Pakistan: Now or Never?
Perspectives on Pakistan
from Tales from the Trail:
Dubbed the "bulldozer" for his tough guy tactics in Balkan negotiations, U.S. Ambassador Richard Holbrooke has been making waves in South Asia recently.
U.S. embassies in New Delhi and Kabul have been scrambling over the past week to deal with local fallout from statements made by Washington's special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Statements that often go by unnoticed in Washington are parsed word for word in a region where there are deeply-held suspicions over U.S. intentions.
One such example is Holbrooke's comments at a forum at Harvard last week where he was asked about re-integration efforts with the Taliban in Afghanistan.
As discussed in my last post, the place to watch for developments on relations between India and Pakistan right now is more likely to be Kabul than Kashmir. That may have been graphically illustrated when Taliban fighters attacked Kabul on Friday, killing 16 people, including up to nine Indians.
It is too early to say whether the attack specifically targetted Indian interests or whether it was aimed at foreigners more generally. But India has blamed earlier attacks on its interests in Afghanistan on Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency – its embassy in Kabul has been bombed twice.
from Afghan Journal:
U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates is heading to India, and one of the things Washington is looking at is how can regional players such as India do more in Afghanistan. "As we are doing more, of course we are looking at others to do more," a U.S. official said, ahead of the trip referring to the troop surge.
But this is easier said than done, and in the case of India, a bit of a minefield. While America may expect more from India, Pakistan has had enough of its bitter rival's already expanded role in Afghanistan since the fall of the Taliban in 2001. Indeed, Afghanistan is the new battleground on par with Kashmir, with many in Pakistan saying Indian involvement in Afghanistan was more than altruistic and aimed at destabilising Pakistan from the rear. Many in India, on the other hand, point the finger at Pakistan for two deadly bomb attacks on its embassy in Kabul.
from Global News Journal:
An atmosphere of stale defensiveness has sunk over Kabul. The mood has been lowered by the protracted saga of the Afghan election count, almost two months on from the first round August 20 vote. It's a drama veering towards farce more often than post-modern play, as we wait endlessly for a result, that like Godot, does not want to come.
Winter has not yet arrived in Kabul, though the evenings are cold, quickly taking the heat of the sun out of the day. Afghan politicians are frustrated and twitchy, second-guessing the reasons for the U.N.-backed election watchdog's plodding. We are being solidly methodological to retain the confidence of all, says the Electoral Complaints Commission, as it examines thousands of dodgy votes. A thankless task, most likely. The ECC officials will be puzzling over whether a box of votes has been mass-endorsed for one candidate, and should not stand, or if the suspiciously similar ticks on the ballot paper are attributable to only one man in the village knowing how to write. Many of the rural voters will never have held a pen in their hand, argued one official. It is natural in such a tribal society for the village to establish a consensus on who to support. Do such ballot papers count? Remember Florida, and how 'hanging chads' and the U.S. Supreme Court gave George W. Bush the presidency over Al Gore? It's that kind of agony.
U.S. General Stanley McChrystal in his assessment of the war in Afghanistan last month only briefly touched upon the growing role of India, but his words were blunt and unsettling for India. In the light of Thursday’s attack on the Indian embassy in Kabul that left 17 people dead, McChrsytal’s comments may yet turn out to be prescient.
“Indian political and economic influence is increasing in Afghanistan, including significant development efforts and financial investment. In addition, the current Afghan government is perceived by Islamabad to be pro-Indian. While Indian activities largely benefit the Afghan people, increasing Indian influence in Afghanistan is likely to exacerbate regional tensions and encourage Pakistani countermeasures in Afghanistan or India,” he said, according to the leaked version of his report.
The rows of bombed-out and upturned Soviet era-planes that littered the ground at Kabul airport are gone. Gone also is the confusion that used to reign in the small immigration control office or over at the baggage belt in a dark corner of the damp building. You are quickly waved through, the bags have arrived and you are whisked off in Kabul’s crisp early morning air.
Returning to the Afghan capital after five years is both reassuring and a little bit disconcerting. Traffic clogs the dusty streets, people crane their necks out of cars hollering at each other to give way, smiling school girls in twos or threes wait by the roadside for a ride home in the crowded cabs. Mobile phone shops have sprung up everywhere, and everyone uses the phones. You even have shalwar-clad men standing at street corners selling Afghanis for dollars in one hand and pre-paid calling cards for your phone on the other.
