishment drew a red line by freezing the NATO pipeline, reasoning that the Americans couldn't afford to stay disrupted for long. For good measure, the military establishment thrust "ownership" of its besieged Afghan policy on to the elected civilian parliament and anti-American Pakistani media.
This tactic has not worked. Under pressure from the Republicans in an election year, the Obama administration has become more unyielding rather than less as far as the Afghan end-game is concerned. This was testified initially by a willingness to shift focus to the expensive Northern route for NATO supplies, followed by a decision to start bilateral negotiations with the Taliban in Qatar, disregarding Pakistan's boycott of the Bonn Conference and not inviting it to the Chicago moot. The straw that broke Pakistan's back was a palpable threat of sanctions and an unexpected signing of a "strategic alliance" agreement between the US and the Karzai regime. The transition from "strategic ally" to "frenemy" has been swifter than the Pakistani generals had bargained for. The civilians didn't help by distorting the military's calibrated plan because they took far too long to start re-engagement, thereby pushing Washington to take a harder line.
But it is still not too late for Pakistan to change tack. Clearly, the international community led by America and the regional countries will not allow a Taliban government in Kabul. Therefore, unless Pakistan wants to become another North Korea, its best option now is to help secure a stable and peaceful Afghanistan that is not "unfriendly" towards it rather than one that is tilted in its favour and against others in the region aligned with America. The notion of "strategic depth" against India has become time-barred. It is time to persuade the Taliban and the Haqqani network to start negotiations with Kabul and Washington instead of helping them retain an aggressive posture. If this isn't done, Pakistan will have to contend with a more rather than less Talibanised Pakistan in which the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban will make common cause more readily against Islamabad than against Kabul. Pakistan needs to be an integral part of the end-game in Afghanistan, not isolated, sanctioned and degraded like the Taliban.