Pakistani wolf to guard Afghan henhouse
By M K Bhadrakumar
The visit by United States Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to Islamabad last
week turned out to be yet another defining moment in the endgame in
Afghanistan. It took place under the heavy cloud cover of propaganda. Foggy
Bottom habitually resorts to strident public diplomacy when Uncle Sam's
tailcoat is on fire so that the awkwardness of dousing the flames remains a
This was literally the case last week. US diplomats strove to give spin to
media persons amenable to listening, that Clinton was going to hand down a
tough message to the recalcitrant General
Headquarters of the Pakistani army in Rawalpindi: "Pakistan must crack down on
the Haqqani network who take shelter in North Waziristan on the Afghan border
regions and incessantly bleed the US and North Atlantic Treaty Organization
forces, or else, the US would suo moto act."
The US spin doctors made it out to be that with or without Pakistan, the US was
anyway going to fight the insurgents (as well as "talk" with them and also
"build" Afghanistan), but Pakistan's relationship with the US was at risk
unless its military leadership acted now.
Clearly, Clinton's was a do-or-die mission. Seldom if ever is it that the "good
cop" and the "bad cop" undertake a joint mission. Clinton was accompanied at
the talks in Islamabad by Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) director David
Petraeus and the chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff, Martin Dempsey. What did
Clinton's mission accomplish?
In the event, five things emerged. One, the US has publicly acknowledged the
centrality of Pakistan's role in the Afghan endgame. Two, the US publicly
accepted the consistent Pakistani demand that the Haqqanis should be engaged in
talks and that excluding them would make the entire process fragile. The
Haqqani network is one of the most important components of the Taliban-led
insurgency in Afghanistan.
Three, therefore, the new approach will be to "squeeze" the Haqqanis so that
they come to the negotiating table - rather than try to vanquish them as an
irreconcilable insurgent group. Four, the US understood the range of factors
behind Pakistan's hesitation in launching military operations in North
Waziristan and would therefore switch tack and opt for "other forms of acting",
such as sharing real-time intelligence and debilitating the network's lethal
Five, Clinton conceded repeatedly Islamabad's "legitimate" concerns regarding
the Taliban operating out of safe havens on Afghan soil to carry out
cross-border terrorist attacks on its soil, and henceforth US troops would "up
the military tempo" against those sanctuaries and prevent them from attacking
Clinton also made several demonstrative gestures to the effect that the US was
prepared to go the extra league - even suspend its disbelief on occasions - in
a determined effort to repair the rift in US-Pakistan ties. She admitted that
the US had had "one preliminary meeting" with the Haqqanis "to essentially just
see if they would show up for even a preliminary meeting", and, indeed,
Pakistani officials "helped to facilitate" it.
She went a step ahead to reveal that the US and Pakistan were working to "try
to put together a process that would sequence toward an actual negotiation"
with the Haqqani network. Clinton virtually recalibrated the earlier US formula
of "talk, talk, fight, fight". She said, "We [US] want to see more talking than
fighting, but in order to get to the talking, we have to keep fighting ... we
are now at a point where the potential for talking exists."
Clinton categorically denied that the Barack Obama administration recently
considered the option of US ground incursions into Pakistani territory. "That
has never been a serious consideration." On the contrary, the US is rebooting
the strategic dialogue with Pakistan and is putting together a new work plan,
"Because we got, as you say, diverted over the last months, and we want to get
back to business."
Clinton also gave a "no-objection" certificate to the Inter-Services
Intelligence's dealings with the Haqqanis. She couldn't have put it across in a
Now, every intelligence agency has contacts with unsavory
characters. That is part of the job of being in an intelligence agency. What
those contacts are, how they are operationalized, who has them - all of that is
what we are now working on together. But I don't think you would get any denial
from either the ISI or the CIA that people in their respective organizations
have contacts with members of groups that have different agendas than the
So, I think what we are saying is let's use those contacts to try to bring
these people to the table to see whether or not they are going to be
cooperative ... it was the Pakistani intelligence services that brought a
Haqqani member to a meeting with an American team. So you have to know where to
call them. You've got to know where they are. So those are the kinds of things
that we have to examine and understand how they can be beneficial.
Clinton revealed after the talks that in Pakistani army chief Parvez Kiani's
estimation, Pakistan and the US were "90% to 95% on the same page". She shared
the general's optimism. "I think that our cooperative relationships between our
military, between our intelligence agencies, are back on an upward trajectory."
The residual issues pertain to the "operational" parts.
Clinton said that "serious, in-depth discussions" took place with "specifics"
as regards the "Afghan peace process, reconciliation, how do we do it, how do
we make it work", and the two sides will now be taking forward "that
conversation and operationalizing it over the next days and weeks, not months
and years, but days and weeks". She explained, "We need a work plan to actually
sequence out what we're going to do and how we're going to do it together." She
revealed that the issue of a ceasefire in Afghanistan as a prelude to talks
On the whole, the US leaves it to Pakistan to work out the particulars of
"squeezing the Haqqanis", while there is "complete agreement in trying to move
forward on a peace process". The US and Pakistan have passed the "challenging
phase in the last few months", as Pakistani Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar
A grand bargain
What explains the dramatic u-turn in the US's strategy? In a nutshell, the
Obama administration sized up that Pakistan was hunkering down and an impasse
was developing, which was unacceptable, given the timeline ahead for the US
withdrawal from Afghanistan by 2014. The heavy pressure tactic to the point of
brandishing the sword failed to produce the desired result and is unlikely to
In sum, Washington sees the futility of visualizing Pakistan as a hostile power
and of trying to impose an Afghan settlement that is unacceptable to the
Pakistani military. The US has, therefore, switched to a startlingly innovative
strategy. The mantra is to "incentivize" Pakistan by inviting it to play a
major role in Afghanistan, but on conditions, which also ensures that the US's
strategic interests remain protected.
