Conjoined by history, Pakistan and Afghanistan need new ideas to work themselves out of the geopolitical trap they have been lured into by the U.S.
As a term in the international political science discourse, “failed state” is of relatively recent origin. It would take a great deal of effort to understand when the term entered the vocabulary, gaining currency first in a tiny trickle, before becoming the virtual torrent it is today. What is germane for present purposes, is that Afghanistan and Pakistan both gained the honour around the same time – Afghanistan perhaps a few years ahead of Pakistan, though the two have since been marching in virtual lockstep.
Despite the lack of clarity about its provenance, there is little doubt that the U.S. foreign policy establishment has played a key role in lending the notion of the “failed state” respectability. The discussion has been fuelled in large part by the concern within these circles on the growing disorder of the international states system. In the mid-1990s, the term was applied to states that seemed to be on a progressive pathway towards disintegration. The end of the Cold War as it was called, was also the beginning of a severe process of deterioration of internal governance structures in a number of countries.
That coincidence, if that indeed it was, needs to be further researched. But if “failure” as pronounced by the U.S. foreign policy establishment is the sole criterion, then South Asia – and India as the pivotal nation within the region – has much to worry about.
For Pakistan, conferment of the honour of “state failure” dates from around the late-1990s, roughly from the time that disillusionment with the Taliban was beginning to dawn in the U.S. and the numerous U.S. companies that had looked to the Islamic militia as the key to opening a pathway towards the energy riches of Central Asia, were beginning to tire of the strategic complexities involved in the new version of the “great game”. Pakistan was then one among many countries considered worthy of the accolade, which of course had been conferred upon Afghanistan well before.
The Science of Failed States
By the early years of the millennium, the science of “failed states” was being systematically established. In 2005, the “Fund for Peace”, a research and advocacy body based in Washington DC, in association with Foreign Policy magazine, began putting out an annual listing of the world’s “failed states”. It was the global, negative beauty pageant that was awaited with the most dread.
In 2005, Afghanistan ranked 11th in the listing and Pakistan 34th. In the system adopted by the analysts of “failed states”, Pakistan just escaped being classed under the “alert” category, which comprised all the countries deemed beyond the threshold. It was however, ranked top within the next category of critical attention, named “warning”.
The following year, Pakistan was ranked 9th, well within the “alert” category and ahead (or to be more precise, behind, since this is a negative beauty contest) even of Afghanistan, ranked 10th. It was perhaps the most precipitate collapse of credibility as a state, at least as far as perceptions within the U.S. foreign policy establishment are concerned.
In part because it managed to halt its own precipitate slide in the indicators that make up the “failed state” index, Pakistan recovered fractionally in the rankings to 12th position in 2007, while Afghanistan dwindled to 8th. The following year brought about a further decline in the fortunes of both: Afghanistan clocking in at the 7th place and Pakistan intimately behind (or rather ahead), at 9th place.
In the most recent listing of state failure, 35 of 177 nations were classed under the “alert” category, suggesting the imminent possibility of failure. Another 92 countries were categorised under the “warning” list. Taken as an aggregate of crisis possibilities, this means that no fewer than 71 percent of the nations that were within the sample and well over 60 percent of the current membership of the United Nations, are deemed to be in danger of implosion.
In the most recent rankings, India came in respectably at 98th, classed within the tail-end of the “warning” category. But India has ample reason to worry, since five countries within its near neighbourhood, from amongst the membership of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), have been graded under the “alert” category. And the two others keep India company in the “warning” list.
Whatever the ethical merits of the rankings – and it must be noted that they lack a sense of history and completely leave out of account western culpability in the undermining of Third World states – they provide a window into understanding the current situation in Pakistan. Increasingly, it is a country whose fate is tied up with Afghanistan. This is not just because of undeniable historical links and ties of community and kinship, but also because, to their dual misfortune, they have been designated as battlegrounds in the preservation of a geopolitical order of growing fragility. They have in the interests of mere survival, surrendered virtually all autonomy to a superpower that began a military adventure within their territories in the firm belief that it would not be challenged. Now that superpower is flailing about and sinking into a morass of strategic confusion as it seeks to deal with the multitude of challenges – military and above all economic – that it faces.
The law of unexpected outcomes has kicked in with a vengeance.
