Allow them some space to breathe

Afghanistan has always been a prisoner of its geography and history and this imponderable has blocked its emergence as a sovereign nation with a will of its own. Its strategic location could have been an asset for the world; on the contrary, it has turned out to be the cause of its

Nations have often found it tempting to meddle in Afghanistan’s affairs. But the time has come, particularly for India, Iran and Pakistan, and the US, Russia, China and the European Union, and also Afghanistan’s neighbours in Central Asia, to discuss how Afghanistan can be helped to live on its own, without any fear of interference from outside.

An effort aiming at an international concert on Afghanistan’s future has become urgent in view of President Barack Obama’s growing impatience to pull US troops out of the country before making a bid for another term. India, on its part, should not be shy of discussing with others the possible scenario in Afghanistan, after foreign troops leave the country.

It is not that during the last couple of years, major countries have not been discussing this situation. These discussions, however, have been non-serious, mainly because the US and Nato have been bothered more about tackling the immediate situation than sorting out the future.

President Obama’s keenness for re-election is understandable, but walking out of Afghanistan leaving behind a vacuum to be filled by wrong elements will amount to abdication of the responsibility the US took up after 26/11.

One idea that has been in the air, but not pursued by those who ought to have done so, is about recognising Afghanistan as a neutral nation with the assurance that no power would be allowed to interfere in its affairs. Although no two situations can be alike in international affairs, Austria has been cited as an example in exploratory consultations. It has been able to buy several years of peace guaranteed by other European powers.

President Karzai, it is said, does not like the term “neutrality”, but he is bound to welcome the idea if durable peace can be restored in his country. Another term can be thought of which guarantees peace to Afghanistan, shields it from outside interference, and underscores its status as a sovereign nation. After their experience with Afghanistan, most nations would like to accord it a neutral status.

There is, however, an exception — Pakistan — which is opposed to any such thought. This is because it undercuts the very concept of the ‘strategic depth’ Pakistan avows to acquire in Afghanistan. This concept is flawed, outdated and against the basics of international law and unsuitable to the needs of the 21st century. Also, it has the potential to cause  considerable mischief.

Embedded in it is the intention to interfere in Afghanistan, there’s a tendency to covet its territory, or guiding its affairs by placing a quisling in command in Kabul. This will be a source of recurring tensions. The immediate victim of the ‘strategic depth’ is bound to be where the depth — whether political or territorial — is sought to be acquired.

Judging from the psychology of Pakistan’s military leaders it will be difficult to sell the concept of a neutral Afghanistan to them, but others cannot afford to give it up if they want to see Afghanistan and the region trouble-free.

The thought of a neutral Afghanistan is still nascent and will take some time to mature. At present the US, the key actor  in Afghanistan, is only keen to induct a section of the Taliban — the so-called ‘Good Taliban’ — into the Karzai government so that it can pull out its troops in a couple of years. It will, however, be unwise for the US and other nations not to look beyond the withdrawal of troops. Unsettled Afghanistan will always be a problem for the world.

– Hindustan Times, May 6th, 2010.

Options for Kayani

If there is a fire next door, neighbours are bound to get worried. The latest terrorist attack at a major naval station near Karachi may have been frustrated by the government forces but the crisis in Pakistan is much more serious than the events of the last two days portray.

It should worry India, other countries in the region, the United States and other world powers. Untackled, it can engulf  the subcontinent, the US and other countries who would not know how to handle Pakistan erupting.

Pakistan is sitting on an explosive mix of jihadism, terrorism of varied hues and a militarist hubris born out of nuclear weapons it has piled up during the last few years.

India can legitimately tell Pakistan that the present situation is the outcome of the past mistakes like excessive reliance on military for building a nation state and using terrorist groups as an aid to policy towards India in the east and Afghanistan in its north-west. It will. however, be politically incorrect for Indians to indulge in “we-told-you-so” attitude, even if India has been victim of terrorism exported by Pakistan.

The US has been unpopular in Pakistan for some years by now. The killing of Osama Bin-Laden in Abbotabad just a few miles from Islamabad earlier this month has shown the Pakistan Army lose face with the people. The attack on Karachi Naval Base, which is actually a joint establishment of the Pakistan Army, the Air Force and the Navy, has sharply brought out how the Pakistani military establishment has failed to tackle threats from terrorist groups who can spring a surprise and attack even a highly protected base.

The civil authorities at the federal headquarters or in the provinces are too weak to protect Pakistan from terrorist groups. This was evident when Pakistan’s parliament failed even to condemn when Punjab Governor Salman Taseer was killed by his guard for criticizing the blasphemy laws forced upon Pakistan by the jihadi groups. Even Gen. Ashfaque Pervez Kiyani did not condemn the jihadi groups for endorsing Salman Taseer’s murder.

More important is the fear that Pakistan’s nuclear weapons can be captured by the jihadi groups who can blackmail the world, pushing it towards a bigger conflagration.

A  serious possibility can also be visualized  of the breaking- up of Pakistan as a nation. And splintering of the country  can lead to more turmoil and no one in Delhi or elsewhere in the world would really  know how to handle the fragments.

The scenario of a Pakistan broken into pieces can be more grim for India and the world than  Pakistan as  one country has been, even if it has been a problem nation for India and the rest of the world. India has no solution for Pakistan’s problems, endemic or otherwise; nevertheless, gloating over its troubles as some people are prone to, is not warranted. What is needed is cool reflection and working out different policy options to tackle contingencies.

It is not only India that should worry about the present situation acquiring a critical mass. Responsible powers of the world – the USA, Europe, Russia and nations in Pakistan’s  neighbourhood, would need to get into consultations at different levels to take a view of the developing situation in Pakistan.

Even the Chinese , who have sought to restore Pakistan’s shattered morale after what happened at Abbotabad, would need to ponder the possibility of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons falling into the hands of jihadi groups and also about Pakistan splintering into small states.

In Pakistan itself a large number of people are deeply worried these days about the present and the future of their country. Among the Pakistan Army top brass also there could be a few generals who would know the dangers that have arisen for the state of Pakistan partly because of dalliance between the Army and the jihadi groups which it used for several years for foreign policy purposes as well as for keeping a check on the rise of the  democratic forces.

On the other hand, there could also be elements in the Pakistan Army who were recruited by Zia-ul-Haq to inject Islamist  ideology into the Pakistan Army. Some of these officers may have been weeded out, but there could be others who would have by now become senior officers working in concert with jhihadi groups.  General Kiyani would be knowing who these officers are and  how a mutually-accommodative relationship with the jihadi groups has brought Pakistan to this pass.

General Kiyani certainly cannot be comfortable with the image his army is having in his country and in the rest of the world after Abbotabad.

He has had also to see the ignominy of his ISI chief appear before parliament and explain why the army could not detect the US marine helicopters attacking Osama’s house in Abbotabad. Men in uniform in Pakistan are not used to appearing before the civilians who are always the object of sneers in army messes..

The Karachi attack has been another blow. Hence his need to take steps to retrieve the lost image. How he goes about it remains to be seen.

Theoretically, there are many options:

He can be funny with the Americans on the Afghanistan border; or indulge in adventurism on eastern borders with India. Both these are risky propositions; hence, unlikely.

He could also stage a coup, send civilians back home and grab absolute power under the plea that only the Army can save Pakistan.

The best option for him, however,  is to cut the terrorists’ umbilical cord and strike at the jihadi groups in Pakistan. This way perhaps he can save Pakistan from descending into chaos.

Whether he chooses this course or follows another remains to be seen.

– The Asian Age, May 26th, 2011