Lifting the veil on conflict, culture and politics
Pakistan getting ahead of itself on the Afghan chessboard?
If you have been reading news reports and blogs in recent weeks on Pakistan’s Afghanistan strategy, you would think Islamabad has emerged at the top of the heap, holding all the cards to a possible endgame. Its close ties to the Afghan Taliban put Islamabad in a unique position for a negotiated settlement to the eight-year-war, with little place for arch rival India which has been trying to muscle into its sphere of influence.
But Pakistan must not be taken in by all the hype; it has neither delivered a strategic coup nor has it fully secured its interests, argue two experts in separate pieces that seem to cut through all the noise.
The ultimate measure of success in the current conflict is the security of the Pakistani people and that is showing no signs of improvement, says Pakistani commentator Ahsan Butt in an article carried by Foreign Policy’s AFPAK channel. Last week’s bombings in Lahore and in Swat the following day underlined the power of the militants to strike deep in the heartland despite a successful ground offensive in South Waziristan last year and stepped-up missile strikes by unmanned drone aircraft. What use is seeking strategic depth when you are being attacked at home?
Doubtless such peaks in violence are often followed by valleys, but it will be hard to argue that the threat of indiscriminate violence against Pakistani citizens has dissipated in a meaningful way, says Butt. “Ultimately, this is what matters most. The job of the political and military leadership is not to secure ‘Pakistan’s interests’ — whatever they may be — in Afghanistan. Such language bears an uncanny resemblance to the neoimperialism that both our right and left so vociferously denounce when it originates from the West. No, the job of our political and military leadership is to ensure a robust, but by no means perfect, level of safety for its citizens, so that they can go about their daily lives. It’s pretty simple.”
Actually for all the talk about winning back leverage in Afghanistan, the chessboard there is changing so fast that Pakistan may not be such a critical player in the months ahead, says Sameer Lalwani, a doctoral student at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, in an article in The Dawn. He argues that economic shifts are taking place in northern and western Afghanistan which will break its isolation and reduce dependence on Pakistan.
First off is China’s growing reach in Afghanistan – its $3 billion investment in the Aynak copper mine will require the construction of a new railroad between Afghanistan and China’s Xinjiang province and an electricity station. Once the two countries are directly connected, investments in other critical resources like coal, iron, aluminium will rise and induce even more trade linkages. China’s rising long-term investments in Afghanistan and expanding influence will only make it increasingly less tolerant of Pakistani-supported Taliban elements, especially those that prove disruptive to its economic interests or foment and support Uighur militancy in Xinjiang, as the Taliban did in the 1990s, Lalwani says.
Two, northern Afghanistan is deepening its links with Central Asia. Thanks to an Indian-constructed bridge in 2007 linking Afghanistan and Tajikistan (and this is probably one of the reasons New Delhi’s activities are so strongly opposed by Pakistan) trade through that route increased sevenfold within a year and Afghan land values along that route shot up dramatically. Not to be outdone, the Russians are now offering a rail transit corridor linking Europe to Afghanistan via Uzbekistan.
Third, Afghanistan is developing an alternative southern route to the Arabian Sea. While in the past, landlocked Afghanistan depended on Pakistan to transport its goods through the port of Karachi, Indian completion in 2008 of the 135-mile road from Nimroz province to Iran’s Chahbahar port provides an efficient transport corridor for goods between Central Asia and the Persian Gulf.
“The most disturbing consequence for Pakistan is that these economic trends are creating conditions for a de facto partitioned Afghan state. The more stable north and west — with international linkages, economic growth and acceptance of the Afghan central government and western troop presence — can emerge self-sufficient and defensible while pockets of insurgency engulf the south and east,” Lalwani says.