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Have Pakistan’s generals overplayed their hand in Afghanistan?

ANALYSIS: Have Pakistan’s generals overplayed their hand in Afghanistan? — Sonali Ranade


What can Pakistan possibly gain from a total control of Afghanistan that it cannot gain otherwise by peaceful means?

Back in October 2011, I attempted to summarise Pakistan’s options in Afghanistan in light of the evolving situation then. The article is available at: http://dailytimes.com.pk/default.asp?page=2011%5C10%5C02%5Cstory_2-10-2011_pg3_5. The present attempt is to see how many of the assumptions I made then have come true and to reassess Pakistan’s options in relation to the new situation. The idea is not so much to stress what went wrong but to see how things can be set right in the interests of all stakeholders in Afghanistan. The focus of course will be on the play of interests of Afghanistan, Pakistan and India.
Begin by noting that the worst possible outcome of the Afghan conflict for Pakistan is at hand. Its key lies in the US determination to keep a few thousand Special Forces troops in Afghanistan for the next 10 years, complete with two or more dedicated airbases that will house drones and other fighters to protect them. In addition, the US and its allies will fund the Afghan national Army (ANA) for the next 10 years as it takes over security duties from US troops. The new US strategy is minimalist in deployment and works on the basis of denial of control of areas to the Taliban and their backers. While the US may not be able to prevent the Taliban from taking over some southern parts of Afghanistan, the US presence along with the ANA will ensure the north remains with those elements aligned with Kabul. It will be exceedingly difficult for Pakistan and its proxies to knock off completely both the ANA and the US forces to take full control over Afghanistan. In other words, should the parties fail to negotiate successfully, the arrangement ensures the continuation of a low intensity civil war in the country for the foreseeable future.

Iran, India, Russia and China have vital stakes in the area that Pakistan cannot overlook. None of them, not even China who is the closest to Pakistan in this group, is going to wait for Pakistan to prevail in Afghanistan. They will all move to secure their interests as best as they can, with Pakistan’s help if possible, without it if necessary. Pakistan has the capability to deny peace in Afghanistan but it can do so only at great expense to itself and at the risk of isolating itself from the world community. A prolongation of the conflict in Afghanistan has grave risks for Pakistan’s internal security and balance as well. Some of the state’s proxies are already out of control and others are exhibiting classic signs of developing political ambitions independently of their sponsors in the Pakistani ‘Deep State’. Pakistan’s GDP has been stagnating; its internal debt is too large in relation to both its GDP and the government’s revenue raising capacity. But for workers’ remittances from abroad, amounting to about $ 12 billion, Pakistan’s internal and external finances would be precarious. With a burgeoning population, deteriorating law and order, little investment, Pakistan cannot afford continuation of the conflict in Afghanistan indefinitely without risking an implosion at home. As it is, many investors are pulling out in the face of mounting political risks.
Be that as it may, why does Pakistan need to act as a spoiler in Afghanistan? What can Pakistan possibly gain from a total control of Afghanistan that it cannot gain otherwise by peaceful means? Where do Pakistan’s true interests lie in Afghanistan and how are they best secured?
First, let us get the nonsense about strategic depth out of the way. With a nuclear arsenal that is now larger than India’s, does Pakistan really fear an Indian armoured blitz that will cut Pakistan into two halves in a matter of days? With China sitting pretty in Kashmir and Afghanistan, can India really confront Pakistan with a two-front situation using Afghanistan? In other words, the old security arguments that called for complete domination of Afghanistan by Pakistan and its proxies are more or less irrelevant in the evolving situation. Absent these considerations, what else can Pakistan really achieve by a full domination in Afghanistan?
The overland oil routes to Iran from India and China, and access to Central Asia by India remain two valid considerations for Pakistan to seek influence in Afghanistan. But does such influence need to be complete dominance? The fact of the matter is that Pakistan cannot encash the economic value of its strategic position in relation to Central Asia without a cooperative relationship with Afghanistan and the rest of the players that include Iran, Russia, China, India and the US. Unless the interests of all of these players are accommodated, India, Iran or China will never fully trust their strategic trade routes to Pakistani dominance. Pakistan simply cannot afford to wait indefinitely for the day when Afghanistan will fall into its lap and it will then decide how to accommodate the others and on what terms. The time to figure out a via media is now or perhaps never.

The US retains several vital coercive cards to play in the Afghan-Pakistan status quo should Pakistani belligerence continue. The Americans are old hands at using insurgency as a weapon of destabilisation and Pakistan’s north and south offer fertile areas where the US could engineer a counter-offensive. Balochistan is an obvious candidate for many reasons. Denying Gwadar port to the Chinese, bottling up Pakistan and opening a sea route for Afghanistan independently of Pakistan come to mind. The local insurgency in Balochistan, a result of past colossal mistakes, offers a convenient cover. Denial of trade, aid, and restrictions on access to external financing are other cards that the US will seek to play to keep Pakistani aggression in Afghanistan in check. So overall, Pakistan’s strategic capacity to defy the US indefinitely in Afghanistan is very limited now. It did hold a trump card in terms of logistics before it played the card. Its generals recklessly threw away the card in a fit of unprofessional pique or perhaps it was acute political embarrassment?
Pakistan has nothing to lose by coming to the negotiating table with the US and others and everything to gain from it. By negotiating, it can give itself another chance in Afghanistan. Therefore, one should expect Pakistan’s Deep State to recognise the obvious compulsions and find a way to return to the table. However, Pakistan needs to reassess earnestly its entire strategy in Afghanistan top to bottom. Pakistan is playing a 19th century game of trade routes in the 21st century. The world is getting smaller and more tightly integrated by the day. The US began its Iraq adventure thinking the country was its legitimate share of the spoils of war. Much blood and treasure later, and a near total loss of face, it realised that in the television age, one could not own another country even as the world’s only superpower. The Afghans are no pushovers. Pakistan needs to think Pakistan first, India last — not the other way around.

The writer is a trader. She can be reached at ?sonali.ranade@hotmail.com or @SonaliRanade on Twitter

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