Whatever else oozed out of Washington’s recent Afghanistan flap, recognition that Pakistan is key to winning America’s longest war may be the most important. Both new Afghanistan Supremo Gen. David Petraeus and Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen finally have got around to saying so publicly.
It is late coming.
Obviously, as in all wars, there will be a final political settlement. But in most wars that would come only when one side demonstrates overwhelming power. After a decade the U.S. may well be at the tipping point. That is behind Afghanistan Pres. Hamid Karzai talking of accommodation and frenetic shuttle diplomacy by Pakistan Chief of Army Staff Ashfaq Pervez Kayani.
But victory in Afghanistan – if only modestly denying future sanctuary for international terrorists who produced the 9/11 long-range attack – also will demand a truce among cantankerous neighbors. Yet willful ignorance of the Afghanistan, Pakistan and Indian incestuousness has dominated Washington strategies. “We will treat India and Pakistan’s interests completely separately”, went the Bush Administration’s mantra.
At this very moment, the relationships are entering new convoluted crisis:
Pakistan is clumsily shifting from presidential to parliamentary government. The changeover loosens ethnic rivalries and empowers more petty politicians. Meanwhile, figurehead Pres. Asif Ali Zandari fends off humongous corruption charges virtually everyone in the country believes. To compound the disorder, an activist judiciary is trying to establish paramountcy. The only virile national institution, the military, runs a parallel government after Washington helped ditch Pres. Gen. Pervez Musharraf — perhaps poised for comeback if his old alter ego, Kayani, leaves for scheduled October retirement.
Overall, always fragile Pakistan despite sharp internal divisions is unanimous in seeing a friendly Afghanistan as quintessential to its survival. Vast and intricate geographic, historical, ethnic and religious ties bind the two countries. But suffice it to say that current enemies for both Washington and Islamabad – and New Delhi — were a byproduct of American assistance through Pakistan in the successful anti-Soviet Afghan war. Some of those “holy warriors” want to turn back the clock to a pre-modern regime such as the one which housed Osama Ben Ladin. It is no wonder then, that in Kayani’s former spy command, Interservices Intelligence Directorate, old individual ties to terrorists abound — for better and for worse.
But to put the argument in its crudest form, having fought three and a half wars with India, Pakistan’s largely secular political class constantly looks over its shoulder at New Delhi as it tries to fend off rising Islamic extremism. New Pakistani-Indian bilateral discussions toward settlement have regained momentum. But they come when Kashmir, keystone to their conflict, is seething with anti-Indian violence.
True, Pakistan in the past has fed that conflict. But that more than half a million Indian security forces cannot pacify an area the size of Minnesota suggests another political compromise is necessary. Uncharacteristically, India’s military chief just said so publicly. But India treads warily with its own Muslim minority larger and intimately related to Pakistan’s 156 millions. Furthermore, India’s dozen so-called Maoist insurgencies which Prime Minister Manmohan Singh designated the country’s biggest security threat, are increasingly attacking economic targets.
None of this has slowed New Delhi’s Afghanistan intrigues. For India, too, claims the country is vital to its security. From New Delhi’s viewpoint Afghan instability partially checkmates Pakistan and its “all-weather” ally, Communist China. With no real progress in the Tibetan border conflict – Beijing scored a short but decisive war in 1962 – this puts Afghanistan on the list of Indian strategic priorities.
New Delhi’s $1.2 billion in aid is deftly leveraged. And an appreciative Mr. Karzai’s flirtation with India infuriates the Pakistanis. Islamabad recalls New Delhi’s longtime efforts with its then ally, the Soviet Union, to exploit the same borderland Pushtoon tribals who now provide the terrorists’ sanctuary. [Mr. Karzai refuses to accept the 19th Century British India-Afghanistan border which slashes through these tribal areas, his own ancestral home.]
When Pres Barack Obama made a feint at this fundamental problem by naming boisterous Richard Holbrooke super-ambassador to all three countries, New Delhi demurred loudly. As the Bush Administration before it, Mr. Obama hoped to use massive aid to Pakistan — $10 billion over five years — as leverage along with emerging strategic ties with India [if unspoken, against expanding Chinese power]. But Holbrooke has been reduced to barking around the edges of the bloated U.S. ambassadorial network that Petraeus is likely to find his greatest headache. [It was injudiciously targeted by Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal’s staff in the infamous Rolling Stone article.]
Furthermore, India rejects international arbitration in Kashmir after refusing a 1950s UN plebiscite which it might well have won. Hanging on is now not only seen as strategic militarily but retaining the Himalayan region’s 10-million mostly Muslims is “proof” of India’s claim to “secularism” – in a country where recent history records too many Hindu-led depredations against Muslims.
Some in Washington see Petraeus with political ambitions. If so, now here is a political problem to cut his teeth on which would make any Potomac River circus look like child’s play.