When the accidental U.S. president, George W. Bush, launched his wars against Afghanistan, and following that, Iraq, he was convinced that these were not wars of choice: they had been forced on the U.S. Equally, he was confident that the wars would end at a time of his choosing. Yet as he nears the end of his term, he is clueless about how and under what conditions he would be willing to call an end to the many wars he has launched, now unanimously recognised to have been wars of choice. And it is the misfortune of Afghanistan and Pakistan, that they have been the countries targeted in this misbegotten adventure by a superpower that simply did not know when its time was up.
Since the wars for maintaining U.S. primacy began, every major rite of political passage in Pakistan has had the conspicuous representation of somebody from Afghanistan. Pervez Musharraf was Pakistan’s army chief, president and chief executive all rolled into one, when the military operations in Afghanistan began. In fractional, but distinct measures, he was compelled over time to surrender this vast accumulation of power. Benazir Bhutto, Pakistan’s most well-known political leader, was expected incrementally, to assume the power that Musharraf ceded. But the Benazir-Musharraf pact never had the remotest chance of being implemented. The orderly transfer of power that the U.S. had scripted was quickly transformed into a messy affair, involving the putative rights of a widower to assume control of a political legacy, almost in the manner of a family heirloom, and his own shadowy past, involving multiple instances of seriously breaching public trust.
Shortly after the last vestige of Musharraf’s authority was removed, Asif Ali Zardari – who assumed leadership of the Pakistan Peoples’ Party (PPP) following the assassination of his wife Benazir -- was voted into office as the president of Pakistan. Present at his inauguration was Hamid Karzai, the figure who in western perceptions, represents the new Afghanistan. As Zardari shortly afterwards, addressed his first press conference as head of state, Karzai continued to be at his elbow.
This was an event without precedent, that had media observers scratching their heads in puzzlement. As the front page report in Dawn, Pakistan’s principal English-language daily put it: “President Zardari’s move to address his maiden press conference along with a foreign dignitary surprised many in the federal capital. Some analysts considered it a result of bad advice being given by people around him.”
Substantively, neither President had very much to say, aside from denouncing terrorism and vowing to combat all its forms. Karzai for his part, expressed “concern” over civilian deaths in Afghanistan and Pakistan, or as the U.S. and its allies put it, “collateral damage” in the war against terrorism, though without specifically referring to the air-strikes that had taken a heavy toll of civilian life in Afghanistan in the months preceding. And he stressed the need to win the “cooperation” of the people to make terrorism extinct.
This was the presumable alternative to the preferred western strategy of intimidating the people of Afghanistan and Pakistan into submission through massive displays of military prowess. The target of military action, said Karzai, “should be sanctuaries of terrorists, be these in Afghanistan or in Pakistan, and not the civilian population. We cannot tolerate civilian casualties and a fool-proof mechanism has to be established”.
Musharraf botches his compact with Benazir
Karzai also happened to be in Islamabad on December 27, 2007, the day Benazir Bhutto was assassinated. The two met around noon that day and according to an account rendered from first-hand observation, exchanged much good-natured banter, though without getting down to any serious business. Scheduled to meet two senior legislators from the U.S. that evening, Benazir went directly into a meeting with a senior political aide, who she tasked with preparing a memorandum to be presented to her U.S. interlocutors. She thought it an especially urgent priority that the peculiar status of the military intelligence agencies in Pakistan should be explained to the U.S. political establishment.
Benazir then went on to her public meeting at Liaqat Bagh, named in tribute to Pakistan’s first Prime Minister, assassinated in 1950 in the same vicinity. Her assassins struck less than five hours from her meeting with Karzai. The clumsy official response shocked the world and led to much adverse comment since it seemed focused on effacing all traces of the outrageous assault on democracy rather than identifying those responsible for it. Benazir’s killing only served to underline, in the words of a perceptive observer, the “chasm of trust between Pakistan’s government and its people”.
Zardari was far away, in Dubai, as the deadly attack on Benazir took place. In a technical sense, he had secured indemnity in multiple cases of corruption, abduction and murder, through the extraordinary ordinance promulgated by Musharraf in October 2007. Yet Zardari did not feel sufficiently emboldened to return with Benazir to Pakistan that same month.
