Pakistan: Now or Never?
Perspectives on Pakistan
Arriving into Kabul you are struck by two contrasting images. Streets jammed with noisy traffic, pavements spilling with hawkers and women in sky-blue burqas wending their way through the crush of people. And then just a few metres from this bustle of everyday life are whole streets walled off, defended by layer upon layer of guards with machine guns behind sandbags and blast barriers set up in a zigzag manner to stop or at least slow down the suicide bomber.
These are the green zones of the Afghan capital where the top international military brass, diplomats, officials, and staff of the dozens of non-government organisations work and live and party, cut off from the turbulent nation outside, like virtual prisoners.
A drive inside the wire can be an eerie experience; SUVs with jammers silently racing down the street past huge unmarked buildings that look like fortresses with 20 ft high walls and heavily armed guards on watchtowers, looking at you nervously.
You know you are in a war zone, despite the heaving traffic outside, and that everything can change within a minute an attack begins of the type the Taliban or more specifically the Haqqanis have repeatedly carried out deep within the most secure enclaves.
The United States carried out more drone strikes in Afghanistan this year than it has done in all the years put together in Pakistan since it launched the covert air war there eight years ago. With all the attention and hand wringing focused on the operations in Pakistan, it’s remarkable that such a ramp-up just over the border has gone virtually unnoticed.
The two battlegrounds are not the same, of course. Afghanistan is an open and hot battlefield where U.S. forces are deployed and the drones are part of the air support available to troops. Pakistan is a sovereign nation and the United States is not in a state of war with it and so you wouldn’t expect the same pace of operations, even though U.S. commanders say the Taliban insurgency draws its sustenance from the sanctuaries in the Pakistani northwest.
It’s been another brutal year of fighting in Afghanistan. While a spike in green-on-blue attacks has justifiably grabbed attention because of the cracks it has exposed within the military coalition, Afghans themselves are paying an increasingly higher price as they get pitchforked into the centre of the battle.
More than 300 Afghan soldiers and policemen are dying each month, Afghanistan’s defence ministry spokesman said earlier this month. He said the deaths had risen largely because local forces had taken over security responsibilities covering 75 percent of the population and were therefore taking higher casualties. Still, losing 10 members of the security forces each day is a worrying statistic. At this rate, Afghan national forces are going to lose nearly twice as many men in a year than the United States has lost since it invaded the country in 2001.
(The views expressed in this column are the author’s own and do not represent those of Reuters)
The impending withdrawal of NATO troops from Afghanistan in 2014 has seen increased efforts being made by Russia and China to gain influence in the region. As a part of their strategy to secure its interests in Central Asia, Russia has been attempting to foster a relationship with Pakistan.
Not too long ago, if you were travelling from India to Pakistan, you couldn’t help but notice how well the modern airports, the six-lane motorway linking Islamabad to Lahore, and the well-planned tree-lined capital city compared to the sprawling chaos of New Delhi. Indeed that motorway was South Asia’s first, long before India started to build its expressways, and in some ways Pakistan, which was a more open economy than India’s Licence Raj system and grew faster for decades until the 1990s, looked more like the developed Islamic states on its west than the poor cousins of South Asia.
But the tables have turned and the one-time economic star of the region is slipping behind its neighbours as it struggles with militant Islam, a near breakdown in ties with its greatest benefactor, the United States, and a civilian leadership that is struggling to hold its own under the boot of the powerful military while an assertive judiciary snaps at its heels.
If you go to the run-down Desh bazaar in central Kabul – which sells everything from widescreen Samsung televisions to used shoes - it doesn’t matter what currency you use to pay for your shopping. They will accept the afghani, the US dollar or the Pakistani rupee.
But if you were to go further east to Jalalabad near the border with Pakistan, you will probably end up paying for everything in the Pakistani currency, or kaldhar, as it is known in Afghanistan from the Taliban period. In fact, the shopkeeper – who buys all his goods from Pakistan – might even insist you pay in rupees rather than afghanis. An Afghan colleague who was coming through Jalalabad on his way back from Pakistan said the restaurant where his family stopped for lunch refused the afghani. And just as a large swathe of Afghanistan near the border with Pakistan uses the rupee, in the west the Iranian rial competes with the afghani.
