Afghanistan, Pakistan and … all the other countries involved

October 20, 2009

Regular readers of this blog will know that I have questioned before the value of the “AfPak” label, which implies that an incredibly complicated situation involving many different countries can be reduced to a five-letter word.

Having spent the last couple of days trying to make sense of the suicide bomb attack in Iran which Tehran blamed on Jundollah, an ethnic Baluchi, Sunni insurgent group it says has bases in Pakistan,  I’m more inclined than ever to believe the “AfPak” label blinds us to the broader regional context. Analysts argue that Jundollah has been heavily influenced by hardline Sunni sectarian Islamist thinking within Pakistan which is itself the product of 30 years of proxy wars in the region dating back to the Iranian Islamic Revolution in 1979, and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan towards the end of the same year.

This Sunni-Shi’ite faultline is showing up in suicide bombings in Iran, while at the same time Sunni Islamist groups continue to challenge the writ of state inside Pakistan even as the Pakistan Army presses ahead with its offensive in South Waziristan, stronghold of the Pakistani Taliban.

Such is the power of the Sunni Islamist movement, that Pakistan has been forced to close schools for fear of more bombings in its heartland in response to its military offensive in South Waziristan.

So what is the response on the “Af” side of the “AfPak” strategists? After intense diplomatic efforts, President Hamid Karzai has agreed to a second-round run-off in a disputed election. Allegations of electoral fraud had undermined Washington’s strategy in Afghanistan, and delayed a decision by President Barack Obama on whether to send more troops to the region.

But how many people believe that a second-round run-off on Nov. 7 will change the dynamics of a region which is getting more, rather than less, unstable by the day? (That is not to say a run-off is a bad idea, but rather that it may be overrated in its significance).

In the meantime India is becoming increasingly worried about instability in neighbouring Pakistan. But it is in a difficult position in working out how to respond, since it wants action against the Lashkar-e-Taiba, blamed for last year’s attack on Mumbai. Yet Lashkar-e-Taiba is one of the few militant groups which is not believed to have been involved in attacking targets within Pakistan, potentially pushing it down the priority list for an army already fighting in South Waziristan and facing an assault in the country’s heartland from Punjab-based groups.

In my 25 years of journalism, I’ve rarely seen a situation move so quickly.  I’d like to think there is someone in power who is not only keeping pace, but keeping ahead.

In the meantime, here are some articles worth reading:

Steve Coll makes a compelling argument for U.S. commitment to Afghanistan in an article reproduced by Foreign Policy

Shuja Nawaz, also writing at Foreign Policy, argues that the Pakistan Army deserves more support and equipment in its offensive in South Waziristan (read on to the bit where he writes about Frontier Corps scouts having to go out in open-toed sandals).

Andrew Exum has done us all a favour by arguing that comparisons with Vietnam depend entirely on how you view the history of that war (it’s hard enough to make sense of what is happening now, so maybe Vietnam analogies need to be consigned to the same cyber-dustbin as the AfPak label?)

And last, but not least, look at Reuters new Afghan Journal blog, combining the insights of our team of journalists on the ground with news from around the world.

(Photos: Presidents of Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran; British soldier in Afghanistan)

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