This may have been a decision made in abundant caution, since the terms of his return, as also of Benazir’s – as specified in the National Reconciliation Ordinance (NRO) signed into law by Musharraf on October 5 -- like all such hastily crafted pieces of law, had areas of ambiguity that could conceivably have been manipulated to place Zardari under custody. Clearly, the man who had earned widespread disrepute for his rampant corruption and cronyism during Benazir’s last tenure as prime minister, had no wish to repeat the long years he had spent in jail between 1996 and 2005, for charges that included the murder in 1996 of Mir Murtaza Bhutto, his brother-in-law and prospective challenger for the mantle of the Bhutto political legacy.
Musharraf’s anxiety level in October though, was sufficient for him to bury all concerns about Zardari’s unsavoury past. He was intent on securing re-election as president by national and provincial legislatures that were at the end of their tenures and had little authority to elect a head of state to a full five-year term. The NRO was part of a deal to ensure him the loyalty of Benazir’s bloc of legislators, for which he was prepared reciprocally, to promise the waiver of the multitude of charges Benazir and her family faced. The legal device that was invoked for this very personalised exertion of the presidential power of pardon was an arbitrary cut-off point: October 12, 1999, the day Musharraf as chief of staff of the Pakistan army, overthrew Prime Minister Nawaz Sharief and installed himself as chief executive. In effect, the NRO divided up Pakistan’s political history into the ante and post-Musharraf periods. And as chief of staff of the army and an omnipotent president, Musharraf in October 2007 assumed the authority to extinguish, with a stroke of his pen, all cases registered before his advent to power.
Despite the long and arduous bargaining that went into it, this entire compromise was a seriously flawed affair. Musharraf first reportedly met in secret with Benazir in the Gulf emirate of Abu Dhabi in July 2007. Clearly, some extraordinary circumstances had impelled him into this concession to the civilian politicians he had disdained and in earlier public utterances, held singularly responsible for all the woes that Pakistan as a nation faced.
Sources of Musharraf’s anxiety
Among the many circumstances that might have forced his hand, the bloody confrontation at the Lal Masjid in Islamabad in July 2007 was undoubtedly, among the most important. That was when long-simmering provocations by two brothers, both with claims to Islamic wisdom, who controlled the officially-funded Lal Masjid in Pakistan’s capital city – the venue for congregational prayers by much of the country’s top military brass – reached tipping point. Vigilante squads from the Lal Masjid had for months together been roaming free, imposing their own version of Islamic purity on the city. Islamabad’s prestigious Qaid-e-Azam University was targeted for its alleged disregard for Islamic values. Houses were raided and women taken hostage for alleged immorality. And a radio station operating within the premises of the mosque backed up this campaign of vigilantism with flagrant incitements to violence.
The Lal Masjid clerics were in effect given the untrammelled authority to both create flashpoints of tension and determine their modes of resolution. With great self-importance, clerics in the Lal Masjid played host to the Saudi Arabian ambassador, as also the Chinese diplomats who approached them as supplicants pleading for the release of compatriots taken hostage while working as technical experts on infrastructure projects. All this while, the premises of the mosque were being saturated with guns, explosives and lethal weaponry of every description.
Musharraf’s motives in condoning this perilous accumulation of power within a religious institution in the national capital, can only be guessed at. As Pervez Hoodbhoy, professor of physics at Qaid-e-Azam University – and a highly respected spokesman for civil liberties – has argued, Musharraf could have been “banking on Islamic fanatics to create chaos in the nation's capital” and engineering a “bloodbath”, that would give him the alibi for an army intervention and the possible declaration of a “national emergency”. These in turn, would have given him a credible basis for arguing that national elections scheduled for October 2007, could not be conducted.
The game was up when China, smarting from the humiliation of supplicating for the release of its kidnapped technicians, issued an ultimatum. The subsequent conflagaration in the heart of Pakistan’s capital claimed, by the official count, 107 lives, though unofficial estimates put the magnitude of the carnage much higher. Musharraf had won a dubious triumph at enormous human cost. He had once again been shown up as the sorcerer’s apprentice who in his self-imagined cleverness, unleashes forces that later come back to haunt him.
Just days after the Lal Masjid bloodbath, Musharraf woke up to the discomfiting realisation that his continuing patronage by the U.S. could not really be taken for granted. On July 16, 2007, the U.S. Director of National Intelligence released his National Intelligence Estimate (NIE), a periodic summation mandated by the U.S. Congress, of the most authoritative findings of U.S. intelligence agencies. The NIE had several inconvenient truths to tell. It told for instance, of how the extremist group Al-Qaeda had, despite all the pressure exerted by the U.S. military machine, “protected or regenerated key elements” of its capability in the relatively sheltered environment of the Waziristan region in Pakistan. It observed too that Al Qaeda had achieved significant success in its effort to “recruit and indoctrinate operatives” willing to strike on U.S. territory, in part through an Iraqi affiliate.
