Condemned by history

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NATOs Afghan exit strategy, which was recently unveiled in Lisbon, is symptomatic of the Wests desperation to cut and run. After President Obamas now well-known draw down deadline by July 2011, another time frame given at the Summit envisages 150,000 NATO-led forces in Afghanistan to start withdrawing by the end of 2014, transferring part of the battlefield to the Afghan army and police.

The declared strategy does not quite gel with the optimistic note struck by the top US commander in Afghanistan General David Petraeus. In a post-summit briefing, he stated that he was working on an anaconda strategy, aiming to squeeze the life out of the Taliban.

It is obvious that the US is desperate to talk to the Taliban, any Taliban! According to the New York Times, NATO and Afghan officials, in their anxiety to talk to the Taliban, started negotiations with a fake Taliban leader from Quetta and even ended up paying him an undisclosed but substantial sum of money.

For Islamabad, the Wests troubles in Afghanistan are not something to gloat about. More the chips are down for the coalition forces in our troubled western neighbour, more the pressure on Pakistan to do more. NATOs travails with the Taliban are unfortunately seen as a direct function of Pakistans flawed strategic calculus.

As the US Chairman Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen put it the other day, Pakistans border areas along Afghanistan are the epicentre of terrorism in the world. He complained that despite this, the Pakistan Army remained India-centric. Ashley Tellis, senior associate of South Asia programme at Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, has accused Pakistan of running with the hares and hunting with the hounds.

Mr Tellis, who is of Indian origin, writing in Foreign Policy magazine, quite predictably proposes that US assistance, which totals to $18 billion since 9/11, should be tacitly conditioned on Islamabad meeting certain counter terrorism benchmarks. He also suggests, more open support for Indian contributions to Afghan stability, to demonstrate to Islamabad that the rules of the game have changed.

All this means incremental pressure on Pakistan in days to come. It is difficult if not impossible to change the perception that N Waziristan is the haven of Al Qaeda and the Afghan Taliban. According to the Western intelligence estimates about a hundred of the top Al Qaeda leadership is based in Afghanistan while about 300 are holed up in N Waziristan. Lashker-e-Toiba is also perceived by the West as being an ISI protg.

Recent standoff between Islamabad and Washington over the NATO supply route through Torkham and its refusal to allow drone attacks targeting the Quetta Shura are symptomatic of increasing tensions between the US and Pakistan.

There have been leaked reports in the media that Islamabad is seriously weighing its options to reorient its foreign policy. According to an official version of a recent meeting of the troika (meaning the President, the Prime Minister and the COAS) the option of establishing stronger ties with China was discussed at a time when relations with the US were increasingly strained.

It seems our foreign policy mandarins, not necessarily belonging to the foreign office, have not out-grown the outdated policies of the Cold War era based on old alliances. The realisation that sand is fast shifting from under their feet is simply not sinking in.

It is no longer a bi-polar world where China could prove as a counterweight to a budding Washington-Delhi axis. As it is, Beijing is a close ally of Pakistan providing it nuclear as well as conventional technology and assistance. Pakistans economic; trade and political ties with China are second to none. So what more are we seeking from our traditional friend?

Islamabad finds itself in a nutcracker situation. Although 2014 seems far away, it is already started having the post NATO withdrawal blues. To deal with an Afghanistan dominated by the Northern Alliance and a strong Indian influence, is a nightmare for the strategic depth protagonists who dominate our policy making echelons.

Our foreign office spokesman while welcoming the withdrawal of coalition forces from Afghanistan has clearly stated that Islamabad would not like Afghanistan to be left on its own. It is obvious that Islamabad considers Afghanistan as its backyard and as such its legitimate sphere of influence for all times to come.

But all this is fast changing. If we do not play our cards right we could be left with hostile neighbours on our eastern and western borders and a benign Iran in a post 2014 scenario. Although it can effectively block Indias entry into the UN Security Council, China alone is not in a position to bail us out.

All this is happening at a time when Islamabads economic base is fast shrinking. Enormous defence expenditure on conventional as well as nuclear missile technology is bleeding us. Some strategists have suggested that we should maintain our nuclear capability while reducing expenditure on the conventional arms race with India. But that is not possible without reducing tensions with India.

Of course, it takes two to tango. Right now, India is under no pressure to resolve its disputes with Pakistan, which itself is a victim of its ostrich-like strategic notions. This is where the US can play a role to break the logjam.

Bruce Riedel of the Brookings Institute and a senior advisor to three US presidents on Middle East and South Asia, in a recent article, has correctly suggested by proposing the creation of an executive bureau for Pakistan, India and Afghanistan. He proposes a new South Asia military command that puts India and Pakistan in the same theatre. In his opinion it is foolish to think that Pakistan can be effectively assisted without dealing with the issue that dominates its own strategic calculus: India.

It is stating but the obvious that Islamabads traditional strategic approach is becoming increasingly ineffective in the face of new developments. There is little realisation of the new realities. The military is stuck in the old groove while the civilians do not seem to have the time or the capacity to ponder. Are we condemned by history in such a bleak scenario?

The writer is Editor, Pakistan Today.