What would Russian Afghan help mean for Pakistan?

March 16, 2008

With NATO saying it is nearing a deal to use Russian land and airspace to supply its security forces in Afghanistan, I’ve been trying to  work out what this could mean for Pakistan.

In the Asia Times Online, former Indian diplomat M K Bhadrakumar quotes U.S. military spokesmen as saying that about three quarters of all supplies are currently sent to Afghanistan via Pakistan. ”On the face of it, Washington should jump at the Russian offer of support to the NATO mission in Afghanistan,” he writes. “Pakistan has proved to be an unreliable partner in the ‘war on terror’. The growing political uncertainties in Pakistan put question marks on the wisdom of the US continuing to depend so heavily on Pakistan for ferrying supplies for its troops in Afghanistan.”

File photo of disused Russian tank outside Kabul (2007)My first thought was to ask if this would mean a lowering of U.S. support for Pakistan and a concomitant reduction in the $10 billion in aid that it has pumped into Pakistan since 9/11 to obtain its help in the war in Afghanistan? Many Pakistanis complain the  United States has a long history of using and then abandoning Pakistan, most notably relying on it to arm and fund the mujahedeen fighting the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan and then losing interest when the Russians withdrew in 1989.

 But it seems highly unlikely that the United States would turn its back on Pakistan this time around since it can’t afford to keep driving Taliban and al Qaeda fighters out of Afghanistan only for them to seek refuge in Pakistan. According to a report published by the U.S. intelligence group Stratfor in January, “So long as the Taliban have sanctuary and logistical support from Pakistan, transferring all coalition troops in Iraq to Afghanistan would have no effect. And withdrawing from Afghanistan would return the situation to the status quo before Sept. 11. If dealing with the Taliban and destroying al Qaeda are part of any endgame, the key lies in Pakistan.”

In fact it would seem more logical that the United States would want to send troops to Pakistan to fight the Taliban and al Qaeda and prevent them seeking sanctuary there – as Defense Secretary Robert Gates suggested in January. That “offer” was promptly rebuffed by Pakistan and is even less likely to be acceptable after parliamentary elections in February left Washington’s ally, President Pervez Musharraf, fighting for his survival.

Outside the Luna Caprese, site of bomb explosion in IslamabadThe new coalition government being put in place by the Pakistan People’s Party of the late Benazir Bhutto and the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) of former prime minister Nawaz Sharif is expected to try to avoid the confrontational approach to Islamist militants which left many Pakistanis accusing Musharraf of fighting America’s war, and which many blame for bringing  mayhem into its heartland, including the latest bomb attacks in Lahore and Islamabad.

In a comment on a blog I posted last week, former Pakistan diplomat Wajid Shamsul Hasan writes that ”by exploring a more carrot-and-stick approach to dealing with the Taliban and al Qaeda than simply shooting at everything that moves, there may be greater dividends than were possible hitherto. Even the army has been uncomfortable with methods tried thus far.”

There are lots of pieces of the jigsaw missing here. Bhadrakumar says in his Asia Times Online article that NATO is so keen to secure Russian help in Afghanistan that it is willing to defer a decision on membership for Ukraine and Georgia in what he calls “a huge gesture by NATO to Moscow’s sensitivities”. Though the existence of such a trade-off has been denied by western diplomats, it does suggest  Washington is extremely worried about the situation in Afghanistan. If it is desperate enough to go cap in hand to Moscow to help it defeat the Taliban, can it also be patient enough to tolerate a new government in Pakistan trying a more softly, softly approach?

So to go back to my original question, what would a deal between NATO and Russia on Afghanistan, if confirmed, mean for Pakistan? Would the United States’ reduced reliance on Pakistan for supplies to Afghanistan lead to less involvement there? Or does it signal the opposite — that Washington is now so worried about Afghanistan that it will put even more pressure on Pakistan to crack down harder to cut off the escape routes?

In this context it’s perhaps worth rereading Henry Kissinger’s warning to the United States in an op-ed published last week in the International Herald Tribune. “A wise policy must recognize that the internal structure of Pakistani politics is essentially out of the control of American political decision-making,” he writes.



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