The NIE set off feverish activity on another front, provoking calls by politicians, both minor and major, for aggressive new military action. Barack Obama, then one among many candidates for the presidential nomination of the Democratic party, insisted that the U.S. should be at liberty to act in the Waziristan region if “actionable intelligence” existed and Pakistan failed to do what was necessary.
Pakistan’s ambassador to the U.S. then, the former general Mahmud Ali Durrani, responded with alacrity. Variously describing the findings of the NIE as “absolutely incorrect” and “an absolute fallacy”, Durrani reminded his U.S. hosts that they had no option but to rely on Pakistan to bring peace to Afghanistan. Unilateral action by U.S. forces often resulted in unacceptable levels of “collateral damage”, with few of the legitimate military objectives being met. Pakistan could not afford to sustain these levels of civilian deaths. Besides, Pakistan had the concern that U.S. intelligence very often was “faulty”, “inaccurate” and tended not to be “timely” either.
These locutions were clearly, a coded reference to the frequent missile strikes in Waziristan and other border regions of Pakistan, which were by then inflicting casualties in the scores. Two such attacks occurred in June 2007, though the bloodiest till then, was the October 2006 strike on a madrasa, which killed around 80 students. Eager to dispel any notion of its territorial sovereignty being breached, Pakistan had stepped up on all occasions to take responsibility for these attacks.
Waziristan erupts again
The same month brought another testing moment for Musharraf, when tribal chieftains in the Waziristan region, home to autonomous and fiercely independent Pashtun tribes that had never acknowledged the centralising power of the federal government in Islamabad, decided to tear up the peace agreement worked out in 2006.
Musharraf had secured the uneasy right to station his forces in the tribal regions in 2002, in exchange for a reciprocal promise that he would pay special attention to the developmental needs of an area that had subsisted for literally centuries in an administrative limbo. In 2004, under pressure from the U.S. to do something drastic to end the safe havens that Islamic militants fleeing Afghanistan had secured in the region, Musharraf sanctioned offensive actions by his forces. The results were catastrophic. Despite gung-ho predictions of swift and certain victory as his troops marched into the unknown, Pakistan’s armed forces suffered immense losses. And to multiply his agonies, the truce that Musharraf concluded after this misadventure was, soon after the Lal Masjid confrontation, unilaterally abrogated by the tribal chieftains of Waziristan who accused federal forces of a persistent pattern of violations.
Impelled by dire necessity to talk terms with the civilians he had once disdained, Musharraf soon ran into problems. Within a month of commencing the secret parleys, Benazir announced that the talks were off. Negotiations with Musharraf’s representatives, she said, had progressed “80 percent” of the way towards a deal, but resistance from members of the Pakistan Muslim League (Qaid-e-Azam), or the “King’s Party” as it was called in Pakistani political circles, had scuppered chances of a successful outcome. Benazir was also fairly explicit about what the ideal outcome of the negotiations would be: Musharraf’s resignation as army chief of staff and his reelection as civilian president for another term, and the restoration of her rights, as also of all party colleagues, to contest elections and hold political office.
It is uncertain whether Benazir had a specific sequence in mind when she placed these demands on record, though it is abundantly clear that neither side had the slightest faith in the other. Musharraf only signed the NRO into law on the eve of the scheduled election to the presidency. Despite the PPP’s very marginal presence in the electoral college, he was desperate to get Benazir’s endorsement, simply because there was no other way the second term he aspired to, could be spent in relative tranquillity. In the event, the PPP walked out of the assembly chambers in both the national and provincial capitals, rather than vote for Musharraf’s reelection.
If Benazir believed that Musharraf would stand down as army chief prior to seeking reelection, she was again gravely mistaken. Musharraf made sure that he still was in absolute power when seeking reelection, which permitted him the luxury – in disregard of all constitutional requirements – to choose the day that he would shed his khaki. And the day he chose was the eve of his swearing in for a second term as president. He had meanwhile, ensured that the formidable military machine that he was ceding control over, would remain pliant to his designs. On September 21, he effected significant changes in the top military command structure. The pivotal post of Director-General in the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) – often described as the secret state within Pakistan -- was entrusted to Lieutenant-General Nadeem Taj, a close confidant who had served him as military secretary from virtually the very beginning of his tenure as the army chief.