Pakistan’s relationship with the United States can’t get more transactional than the prolonged negotiations over restoration of the Pakistani supply route for NATO troops in Afghanistan.
Pakistan, according to leaked accounts of so-called private negotiations, is demanding $5000 as transit fee for allowing trucks to use the two most obvious routes into landlocked Afghanistan, blocked since November when two dozen Pakistani soldiers were killed in an U.S. air strike from Afghanistan. The United States which apparently paid about $250 for each vehicle carrying everything from fuel to bottled water all these years is ready to double that, but nowhere near the price Pakistan is demanding for its support of the war. It also wants an apology for the deaths of the soldiers but America has stopped short of that, offering regret instead.
It’s clear for some time now that India and Pakistan are on the cusp of the kind of open trade relationship they had until the 1965 war when all business links were snapped, border trading posts shut and overland Indian access to Afghanistan blocked. It was never to be the same again, despite fitful progress over the years.
On Saturday, the Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who has invested a great deal of personal credibility in a rapprochement with Pakistan, inaugurates a $4 billion refinery in the northern state of Punjab , not far from the border with Pakistan. While the bulk of the refinery, which is a joint venture between billionaire Lakshmi Mittal and an Indian state oil company will feed the hungry energy markets of India’s booming northern triangle, it stands to reason that some of the fuel sales will flow westwards, to Pakistan. The distance from Bhatinda where the 9 million tonne refinery is located to Pakistan’s heartland city of Lahore is about 100 miles. If you don’t sell it to the market next door where else would you begin from ? Pakistan’s refining capacity is half the domestic demand and last year it opened up diesel imports from India, although petrol and other petroleum products are still on a rapidly dwindling negative list.
Arrive in Kabul and you know you are in a war zone, despite the heaving traffic on its crumbling roads. Whole streets are blocked off by concertina wire and sandbags, while a zig-zag series of blast walls are designed to stop or at least slow down the suicide bomber. Indeed, the walls seem to get higher and more neighbourhoods disappear behind this concrete curtain each time you go back. And yet insurgents have repeatedly breached the layer-upon-layer of security, as happened in September when the vast U.S. embassy compound came under attack, and now on Sunday when the upscale Wazir Akbar Khan diplomatic district was again targeted along with parliament.
The one feature common to the multiple attacks on Sunday and the daring September operation was that the attackers sneaked into half-finished or empty buildings, took positions half-way up the building and were able to hold off an armada of helicopters and Special Operations forces for up to 20 hours. Kabul has been in the midst of a construction boom that has slowed only recently as the Western pullout looms in 2014. The result is that you have a number of these high rise buildings in the centre of town which offer vantage views of the city – especially the sealed-off parts where the diplomatic and political elite live in virtual bunkers, and which an ordinary Afghan can hardly ever see, much less gain access to. From the reports so far, the attackers didn’t have to do much to get into these lightly guarded blocks, many of them just empty shells. Once in, it was easy to hide behind a concrete pillar on a sixth-floor landing and fire rocket propelled grenades at the western installations below while holding off the choppers. The question is why are these buildings left unguarded even after the U.S. embassy was attacked from another one in the vicinity last September. What about the measures that were set in place to monitor such high-rises?
The dusty streets of Kabul are choked with traffic, restaurants selling American fast food are bustling and there is a crowd of students and parents outside a girls’ school in the centre of town trying to slip through the shuttered gates at the start of the school year.
Returning to Kabul for the first time since December, there was no sense that the mood on the ground had changed significantly. But I couldn’t help wondering how all this might change once foreign troops who have propped up the Afghan state for more than a decade leave in 2014. There is talk of a return to chaos and civil war, although admittedly you hear more of those grim warnings abroad and in the foreign circles of Kabul than from the people themselves who will be in the middle of it.