It should be no surprise that the American discourse on post-2014 AfPak is shifting as it becomes evident that the troop thin-out will leave behind an Afghanistan in turmoil if not outright civil war. In recognition of the bare-knuckle conflict that lies ahead, discussion has moved on from the soft issues of Afghan democracy, women’s empowerment and eradication of corruption to kinetic topics like the transition of security responsibility. Washington’s big security bugaboo is now the possible entry of the Al Qaeda into the power vacuum left behind by departing US troops. And Paul Yingling, of the George C Marshall Centre, has revived another favourite US nightmare, pointing out that the “truly unique threat to the West” is actually in Pakistan where radical ideology flourishes “less than a day’s drive from the world’s least secure nuclear arsenal”.
New Delhi must be alert to these changing US concerns because, even in ignominious withdrawal, Washington will continue to shape the AfPak stage on which Pakistan will act. American thinking follows a predictable pattern: when Pakistan-based jehadi fighters are killing US troops in Afghanistan, the threat is more immediate. In such circumstances, worried US defence officials would naturally squeeze Rawalpindi by publicly castigating the Inter-Services Intelligence for supporting the Haqqani network. But in the months and years ahead, as US troops withdraw, the view from the ground in Afghanistan will yield primacy to a longer-distance view from Washington. America’s strategic concerns will inevitably shift from the locally influential Haqqani network, to long-range threats to US soil like “Al Qaeda havens” and “jehadi nukes”.
But the AfPak region will remain on Washington’s radar even if closer to the periphery. Some 30,000 US troops will remain stationed in Afghanistan even beyond 2014, their charter including drone strikes into Pakistan’s tribal areas in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province, the “epicentre of global terrorism”. This will create a mutual dependency with Pakistan: America would need ground intelligence and airspace co-ordination from Pakistan; while Rawalpindi would want to direct drone strikes towards anti-establishment jehadis (like the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan) while safeguarding its cultivated killers (like the Lashkar-e-Taiba). Paradoxically, therefore, even as US logistical dependency on Pakistan reduces, its place would be taken by an enhanced intelligence and operational relationship.
It would be unrealistic, therefore, for New Delhi to hope for a stronger American line on Pakistan in the short and medium term. In the long term, however, continuing US-Pak co-operation would most likely stall on the rocks of growing radicalisation within Pakistan. With most Pakistanis convinced that Washington has railroaded Rawalpindi into its crusade against Islam, America has become a hate figure that in many ways overshadows India.
While the Pakistani establishment rides the anti-American tiger, this is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, the US provides a convenient scapegoat for many of the problems that beset Pakistan. It is almost an article of faith in Pakistan (and like all good lies, this has a kernel of truth) that America’s presence in Afghanistan has destabilised the tribal areas. Anti-Americanism provides Islamabad a fig leaf while engaging with its “all-weather friend”, Beijing. But there is also a tricky downside: Pakistan’s leaders can no longer explain why they continue to stretch out a beggar’s bowl to the “crusaders” and militarily co-operating with the infidels in killing “brother Muslims”.
As radicalisation grows in Pakistan, especially among a new generation of soldiers; as Islamists whip up public outrage over the inevitable collateral damage from drone strikes; as an increasingly isolated Pakistan becomes more insular and conservative; and as American domestic opinion makes it difficult for Washington to continue its handouts to a terrorism-tolerant, military-dominated nation of America-haters, the US-Pakistan relationship is foredoomed to bitterness.
New Delhi, therefore, is far-sighted in its realisation that Washington’s ability to influence Pakistan and nudge that country away from the abyss is perceptibly declining. The US continues to tackle symptoms rather than disease, warning against support to the Haqqani network, but seemingly unwilling to take on the underlying ecosystem that nurtures terror as an instrument of national policy. America deploys aid and exchange programmes in fruitless attempts to win Pakistani hearts and minds, but seems unwilling to put pressure for reforming an education system that breeds exclusivity and hate.
In the circumstances, can China be expected to manage the Pakistan problem? Certainly Beijing has a bigger stake than Washington in a less dysfunctional Pakistan. Recent statements from Beijing indicate growing concern over the spread of Islamist militancy to the Muslim Uighur areas of Xinjiang. The Karakoram highway and a planned infrastructure corridor linking Xinjiang with the Bay of Bengal only make sense if they pass through secure areas. The soldiers of the People’s Liberation Army already guard Chinese construction teams working in the Northern Areas, in the Pakistan-occupied side of the Khunjerab Pass. As Pakistan’s military grows ever more conservative, Beijing will also come to share America’s apprehension about nuclear weapons falling into terrorist hands.
China today commands far greater influence than the US within the power centres of Pakistan, despite having given Islamabad a mere fraction of the military and humanitarian assistance that Washington has doled out over the years. But even Chinese influence might count for naught since the cannons rolling around the Pakistani deck are in nobody’s control. For India, there are no good choices currently. All that New Delhi can do is to keep a dialogue going while keeping its powder dry.