Musharraf takes a political insurance policy
Keenly aware of the fragility of his political support, Musharraf then proceeded to remove all potential sources of inconvenient questions. A nationwide state of emergency was declared in November 2007, after which he proceeded to effect a massive surgical operation on the judiciary, removing all possible sources of dissent and bringing in judges who were less likely to entertain challenges to the political edifice he was constructing, on markedly dubious legal foundations.
When national and provincial elections were finally conducted, the PPP rode the sympathy wave created by Benazir’s assassination, to emerge as the largest single party at the federal level. But it was denied an absolute majority and had to enter into seemingly endless bargaining over constituting a government. The sticking point, ostensibly, was the insistence of the Pakistan Muslim League headed by Nawaz Sharief, (the PML-N) that a minimal condition for its association with the ruling arrangement would be a PPP commitment on reinstating all the judges dismissed by Musharraf. Now having assumed control of the PPP, as Tariq Ali described it, almost in the manner of a family heirloom, Zardari had evident reservations about allowing independent minds back into the portals of the country’s higher judiciary. That would have quite conceivably led to a reexamination of the entire foundations of his return to Pakistan and the reversed the remarkable revival in political fortunes that he was enjoying.
Sharief though, was smarting from the memory of the many humiliations he had suffered at Musharraf’s hands – first his ignominious ouster from premiership and imprisonment in 1999, his trial in 2000 and conviction for terrorism and “attempted hijacking” and the long years of banishment in Saudi Arabia. As recently as September 2007, he chose to preempt the Musharraf-Benazir negotiations and unilaterally reinterpret the terms of his exile by returning to Pakistan, only to be bundled out in double quick time and deep dishonour. It took an extraordinary political intervention by the Saudi ruling dynasty to secure his return in November, though his pathway towards resuming an elected role in politics remained blocked by judicial rulings.
The story of those deep intrigues still remains to be written. But the people of Pakistan could not have been happy with the games their politicians were playing, endlessly bickering over petty issues of personal concern, while delaying the formation of a civilian government, which had been the consuming passion of all for the many months preceding. Finally, the PPP and the PML-N agreed, just in time to salvage public trust, that they would constitute a government on the understanding that the judges would be reinstated and Musharraf’s future would be decided once they were installed in power.
To underline their very real resentments about Musharraf continuing in office on the basis of a dubiously engineered vote, PML-N ministers took their oath of office in March wearing black armbands. The gesture almost prompted a stormy riposte by Musharraf but it was a sign of the weak hand he had been left with, that he consented, in obvious ill-temper, to proceed with the swearing-in ceremony.
Within a mere six weeks of the taking the oath, all PML-N ministers quit the Federal Cabinet. Two deadlines had been set for the PPP leadership and Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani, to order the reinstatement of the judges. Both passed with no action.
Early in August 2008 though, the PPP and the PML-N found that they had a new basis for unity. After prolonged and still rather opaque negotiations, they resolved that they would jointly seek Musharraf’s removal as president, through impeachment if necessary. Zardari’s anxieties about the adverse consequences that could ensue from a confrontational course, had obviously been allayed by then. How this was accomplished is of course a matter that can only be guessed at, though the clues available are ample.
Late in August, two major U.S. newspapers reported that the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, the Afghan-born Zalmay Khalilzad, had been sharply upbraided by seniors in the U.S. State Department, for carrying out “unauthorised” contacts with Zardari. As U.N. ambassador, Khalilzad had little formal jurisdiction over Pakistan and yet, as U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Richard Boucher put it in an angry e-mail message, he had reportedly been offering “advice and help” to Zardari. Clearly infuriated that Khalilzad’s intervention had gone contrary to declared policy, Boucher demanded to know in what capacity he had offered “advice and help”: whether “government, private or personal”.
The contacts between the two men had been by all accounts, extensive. As The New York Times put it, they had spoken over telephone “several times a week for the past month”. It turned out moreover, that this was part of a pattern of deviant behaviour by Khalilzad, since he had in mid-2007, earned a “stern warning” from the second-ranking official of the U.S. State Department, Deputy Secretary John Negroponte, for carrying on freelance diplomacy with the Bhutto family. The flamboyant Khalilzad, a former oil industry operative and a charter member of the cabal of “neo-conservatives” that drives U.S. foreign policy, agreed then to fall in line, but three days later, was reported to have had a private dinner with Benazir.
