Pakistan: Now or Never?
Perspectives on Pakistan
One of the most frequently cited misconceptions about the Siachen war – where 135 Pakistani soldiers and civilian staff were buried by an avalanche this weekend – is that it is somehow contained to a relatively small area, as though it were a mountain version of a 19th century battlefield. The Indian and Pakistani troops, we are told in an oft-used and incorrect phrase, are “deployed on the Siachen Glacier at elevations as high as 22,000 feet.” From there, it becomes a relatively easy step to say, as many are saying after the tragedy, that India and Pakistan should end their futile conflict on the world’s highest battlefield. The argument has gathered momentum with a successful private-turned-state visit by President Asif Ali Zardari to India, generating expectations that Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh will in turn visit Pakistan this year.
Continue down this track and you overlap with another frequently made argument - that a meaningful and important agreement must be ready to be signed in order to give substance to Singh’s trip. Enter a deal on Siachen, where India and Pakistan have competed over an uninhabitable wasteland of snow and ice high in the Karakoram mountains since 1984. Such an agreement, so the argument goes, would act as a major confidence building measure, building the momentum to reach a settlement of the festering Kashmir dispute and lasting peace between India and Pakistan.
But if tragedies could end wars, India and Pakistan would have made peace in 1947. And if Siachen were indeed an isolated and contained battlefield, contained on the Siachen glacier – which at 22,000 feet would have it floating improbably at the height of the mountains peaks above it – it too would have been settled long ago. Far from being confined to the Siachen glacier – in fact Pakistan has no troops deployed on the glacier itself – the soldiers are spread across a wide area after fighting for control of the heights above before eventually agreeing a ceasefire in late 2003.
To fly over the region by helicopter, as I did on both the Indian and Pakistan sides while researching a book on the conflict, is to be awed by the sheer scale of the war zone. This is a vast region of towering craggy mountains, of chaotic rubble-strewn glaciers tumbling into valleys, of acres of seemingly endless white where the small and isolated Indian and Pakistani posts and gun positions look as though they might at any moment drown in the snow.
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.
As in any conflict, the prisoners that the players in Afghanistan hold are a key part of their political and military strategy as they head into 2014. For the United States, the more Taliban fighters or even potential Taliban are kept off the battlefield, the better it is. For years it has been running a regime of administrative detentions under which it can hold not only suspected combatants but even people it thinks could be a potential threat for an indefinite period.
For the Taliban, getting its commanders out has been a top priority and indeed its officials say securing the release of some of them held in Guantanamo is the starting point of the talks that it has had with the United States for more than a year now. A former frontline commander and cousin of the Taliban’s main negotiator in the talks with the United States told me in an interview that the Taliban would resume the negotiations only when the United States carried out its promise to release five senior Taliban figures held in the U.S. military prison in Cuba. A prison committee is ready with the names of more comrades that it wants freed.
There are many ways to make women invisible. One is to ignore them; another is to banish them from public view; and in the case of acid attack victims, to literally efface them. Pakistani acid attack victim Fakhra Yunus seems to have suffered all three, when after being deformed by an acid attack in 2000, she escaped to Italy for treatment where she lived for years, largely forgotten in the country she left behind.
This month, according to Pakistani media reports, she jumped to her death in Italy, guaranteeing that at least for a brief moment, her name would be remembered. Her body was brought back to Pakistan and Pakistan’s Geo News channel ran a story on her accompanied by before-and-after pictures of a once beautiful girl. On Twitter, links to old stories about her were unearthed and exchanged - a detailed profile in Time magazine from 2001, and a story in Newsline from 2011. Activists also launched a petition seeking justice for acid attack victims.
With U.S. strategy in Afghanistan in disarray, one of the tropes we are likely to see with increasing frequency is the notion that Afghans are inherently ungovernable, too steeped in tradition to accept the “modernity” offered to them, and by extension, only have themselves to blame for failure. It will come in seemingly innocuous references to the massacre of the British army during its retreat from Kabul in 1842, graphically symbolised by William Brydon, the “lone” survivor struggling into Jalalabad on his horse. We might see a revival of the historically inaccurate cliche about Afghanistan being the Graveyard of Empires (the British went on to defeat the Sikhs and kept their empire for another century.)