The way Nisar Ahmad sees it, the war in Afghanistan has been pretty good to him. The 19-year-old runs a shop stall on a British military base in Helmand selling knock-off cigarettes, sunglasses, carpets and other assorted trinkets to young soldiers eager to spend their cash. On a good day, he takes in anywhere between $300 and $400 as the nicotine-hungry snap up 10-packs of Chinese-made, fake Marlboro cigarettes for just $5 a pop, or a pair of fake designer shades for $15. Sometimes he’s feeling generous and knocks them down to $10. Even with the cost of buying the merchandise in Kabul and driving it down to the far south of the country, into Taliban country and frequently through militant checkpoints, he still reckons he takes anywhere between $80 and $100 a day in profit.
“It’s good money, very good money,” he says with a broad grin, showing off a gappy, yellowing smile. “I didn’t go to school but everybody he go to school he not make money same as me,” he explains in his faltering English, learnt during six years of working on British and American bases.
In fact, Ahmad is a case-study in how market economics can take hold even in a war zone, and how mergers and acquisitions are a part of life wherever you happen to be, even in Afghanistan’s volatile southern deserts.
So successful was Ahmad that he effectively got taken over by Abdallah, 30, and his business partner Ismailah who run similar shops on five other bases and decided to ‘acquire’ Ahmad’s stall. He now works for a wage of $500 a month while he reckons Abdallah makes “$2,000 or $3,000, I don’t know, good money.” He’s not unhappy about the takeover, he says, because he’d rather have a regular wage and he’s only 19, so there’s time for other businesses. But in order to give himself a sense of rising up the ladder, he’s taken on a side-kick called Jasnour who doesn’t speak much English and does the dirty work of packing and unpacking the goods and handling the money. Ahmad just sits back.
On any military base in Afghanistan there are signs of business and globalisation at work. Pizza Hut, Burger King and Subway all run concessions on major bases, feeding troops hungry for food from home. The Pizza Hut on the British base is run by an Indian. The military supplies shop — which sells 10 packs of name-brand cigarettes for the regular price of $30 — is run by a Bosnian. Filipinos help with the laundry. Everybody wants a sliver of the fat economic pie that the British, Americans, Canadians and other nations serving in Afghanistan have thrown on the table. The problem is the entrepreneurial, money-making impulse is mostly taking root only on secure camps where foreign troops are based. It’s not happening outside the wire, where 24 million Afghans are longing for business investment and a better life.
As far as a strategy for Afghanistan is concerned, it’s a long shot. Bring peace to India and Pakistan and not only will that stabilise Pakistan but it will also ease tensions in Afghanistan. Indeed it’s such a long shot that it has not been considered as a serious policy option. That was until last month’s bombing of the Indian embassy in Kabul.
A spate of allegations that Pakistan’s powerful spy agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), was involved in the bombing has forced India-Pakistan rivalry back onto centre-stage. This is not just about India and Pakistan, or so the argument goes. Their rivalry is undermining U.S. efforts to defeat al Qaeda and the Taliban since the ISI is maintaining links with Islamist militants to counter Indian influence in the region. And Pakistan’s denial of involvement in the embassy attack has done little to quell the speculation.
At first glance, it looks unlikely. The two countries have more or less managed to hold to a ceasefire agreed at the end of 2003 on both the Line of Control (LoC) dividing Kashmir and on Siachen, and they have a slow-moving peace process which at least has India and Pakistan talking rather than fighting each other. India is far too interested in winning itself superpower status to let itself be distracted by some embarrassing fighting on its border. And Pakistan has enough problems dealing with al Qaeda and the Taliban on its western border with Afghanistan, without having to cope with trouble on its eastern border with India as well.
In a new book launched this week about the ill-fated attempt by British imperialists in the mid 19th century to occupy Afghanistan, I came across an interesting detail: the Afghans refused to play cricket. During the occupation of Kabul by British troops from India, “the Afghans looked on with astonishment at the bowling, batting and fagging out of the English players”, writes former Reuters journalist Jules Stewart in ”Crimson Snow: Britain’s First Disaster in Afghanistan“.
With NATO reaffirming its commitment to Afghanistan in a “strategic vision” statement issued at a summit in Bucharest this week, I wondered if there was a bigger lesson in this refusal to engage in cricket, just as the Afghans have never submitted to foreign occupation — seeing off the British Raj in the 19th century and defeating Soviet occupiers in the 20th century. ”The Afghans will always win,” writes Stewart in the conclusion to his book.