The U.S. decides who in Pakistan is dispensable
Clearly, the U.S. foreign policy establishment, despite all the official noises emanating from the State Department, had decided by August 2008, that they could dispense with Musharraf, since Zardari offered the more promising opportunities for future engagements in Pakistan. Rather than risk the humiliation of impeachment, Musharraf chose shortly afterwards to resign. The war in Afghanistan, once his greatest assurance of continuing support from the U.S., had become by then, a millstone that he could no longer bear. And the U.S. for its part had evidently tired of Musharraf by then and was keen to explore other options.
For the U.S., the change of horses was, from the strategic point of view, long overdue. Early in October, a French diplomatic telegram came to light, which recorded the rather lugubrious observations of the British ambassador to Kabul. The U.S. strategy in Afghanistan, said the British diplomat in a conversation with French counterparts, was “destined to fail”. Seeking troop reinforcements from the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) would be counterproductive, since that would only multiply the range of targets for Afghan insurgents to aim their firepower at. Indeed, the foreign military forces on Afghan territory were part of the problem rather then the solution.
Karzai in this demi-official assessment, had lost all trust and could not be counted on to retrieve the rapidly deteriorating situation. Indeed, the most happy outcome for the west, would be for an “acceptable dictator” to assume absolute authority in Kabul in the next few years.
The gloomy message was underlined by the top-ranking U.S. military official, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee, Admiral Mike Mullen, in remarks to the media early-October. “The trends across the board are not going in the right direction,” he said. ”I would anticipate next year would be a tougher year.” Citing an intelligence assessment which was in the final stages of preparation, Mullen spoke of the imminent possibility of a “downward spiral” in the situation “unless there were rapid, major improvements”. These included curbing the booming heroin trade -- the most important source of funds for the insurgency – significantly devolving power to the district and provincial chiefs, and choking off the flow of militants from safe havens in Pakistan.
From the time in September 2001, that Musharraf was compelled to sign on to the U.S. war project in Afghanistan and to enroll himself as an accessory in the destruction of the Taliban regime that Pakistan had been singularly responsible in creating, he had shown ample signs of ambivalence. On the one hand, he was highly responsive to western demarches that he crack down on known Al-Qaeda operatives in his country and had offered significant logistical support in the capture and extradition of key figures such as Khalid Sheikh Mohammad and Ramzi bin al-Shibh. At the same time, he hardly made a secret of his deep disdain for the Afghan regime, despite the explicit and oft-repeated U.S. belief that Karzai was the man that it trusted to bring order to Afghanistan.
Musharraf’s behaviour in this respect has been described as “schizophrenic”, though to be fair to him, he probably was responding with as much consistency as he could muster, to conflicting pressures. Illustratively, in July 2006, he denied in a series of public statements that there were any Taliban cadre sheltering in Pakistan and accused Karzai of being manipulated by India. Shortly afterwards, he declared in a televised speech that the Taliban indeed, were a presence in Pakistan, though less so than in Afghanistan. In September that year, three days after signing a peace agreement with the Waziristan tribes, he paid a visit to Kabul at short notice, where he told a gathering of Afghan parliamentarians that “the best way to fight the common enemy (the Taliban) (was) to join hands, trust each other and form a common strategy”.
Shortly afterwards, Musharraf and Karzai who both happened to be in New York for the U.N. General Assembly, engaged in a bruising verbal battle in public, questioning each other credentials and capabilities. When they met a few days later in Washington DC, under the gaze of U.S. President George Bush, they reportedly avoided shaking hands. Karzai put forward his single-point demand: that Musharraf arrest the Taliban leaders sheltering in Pakistan, rather than make deals with them. Having barely extricated himself from a bruising military encounter with the Waziristan tribes, Musharraf was in no mood to listen. And Bush reportedly, was anxious not to be seen taking sides. An earlier demand from Karzai for the arrest and extradition of Taliban leaders sheltering in Pakistan was rebuffed with the accusation that Indian intelligence agencies, operating on Afghan soil, were engaged in a campaign of sabotage and destabilisation in the Baloch region of Pakistan.
