Pakistan: Now or Never?
Perspectives on Pakistan
Back in 2008, even before Barack Obama was elected, Washington pundits were urging him to adopt a new regional approach to Afghanistan and Pakistan involving Russia, India, China, Saudi Arabia and even Iran. The basic argument was that more troops alone would not solve the problems, and that the new U.S administration needed to subsume other foreign policy goals to the interests of winning a regional consensus on stabilising Afghanistan.
It would be simplistic to suggest that the Obama administration’s decision to cancel plans to build a missile-shield in eastern Europe was motivated purely — or even primarily — by a need to seek Russian help in Afghanistan. But it certainly serves as a powerful reminder about how far that need to seek a “grand bargain” on Afghanistan may be reshaping and influencing policy decisions around the world.
“Securing Afghanistan and its region will require an international presence for many years, but only a regional diplomatic initiative that creates a consensus to place stabilizing Afghanistan ahead of other objectives could make a long-term international deployment possible,” Barnett Rubin and Ahmed Rashid argued in their much-cited 2008 policy paper titled “From Great Game to Grand Bargain”. (pdf document).
Many of those arguments reappeared in a more recent report by the Asia Society (pdf document) — formerly chaired by U.S special envoy to Afghanistan Richard Holbrooke – so they are worth studying closely.
Keeping track of the many countries with a stake in Afghanistan — and the shifting alliances between them — is beginning to feel awfully like one of those school history lessons when you were supposed to understand the complex and tenuous balance of power whose breakdown led to World War One.
NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer became the latest to call for a regional solution to Afghanistan when he said this week that the United States and its NATO allies must directly engage with Iran if they are to win the war there. “If we are going to succeed in this game, we need to be playing on the right field,” he said. “And that means a more regional approach. To my mind we need a discussion that brings in all the relevant regional players: Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, China, Russia and, yes, Iran.”
According to the Washington Post, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates sees opportunities for the United States to cooperate with Russia on Afghanistan. The newspaper says Gates, a longtime Russia analyst during his years with the CIA, sees Moscow as less of a threat than do many inside and outside the U.S. military establishment. ”Russia is very worried about the drugs coming out of Afghanistan and has been supportive in terms of providing alternative routes for Europeans in particular to get equipment and supplies into Afghanistan,” it quoted him as saying.
The story is interesting in the context of the United States searching for new supply lines through Central Asia into Afghanistan as an alternative to Pakistan before it sends in thousands more troops. “The plan to open new paths through Central Asia reflects an American-led effort to seek out a more reliable alternative to the route from Pakistan through the strategic Khyber Pass,” the New York Times said.
In a poignant tale published last month by Chashm, a new website set up to promote alternative discourse in Pakistan, the narrator describes what happened when the Taliban came to the village of Saidano, the site of a popular shrine in Orakzai Agency in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA).
First the Taliban imposed sharia; they banned all activity at the shrine and intimidated those in the political administration into quitting their jobs. The people organised themselves into a lashkar, or militia, to fight them. “In return, the Taliban pummelled the armed resistance and the people back into submission. Any attempt at resistance led to dissenters’ immediate silencing, including by slaughter.” Having decreed that visiting shrines was un-Islamic, the Taliban said they would demolish it. “With that note, the shrine of Bawal Haq Saheb was reduced to rubble by the Taliban. The people of Saidano were enraged at this heinous act of the Taliban, but no one could say anything…they were all scared.”