It essentially devolves on conceding Pakistani primacy in Afghanistan and
putting the Pakistani leadership in charge of negotiating with their
counterparts in Kabul a settlement accommodating the Taliban that would stop
the bloodshed and stabilize the country.
This may seem to detractors of Pakistan (in Afghanistan, the region and
internationally) as a mild version of putting the wolf in charge of the
henhouse, and it certainly assumes that Pakistan has had a change of heart with
regard to its past agenda of dominating its weaker, smaller neighbor that has
shown the temerity or tenacity - depending on one's point of view - to refuse
to accept the Durand Line, which makes Pakistan's 2,500-kilometer border and
the attendant unresolved Pashtun nationality question existential themes for
Pakistan's integrity as a sovereign state.
But the US sees this as part of a grand bargain that Pakistan will be sorely
tempted to accept if it is made sufficiently alluring. The US expectation is to
make it a "win-win" situation by making the stabilization of Afghanistan form
an integral part of its so-called New Silk Road vision.
Indeed, history might record that the main thrust of Clinton's mission to
Islamabad was to clear the (temporary) hurdle of the Afghan endgame so that all
protagonists can bite the succulent fruit of the low-hanging New Silk Road
project that aims at exploiting the vast mineral resources of Central Asia.
Significantly, Clinton also included Tajikistan and Uzbekistan in her regional
tour - the two countries other than Pakistan that would have crucial roles to
play in developing the communication links connecting Central Asia with world
markets. Her focus in the regional capitals was on the "New Silk Road vision",
which she will be presenting at an Istanbul conference on November 2 in an
"effort to get the region to buy into it" - to use Clinton's words.
While in Islamabad, she was candid that without Pakistan's active support, the
New Silk Road project was not going to work. She exuded optimism that under the
canopy of the "New Silk Road vision", even the intractable India-Pakistan
animosities could be sorted out as the two South Asian rivals become accustomed
to the name of the game, which is that the ultimate aim of all good politics is
about creating wealth and prosperity in their impoverished lands.
The Barack Obama administration has careered away from its path of spearheading
the search for an Afghan settlement by directly engaging the Taliban, bypassing
Pakistan and creating a fait accompli for Islamabad. Put differently,
Pakistan has scored a resounding political victory by correctly judging the
range of the US's vulnerabilities in the given situation and carefully
factoring in Pakistan's "strategic assets" and by adopting a unified
So far so good. It is almost certain that the apple cart will not be upset
before Clinton unveils the US's "New Silk Road vision" at the conference of
Afghanistan's neighbors and major powers in Istanbul a week from now. But what
happens beyond that?
Many imponderables remain. First and foremost, it might be that Pakistan is
taking up much, much more than it can chew. The assumption that Pakistan has
decisive influence over Taliban groups will be put to the acid test.
Specifically, what about the US's intentions regarding establishing a permanent
military presence in Afghanistan? Are the Taliban willing to accept it as the
price to pay for political accommodation - and if not, will Pakistan want to
arm-twist them? Meanwhile, Pakistan's own stance on the issue remains
Equally, non-Pashtun groups would view Pakistani intentions with great
suspicion. Not only does the US's new Afghan policy refuse to factor in Iran as
a key player, Clinton even utilized the regional tour to indulge in some
high-voltage characterization of the Iranians as bad boys hopelessly wedded to
dangerous pastimes. Iran will be closely watching every baby step that Pakistan
takes from today onward.
Equally, Pakistan's appetite has been whetted and how it presents its own
"wish-list" to Obama (which it will do some day soon) will be keenly awaited in
the neighboring capital of New Delhi. The New Silk Road has a long gestation
period and such fruits have a tendency to turn sour quickly in the Central
At any rate, Delhi would assess that in the long run, we are all dead, and,
therefore, its emphasis would be on the now and the tangible. The US may need
to work on Delhi to roll back its influence in Kabul; it may at some point try
to mediate on the Kashmir problem between India and Pakistan; it may
resuscitate its robust military partnership with Pakistan; it may invite in
China as a "stakeholder" in South Asia.
Learning to live with the Americans in the neighborhood isn't exactly turning
out to be a pleasant experience for Indian pundits. One day they were told that
the Haqqanis were the murderers who attacked the Indian Embassy in Kabul - and,
indeed, the US Embassy too - and now they overhear tit-bits of conversation
that the US has had a change of heart.
Conceivably, they would hope to hear from US National Security Advisor Tom
Donilon, who arrives in Delhi this week, how such phenomenal shifts take place
in US policies and where this leaves its one and only "indispensable partner"
in South Asia and the entire Indian Ocean region - India.
Ambassador M K Bhadrakumar was a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign
Service. His assignments included the Soviet Union, South Korea, Sri Lanka,
Germany, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Kuwait and Turkey.
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