The idea of a “peace jirga” involving Pakistan and Afghanistan was proposed at the Washington meeting, on Karzai’s initiative. By all accounts, Musharraf was lukewarm, but acceded to the proposal under U.S. pressure. The idea of adapting the jirga, or traditional assembly of Pashtun tribes to the cause of building bridges between two neighbouring States, each facing problems of internal turmoil and external tutelage, was a novel one. But it continued to encounter Pakistan’s indifference.
It is not difficult to see that the process of tribal consultations across borders runs contrary to the centralising tendency of a state dominated by the military. To be of any consequence, these consultations must be accompanied by a commitment that cross-border solidarities, of tribe or ethnicity or language, would be given significant room, setting up a force potentially antithetical to the centralising state. With the persistent trouble it was facing in Baluchistan compounded by the turmoil in Waziristan, there was ample reason for Islamabad to worry about yielding greater room for tribal communities to determine the contours of relations with Afghanistan. Aside from the insecurity engendered by recent experience, the process also seemed to necessitate a dilution of the concept of “strategic depth” – a doctrine that military administrations in Pakistan have in particular been committed to, as an antidote to the sense of siege the state has suffered from the moment of its birth.
Under relentless prodding from Washington, the peace jirga was finally scheduled for the early part of August 2007. In the days before the event, three heavyweight leaders of Islamic political parties in Pakistan – Fazlur Rahman, Samiul Haq and Qazi Hussain Ahmad – all of Pashtun extraction, decided to stay away. The tribal chiefs of Waziristan soon followed suit. Before setting off for Kabul, Pakistan delegates were extensively briefed by senior officials of the federal government in Islamabad and the provincial government in Peshawar, and told that they were under no circumstances to yield the moral ground. Any attempt to place the blame on Pakistan for the situation in Afghanistan, they were told, would have to be firmly rebuffed.
Musharraf opted out of attending the jirga, sending Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz instead and staying back amidst frenetic speculation about his intent to declare a state of emergency. The mounting speculation only died down when the Pakistan president disavowed the idea, amidst expressions of disapproval from Washington. Shortly afterwards he decided to accept Karzai’s invitation to address the closing session of the jirga in Kabul. From Washington, a spokesman of the State Department put out the statement that the Bush administration was “pleased” at the decision.
Pakistan’s schizoid policy
In the hours before the Pakistan president’s arrival, the jirga had been debating, beyond the florid speeches and the routine expressions of good intent, how best to operationalise a credible truce in the border region between the two countries. Curiously, according to a report put out by the Afghan news agency, Pajhwok, the Pakistan delegates at one stage tabled a proposal that two Indian consulates – of the four opened in Afghanistan since the ejection of the Taliban – be shut down. The Afghan delegates protested that these demands were in breach of agreed rules of non-interference. And when Musharraf finally appeared before the closing session of the jirga, he came with a virtual mea culpa. In breach of the rules framed for Pakistan’s delegates, Pakistan’s president, with his Afghan counterpart nodding vigorously in agreement, read out the following lines from a prepared text: “There is no doubt Afghan militants are supported from Pakistan soil. The problem that you have in your region is because support is provided from our side.”
This was another revelation of Musharraf’s uniquely schizoid style. And however well intended he may have been, there has been little change since then, in strategic realities in the two countries. In the midst of all the chatter at the jirga, though, there were views expressed that salvation for the region lay in nothing less than the withdrawal of all alien forces. It was a demand that the dominant political parties in Balochistan and the North-West Frontier Province of Pakistan soon afterwards amplified.
The U.S. forces have seemingly paid no heed. Shortly after Khalilzad and Zardari had presumably at one of their secret parleys, worked out their deal to oust Musharraf, U.S. air and ground forces stepped up their activity in the Waziristan region of Pakistan. There was a symmetry here between U.S. actions immediately after Musharraf’s ouster and actions just after he was voted to a full-term in the presidency in the infamously rigged referendum of 2002. As a recent work of reportage on Pakistan puts it: “The timing hardly seemed fortuitous. On May 1, 2002, only twenty-four hours after the controversial and flawed referendum that extended Pervez Musharraf’s presidency for an additional five years – with the tacit approval of Washington – Pakistan officials acknowledged that a small number of U.S. ground forces had been given reluctant permission to operate inside Pakistan”.
Every change of regime in Pakistan is in other words, merely a way-station in the growing assertion of U.S. military suzerainty in the region.
