NEW DELHI – The problems and dilemmas confronting Pakistan’s leadership – including a deepening vortex of mutual suspicions, sectarian killings, and brazen terrorism – are almost too numerous to count. And that leadership – whether civilian, military, and also the now politically active judiciary – has proven congenitally ineffective, leaving the country with a broken economy and a paralyzed political system.
Central to the world’s concerns about the region is the complex reality of the two Taliban movements – one in Afghanistan, over which Pakistan’s powerful Directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence has a great deal of control, and one in Pakistan itself, which is waging an increasingly vicious guerrilla war against the Pakistani government. With the United States and NATO due to withdraw all troops from Afghanistan by the end of 2014, there is a real possibility that the Taliban will not only regain power there, but will also turn Pakistan into a truly failed state.
Encouragingly, after a gap of seven months when no military supplies could reach Afghanistan via the Khyber Pass – a cutoff that followed the death of Pakistani soldiers at the hands of NATO troops firing across the border – NATO trucks in early July were finally allowed to cross again. Somewhat guardedly, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced: “(Pakistani) Foreign Minister (Hina Rabbani) Khar and I acknowledged the mistakes that resulted in the loss of Pakistani military lives. We are sorry for the losses suffered by the Pakistani military.” Her affirmation of commitment to preventing such an event in the future appears to have sufficed to re-open the border to NATO’s resupply through Pakistan.
This self-defeating crisis is now over, but can both sides really prevent further deterioration in their complex, mutually dependent relationship? This question matters principally because Pakistan’s quest for national identity and territorial security is rooted in existential fear of its neighbors. Unfortunately, as Michael Krepon of the Stimson Center, an American foreign-policy think tank, observes, official Pakistani tactics sustain the country’s “isolation and decline.” Moreover, America’s tactics, Krepon argues, heighten “its estrangement with Pakistan. As long as current policies remain fixed, new points of contention seem inevitable between Pakistan, its neighbors, and the United States.”
The big question across South Asia is whether or not the withdrawal of US/NATO troops will attenuate Pakistan’s dilemmas or deepen them. Much will depend on how Pakistan addresses its internal turbulence, as well as how the situation in Afghanistan evolves. Many Pakistanis, including Sartaz Aziz, a former foreign minister who sees a policy vacuum, are not sanguine.
But the problem is deeper than an absence of effective leadership. As Pakistani journalist Mir Mohammad Ali Talpur has put it, “[W]hen states are formed on an artificial basis of contrived nationhood or on the basis of religion, as was the case with Pakistan, Israel, and Yugoslavia, they of necessity turn into…states dominated by militarist ideology.” Furthermore, “Pakistan, by claiming to be the legatee of the glory of Islam burdened itself with heavy historical baggage.”
But could it have done otherwise? The elite of Pakistan, Ali Talpur continues, “subscribing to a statist and militarist ideology,” became “the self-appointed defenders of Islam,” and “even the brigands of Islamic history” were accorded the status of heroes, creating an illusion of invincibility and grandeur that is “not in any way in keeping with reality.”
Here, successive US governments have compounded South Asia’s problems by pursuing only their own national interests, at an incalculable cost to the natural, organic growth of the region’s countries. Without Russia, China, India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Iran acting in concert, no lasting solutions can be found; they certainly cannot be imposed unilaterally by the US and NATO.
Thus, a dilemma arises: the presence of US/NATO forces in Afghanistan is not in harmony with the natural urges and balance of the region. After all, Afghanistan can remain only where it is, with or without US troops, which is why its future will remain an issue of great concern to Pakistan (and to India). How are these countries to harmonize their own national interests and priorities with those of the Western powers?
According to Kamran Shafi, a retired Pakistani army officer, Pakistan “has lost the trust of most, if not all of our friends.” Indeed, even Pakistan’s “brotherly” Saudi Arabia has extradited to India the man blamed by the Indians as one of the masterminds of the horrific terror attacks on Mumbai in November 2008. In promoting and pursuing terrorism as an instrument of state policy, Pakistan seems intent on never regaining that trust, without which peace, unseen in South Asia since the partition of British India in 1947, is impossible.
South Asia now seems condemned to something akin to a 100-year war. But, unlike Europe’s Hundred Years’ War, this struggle is shadowed by the potential for mutually assured destruction. Given the potent Pakistani and Indian nuclear arsenals, the war could be very short indeed.