Do not be fooled by the thaw in relations between the United States and Pakistan. The breach is deep and, unlike past troughs in the bilateral relationship, this time it extends to mutual antipathy at a popular level. Also, an entire generation of military officers from both countries now sees the other as the enemy. It will take a lot of time, statesmanship and luck to restore ties to what they were even on September 10, 2001. If Washington has yielded to Pakistan’s demands for an apology for US troops killing Pakistani soldiers at Salala last year, it is only to ease the conditions for the withdrawal of its troops from Afghanistan.
Barack Obama has executed a very smart policy change — he has effectively dehyphenated Af-Pak by extricating the US from the long-running Afghan civil war and focusing Washington’s attention on Pakistan. The US will put in a genuine effort to mitigate the risk of a Taliban takeover in Afghanistan, but will essentially leave Afghans to fight out their own affairs. It will, instead, maintain a security presence in the region, tasked with keeping military pressure on jihadi militants who pose a threat to its own security.
What does that imply?
First, as far as Washington is concerned, not just Hamid Karzai but even the post-2002 Afghan state is dispensable. If the Afghan state cannot secure itself against Taliban revolutionaries or other factions that seek to destroy it, Washington will not be concerned beyond a point. This message, as we will see, has (predictable) consequences.
Second, although the US will withdraw its troops in 2014, it is not in a form that the Pakistani military-jihadi complex expected. Pakistani generals had long assumed that US withdrawal from Afghanistan automatically implied that they could take over the place the next day through a combination of Mullah Omar, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and the Haqqanis. They had also assumed that they held the cards because international forces depended on their goodwill to make a face-saving exit. President Obama has delivered the Pakistani generals a nasty surprise — the residual US presence on the Afghan side of the Durand Line and drone strikes on Pakistani soil will calibrate how much Pakistan can influence the security and stability of Afghanistan.
Third, as a consequence of Washington extricating itself from Afghanistan, we are bound to see political factions emerge around tribal and ethnic lines, fighting and allying among themselves and seeking external support. This process will strengthen if the Taliban were to either take or share power.
Let’s not forget that the mujahideen separated into factions after the Soviets left in 1989 and fought each other. Let’s also not forget that there was no “Northern Alliance” before the Taliban became a dominant political force. So just because there isn’t visible opposition to the Taliban today, it doesn’t follow that there won’t be one if they came to power. Just because Messrs Omar, Hekmatyar and Haqqani are Pakistan’s proxies today, it doesn’t follow that they won’t reach for each other’s throats tomorrow. Of course this means “civil war”, if only because the Afghan civil war has been ongoing for a couple of decades now.
Fourth, if and when the “civil war” does take place, the US will become the swing power between the China-Pakistan-Saudi and the India-Russia-Iran alignments. It has so far been engaged in the self-weakening business of preventing India, Russia and Iran from cooperating over Afghanistan. Washington will have to decide which side it intends to back.
The smart thing for it to do would be to back regional powers selectively, while retaining for itself the power and influence that come from its role as the balancer. For this, though, it will need to have better relations with each of these alignments than they have with each other. Therefore, its ability to swing will depend on whether it can get over its Iran dogma and work out a modus vivendi, at least in Afghanistan.
Fifth, if Pakistan need not keep appearances of being an ally in the war on terror, the military establishment might well prefer to install a regime that is to its liking. To the extent that the Pakistani army’s needs for an “acceptable civilian face” to extract money from the US are diminished, Imran Khan’s – and Hafiz Saeed’s – political fortunes are set to improve.
Finally, India will need to remain open to support political factions in Afghanistan that might seek New Delhi’s assistance, even while robustly backing the legitimate leadership of the Afghan state.
The most important risk to India’s national security comes from the spillover of veteran Afghan militants. In the early 1990s, Pakistan solved two problems at one go by diverting the surplus militant manpower to Jammu & Kashmir. Given that it has been unable to even begin addressing the problem of de-radicalising its militant manpower base, its leaders – both military and civilian – will be tempted to do the same now. The longer these militants have reason to fight in Afghanistan and in Pakistan, the better it is for India. This should be one of New Delhi’s policy goals.
It’s time to dust off histories of Afghanistan in the 1990s.
The author is founder and fellow for geopolitics at the Takshashila Institution