With civilian rule restored in Pakistan though, the U.S. would have little reason to expect a clear field for their military operations. The newly installed provincial government in the North-west Frontier Province for instance, is committed to a new approach to bringing peace to the trouble border with Afghanistan, other than the heavy-handed military tactics favoured by the U.S. The chief minister of NWFP, Asfandyar Wali Khan and the provincial chief of the ruling Awami National Party, Afrasiab Khattak – both scions of major political dynasties in the region – have indicated that they will open negotiations rather than risk a further escalation of hostilities.
There are indications also, that the Pakistan military has begun to respond with something approaching alarm to the impunity with which U.S. forces have been crossing the border. Late September, Pakistan forces fired what they claimed were warning shots at two U.S. army helicopters that were flying perilously close to the border.
Perhaps the most hopeful sign though, is that a new dynamic seems to be developing between the Pakistan military and the newly installed civilian leadership, as a response to the challenge posed by growing U.S. military overlordship. Contrary to earlier practices, when elected civilian leaders were denied access to security information that the army deemed its exclusive preserve, the Pakistan military brass recently delivered an extensive briefing on the war scenario to a joint session of both houses of the Pakistan National Assembly. The military leadership, though angered at what it called the persistent vilification of the ISI, also undertook to support the effort to evolve a new consensus on the security challenges facing Pakistan.
Things fall apart
How far this new mood of consensus will go is anybody’s guess. Since May 2008, casualties among U.S. and allied forces in Afghanistan have consistently outstripped the toll in Iraq. Afghan civilian deaths meanwhile, have multiplied, increasingly as a consequence of misdirected attacks by U.S. and allied forces. Each such incident elicits a volley of protests from the Afghan national government, followed by a commitment from the foreign forces that investigations would duly be conducted. And as virtually foretold from the moment the inquiries are launched, the finding, finally, is that the occupying military forces acted “appropriately”.
The reasons why the border with Pakistan is now bristling with insurgency against the Karzai regime, owe entirely to the architecture of the western plan for Afghanistan. Because it did not want the retrieval effort in one failed state to end in a situation of two failed states, the west connived in the early phase of its military campaign in Afghanistan, with Pakistan’s strategy of withdrawing most assets invested in the Taliban regime, or at least all that could be salvaged. This withdrawal was part of an agreed compact by which Musharraf sought in the cataclysmic defeat of his country’s strategic ambitions, a pretence – even if a very thin one – that the country was well-served by the war in Afghanistan.
The militant tendencies were transferred to Pakistan’s northern areas, to greatly add to the restiveness of the Pashtun tribes there. Afghanistan meanwhile, approaches meltdown, since the leadership that the west had anointed for what it fancifully calls the “democratic transition”, has carved up the country into a multitude of personal fiefdoms. Rather than attend to the rigours of building up a genuine sense of national solidarity, the west opted for a confederacy of the same warlords – Rashid Dostum, Abdul Rasool Sayyaf, Mohammad Mohaqiq, Ismael Khan, Karim Khalili, and numerous others – whose ouster by the Taliban was greeted by the people of Afghanistan in the mid-1990s as a form of deliverance.
Denied authority in most of the country, Karzai himself has decided, according to authoritative assessments, to cultivate his own fiefdom in the southern provinces of Helmand and Kandahar – currently Afghanistan’s most fertile breeding grounds for illicit opium. A loss of image in the west, the risk that he may be seen as a patron of the lethal trade in narcotics, is for Karzai, clearly a lesser danger than being overwhelmed by the confederacy of warlords that the U.S. military intervention has created.
It is increasingly clear, though, that peace can only be restored in Afghanistan through a process that fosters real sentiments of social solidarity and restores the benign face of the old allegiances of tribe and ethnicity. This is a process that would necessarily have to accommodate cross-border (or extra-territorial) ties of community and kinship. It would in that sense, work against the centralising logic of a modern nation-state, especially one that has remained for long years under military management. If the current gloomy prognoses by the U.S. intelligence agencies are to be taken at face value, things are likely to get much worse before they get better. That prognoses would be equally applicable to Pakistan too. And since no nation is an island, that is a forecast that all countries in South Asia need to pay heed to. There is little room for complacency. And the repercussions of a “business as usual” approach to neighbourhood relations, especially for the largest country in the region, may well be unacceptably high.