Pundits will explain how Afghanistan’s history offers a guide to its future (because people in Afghanistan can be frozen in time in 1842, rather as though we might freeze our conception of Americans to the United States in its pre-civil war days). And then we will see comments like this, from the editors of the National Review Online: “The impulse to throw up our hands and be done with the entire business is understandable. The protests over the Koran burnings brought home, again, that we are dealing with primitive people in a primitive society operating on a system of values vastly different than ours.”
Shortly before U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta’s plane was to land on an unannounced trip in southern Afghanistan on Wednesday, an Afghan man in a stolen pickup truck drove onto the tarmac at high speed. The truck crashed into a ditch after it sped across the runway ramp and the driver, whose motives were unclear, emerged from the vehicle in flames. No explosives were found on the man who later died or in the truck and the Pentagon said at no point was the defense chief’s plane in danger. But it was an extraordinary breach of security at the British airfield in the southern province of Helmand which sits next to a vast U.S. Marine base.
Later that day U.S. Marines, gathered to hear Panetta speak, were ordered to leave their weapons outside the tent just like the Afghans who had been told before not to bring their weapons to the tent. The New York Times quotes the top U.S. military officer in Helmand as saying he wanted a consistent policy for both the Marines and their Afghan partners. Again it tells you about the nervousness that has crept into U.S. operations in Afghanistan, after a spate of green-on-blue attacks or attacks on coalition forces and advisers by their Afghan allies that strike at the heart of the mission to prepare the Afghan national forces to take over the fight against the Taliban.
One of the early calls that Vladimir Putin took following his expected victory in the Russian presidential election last weekend was from Pakistan Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani. He congratulated Putin on his success and invited him to visit Islamabad in September which the Russian leader accepted, according to newspaper reports citing an official statement.
One of the comments you hear quite often about the long U.S. war in Afghanistan is that the Americans should leave it to the region to sort out its own problems. It is sometimes said in fear that the United States will abandon Afghanistan to civil war; sometimes in exasperation over its often confusing policies; and sometimes in anger. With the U.S. approach to Afghanistan in disarray after protests over the burning of copies of the Koran, regional powers are, however, attempting to do just that. Progress, whether in the first meeting of a China-Pakistan-Afghanistan trilateral, or in improved trade relations between Pakistan and India, or in regional diplomacy led by Turkey and the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation among others, is extremely tentative. And regional powers, especially India and Pakistan, may yet end up backing opposing sides in any civil war which follows the withdrawal of most foreign combat troops at the end of 2014. But the fact that regional diplomacy is happening at all suggests there is at least some hope of salvaging the situation in Afghanistan.
China, whose help has long been sought by the administration of President Barack Obama to stabilise Afghanistan and Pakistan, hosted a meeting in Beijing at the end of last month in which the three countries pledged to support an Afghan-led process of reconciliation and to work together to accommodate each others’ concerns, a foreign ministry statement quoted by the China Daily said. “Analysts spoke highly of the significance of the dialogue,” the China Daily added, “which marked the beginning of new process for countries in the region to tackle problems by themselves.”
When the history of the Afghan war is written, the protests over the burning of copies of the Koran will certainly be defined as a watershed. What remains to be seen is whether they become the moment the United States lost the war, or rather, when America lost patience.
U.S. President Barack Obama has apologised for the inadvertent burning of copies of the Koran at a military base in Afghanistan and the top general in the country has ordered all coalition troops to undergo training in the proper handling of religious materials by March 3.
Quite apart from the question of how can you “inadvertently” burn books, the bigger issue is can soldiers be so blindly ignorant of the consequences of their action ? Is it because these were soldiers in the rear, insulated in a huge base that sometimes feels like a little America with its gymns, snack joints and the easy conviviality between men and women, a setting far removed from the hard-scrabble country outside ?