Between US and Pak, who is bluffing whom?

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By Sushant Sareen

IF THE recent spate of terror attacks in Afghanistan — the truck bombing of an American base, the attack on the US Embassy in Kabul and the assassination of former Afghan President and the government’s pointsman for the ‘reconciliation process’, Burhanuddin Rabbani — are any indication, then the situation in the AfPak region seems to be fast spiralling out of control. The gory details, or for that matter the timeline, of how the Afghan cookie will ultimately crumble, nobody can be sure. What is clear, however, is that, partly by design and partly by default, the main players in the AfPak region — the Americans, Pakistanis, non-Pashtun Afghans, the Taliban and the al Qaeda and its affiliates — are taking positions and are in turn being steadily pushed by force of circumstances into a situation that portends cataclysmic changes in the entire region.

Another one bites the dust Afghans mourn Burhanuddin Rabbani’s death
Another one bites the dust Afghans mourn Burhanuddin Rabbani’s death
Photo: Reuters

Dire predictions about the future notwithstanding, the spike in violence in Afghanistan has also done a few good things. For one, it has blown the fairy tale of ‘reconciliation’ in Afghanistan to smithereens. Rabbani’s assassination has ended the fiction that peaceful co-existence and power sharing with the Taliban is possible. The battlelines will henceforth be more clearly defined. The anti-Taliban forces will in all earnestness start preparing for a fight for survival against the Taliban and their cohorts. They might still pretend to participate in the ‘reconciliation’ drama, but would not be so stupid as to take these talks so seriously that they eventually end up on the receiving end in a Taliban turkey shoot.

The other good thing to emerge is that the Americans, and perhaps others in the international community, seem to be finally waking up to the real problem — Pakistan. For India, it is déjà vu to hear the charges being levelled by US officials against Pakistan and the defence that Pakistan is offering. Earlier, only India charged Pakistan with using terrorists to wage a ‘proxy war’, ‘exporting violent extremism as an instrument of policy’, sponsoring, supporting and directing the actions of terrorist organisations that functioned as ‘proxies’ or as a ‘veritable arm’ of the ISI, and pointed out the organic links between the Pakistani State and so-called ‘non-State’ actors. Now it is also the Americans who are saying exactly the same things.

The Pakistani response to US accusations is no different from what was thrown back at India. For instance, Pakistan’s Interior Minister Rehman Malik has been acting like corrupt cop Paresh Rawal in the film Aakrosh and claiming that the notorious Haqqani network was no longer present in Pakistan. Malik has promised to take action if given information about the whereabouts of the group, exactly the line the Pakistanis take on terrorists groups operating against India. Likewise, the Pakistan military and its ‘embedded’ journalists, analysts and television anchors and Taliban apologists gloss over the sanctuaries given to the terrorists by nonchalantly maintaining that even if some terrorists did infiltrate into Afghanistan from Pakistani territory, it was the responsibility of the Afghan and international security forces to apprehend them.

Rabbani’s killing has ended the fiction that power sharing with the Taliban is possible

There are also the other standard explanations and excuses that the Pakistanis have become so adept at wheeling out when the occasion demands: the army is over-stretched, any action against the Haqqanis will lead to a storm of terrorism in Pakistan (but didn’t Malik just say that the Haqqanis are no longer present in Pakistan?), maintaining contacts with terrorist groups doesn’t mean controlling or supporting them (while this is a tacit acceptance of the American allegations it also begs the question that if the Pakistanis have contacts then how come they don’t know where these guys are?) and so on and so forth.

THE ONLY difference between India and the US is that India, despite a string of prime ministers afflicted with the bug of trying to break the logjam and normalise relations with Pakistan, was never under any illusion about that country. The Americans, on the other hand, haven’t quite got to the point where they are willing to give up on Pakistan. In spite of getting their soldiers killed by Pakistan’s proxies and not having anything to show for the billions of dollars of taxpayer money that have been poured into Pakistan, US officials continue to hang on to a thread of hope that Pakistan will see sense. Sample this: after saying all the nasty things about the Pakistani complicity in spawning terrorism in Afghanistan, top US military official Admiral Mike Mullen not only defended his parleys with the Pakistan military, but actually went on to urge greater sensitivity for Pakistan’s political, security and economic concerns and recommended deepening of US engagement with Pakistan.

Leave aside Einstein’s definition of stupidity as doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result every time, the question is what else, if anything, the Americans can do about Pakistan? Clearly, the ground situation has reached a point where the Americans are running out of both patience with and options on Pakistan. Out of the four traditional ways to force compellance — sama (persuade), dama (bribe),bhed (blackmail or secrets), and dand (violence /punishment) — the Americans have tried the first three in vain.

What now remains to be seen is whether the US will follow India’s lead and retaliate against Pakistan’s inimical actions by only threatening to retaliate; or will the Americans actually call Pakistan’s bluff and resort to dand by undertaking unilateral action against terrorist targets in Pakistani territory? If it is the former, then the Pakistanis would have been right in their assessment that the Americans can only shout and scream but can do nothing more and so Pakistan can continue with its dangerous policy of playing both sides of the game. If, however, the Americans do decide that they are left with no choice but to take action, then will such action only be limited to an increase in the frequency of drone attacks or will the Americans also use fighter jets and Special Forces to strike at terrorist bases?

Before taking any precipitate step, the US will certainly factor in Pakistan’s reaction. The usual Pakistani (more Punjabi actually) braggadocio and bluster aside, the Pakistani establishment knows that if its bluff is called, it will be caught between a rock and a hard place. The Pakistan army, extremely professional in conquering its own country, knows very well the military and economic consequences of entering into a headlong confrontation with a superpower. The odds therefore are in favour of the Pakistanis backing down: either they will kowtow to US demands on the Haqqani network; or else, they will react to a possible, even inevitable, US unilateral action with enormous outrage, most of it expressed on television talk shows and some of it through ‘million man marches’ by the mullahs. They may also take a few cosmetic measures to assert their sovereignty. And after letting off the steam, pipe down.

Importantly, if after this the Pakistanis go back to their double game, they will leave the Americans with no choice but to continue their strikes inside Pakistan. That then will be the real crunch time for Pakistan. If the Pakistani establishment still doesn’t react, it will risk the boiling over of public sentiment that is already being fed a daily diet of anti-Americanism; on the other hand, if the Pakistanis get carried away by their own rhetoric and enter into a shooting match with the Americans, then the cataclysmic changes that were mentioned above will be fast forwarded by a few years.

Sushant Sareen is Consultant, Pakistan Project, IDSA. 
[email protected]

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