Has Pakistan become the central front?

March 4, 2009

In a report released late last month, the U.S. Atlantic Council think tank warned that the ramifications of state failure in Pakistan would be far graver than those in Afghanistan, with regional and global impact. “With nuclear weapons and a huge army, a population over five times that of Afghanistan and with an influential diaspora, Pakistan now seems less able, without outside help, to muddle through its challenges than at any time since its war with India in 1971.”

The report, co-sponsored by Senator John Kerry and urging greater U.S. aid, said time was running out to stabilise Pakistan, with action required within months. It’s not even been two weeks since that report was released, and already events in Pakistan have taken a dramatic turn for the worse – from the confrontation between President Asif Ali Zardari and former prime minister Nawaz Sharif to Tuesday’s attack on the Sri Lanka cricket team in Lahore.

“Pakistan’s disintegration, if that is what is now being witnessed, is a tragedy of Shakespearean dimensions, a riveting spectacle, and a clear and present danger to international security,” said a comment piece in Britain’s Guardian newspaper. ”But who in the world can stop it?”

The first question to ask is whether Pakistan has now become the central front in the battle against al Qaeda and its Islamist allies in the Taliban and other militant groups. During his election campaign, President Barack Obama said the central front was Afghanistan rather than Iraq. After he took office he shifted this to “Af/Pak” with the appointment of Richard Holbrooke as special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan. With turmoil now reaching Punjab, the heartland of Pakistan, he might need to shift his focus even further east.

The Atlantic Council report said the United States faced challenges in three separate but related contexts: Afghanistan, the Afghan/Pakistan tribal belt, and Pakistan. “In the present conjucture, Pakistan is arguably the most important of the three.” (my italics)

A second question is whether Pakistan, rather than Afghanistan, has been the primary target of al Qaeda all along. After last November’s attack on Mumbai, many analysts assumed that whoever was behind it intended to draw the Pakistan Army into a confrontation with India on Pakistan’s eastern border, making it easier for Islamist militants holed up on the country’s western border to launch attacks in Afghanistan.  What if the end-game of the confrontation, had it materialised, been Pakistan rather than Afghanistan?

The third question, of course, is what the international community will do. The United States has already pledged financial and diplomatic support for the country’s struggling civilian government; invited Pakistan Army chief General Ashfaq Kayani to Washington last week for talks; dispatched Holbrooke on a tour of the regionstepped up drone missile attacks on Pakistan’s border with Afghanistan, and promised to send an extra 17,000 troops to stabilise Afghanistan. It has also promised a wide-ranging review of strategy in Afghanistan and Pakistan, although with events moving so fast — particularly in Pakistan – it’s hard to see how this re-examination can keep pace.

The Washington Note, in a post this weekend, floated the idea that the United States might give up on Afghanistan and opt instead for a strong alliance with Pakistan.  It quotes a former top strategic adviser to an American president as saying that ”ultimately the U.S. has a very, very difficult choice to make in Pakistan regarding Afghanistan, its regional neighbors, and our other allies. He said that one possible way to stabilize both countries is to make a deal with the devil and engineer a very strong, close military alliance with the Pakistan military and its intelligence operation. That means we choose Pakistan over its other regional rivals — and that we cede Afghanistan to satellite status under Pakistan.”

The writer admits he does not know whether such a plan would work – it would certainly alienate India and would possibly find few takers even in Pakistan, where anti-American sentiment is strong. But that the idea should be floated at all, more than seven years after the United States overthrew the Pakistan-backed Taliban rulers of Afghanistan, highlights quite how serious the challenges are in the region.

The aim would presumably be to reach a deal with the Afghan Taliban, allowing the United States to focus its energies in targetting al Qaeda and helping Pakistan defeat the Pakistani Taliban, who appear bent on overthrowing the government in Islamabad. In doing so, the United States would face a deterioration in its relationship with India – cultivated by the Bush administration as a counterweight to China.

Retired Indian diplomat M.K. Bhadrakumar picked up a similar theme in an analysis of China’s attitude to the deepening crisis in South Asia. He writes that China would be willing to see the Taliban accommodated in Afghanistan while also backing efforts to stabilise Pakistan, its traditional ally, in a realignment which would clip Indian power in the region. 

There will no doubt be more ideas in the days and weeks ahead on how to stabilise Pakistan. What is clear is that a shift in thinking has begun in which Pakistan, rather than Afghanistan, is the centre of attention. So to return to my original question. Has Pakistan become the central front in the battle against al Qaeda and Islamist militants? And if so, what are the implications?

(Photos: Marriott hotel in Islamabad/Sept 2008 and Taj hotel in Mumbai/Nov 2008)

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