It has begun, and you didn’t just hear it here. Television would have us believe that a (desperate) United States of America and the (entrenched) Islamic Republic of Pakistan are now at war...But it’s not official, and might as well never be.
The political impetus from Washington has come from a lack of clear gains for their commitment, no real direction or momentum for the “end-game” negotiations in a post-Nato Afghanistan, as well as the realistic and/or conspiratorial confidence that has accompanied the escalating and seemingly unilateralist and/or interventionist actions on Pakistani territory. The ‘individual actor’ theory (that Admiral Mike Mullen is facing retirement and thus wants a soldierly swan song) is too thin to stick, especially considering his recent meanderings in the Wall Street Journal. This spat was well thought out in the Pentagon, if not thoroughly ‘war-gamed’ on how the Pakistanis would react by the West Wing.
So far, despite the televised soothsayers promising war, diplomacy is emerging as the lunch special. But is this confrontation a tactical glitch, dramatic brinksmanship, institutional rivalry, a failure of public savoir-faire, or an extension of big game geo-politics?
Not new is the Pakistani conviction that the bottom-line purpose of US/Nato presence in Af-Pak is meant to “denuclearise” and/or “balkanise” the country’s military itself, thus Islamabad’s security regime is counting on the political inevitability of the US pullout. Here, it is helped by the post-OBL reality check that the Americans are forced to implement on themselves – the less results the US military shows in relation to its to-do list (audited against the White House/Pentagon by a hostile and economy-centric Congress), the faster and more ensured the drawdown from Afghanistan will be. A bloody nose (the September 13 attack on the US Embassy in Kabul) will not hurt the pace of the withdrawal either.
But what’s hurting the Pakistanis is that Obama’s White House is looking down at the wrong end of the political-campaign gun. With a year left for the American elections, Obama and his advisors will not desist from saber rattling (thus the White House has not really backed down from Mullen’s position), even if it’s mere posturing. After all, it wouldn’t hurt the American president or his pollsters to get to play the “tough on national security” card and gain some good old bipartisan support (which he is already receiving). Everybody needs an enemy – even if you don’t fight him – especially in an election year. As Pakistan’s foreign minister correctly told the American broadcaster CBS this week, the local context of politics counts in both countries. That assertion is confirmed by the primary audience of Mullen’s accusations: a reservedly anti-Obama American legislature that is gunning hard for budget (aid) cuts.
But there is also a familiar big picture that Pakistan’s brass is imagining. Here, Pakistan is a mere square on the chessboard which defines America’s ‘permanent policing’ goal in South and Central Asia. In this narrative, China is the target of American encirclement; Balochistan is the platform as well as the army’s Achille’s Heel; and the Americans controlling energy channels that cut through the region (China’s Achille’s Heel is energy in this narrative) is the underlying purpose. That’s exactly what the GHQ is selling to Beijing: we are fighting your war, so don’t ditch us. Thus, a pitch for a ‘security pact’ with the PRC is reportedly in the works, but China is not biting – not yet.
So Pakistan will use the crisis to sell hard. Effectively “sick” of America and ready to be “fully aligned” with a new bloc, Islamabad (or is it Rawalpindi) is imagining a clean break from Washington as necessary. Encouraged by the tough new American discourse and confident that the logistical importance of its ground and air routes are critical to the US force presence in Afghanistan, Pakistan’s strategists won’t mind hurrying things along for the Nato pullout, and thus approve of taking the fight to the Americans (US Embassy attacks/Wardak truck bombing) to “counter-embarrass” them (after the OBL and Mehran episodes).
As for fixing the post-evacuation bargaining process in Pakistan’s (or its proxies’) favour, or even just making the whole game of talking look redundant – more advertently to “co-target” America’s regional partner, India – those aiding or abetting US contacts with the Taliban, i.e. ‘negotiating’, will have to be eliminated (e.g. Burhannudin Rabbani’s assassination). And yes, shoring up regional support from likely (China, Saudi Arabia) and unlikely (Iran, Russia) quarters is being perceived to finally pay off, as for the first time in a long time, Pakistan’s narrative – that American presence in Af-Pak is a permanent threat to all and sundry – will probably suit those countries. But that grand plan could only happen for the Pakistanis in the perfect world.
In the real world, India will compliment and complicate US posturing (New Delhi conducting back-to-back nuclear-capable missile tests while Pak-American ties slide south is no coincidence), so Pakistan will have to wisen up with its so-called archrival (which it is already doing by not responding to the tests in kind as well as making friendly noises through Amin Fahim about fast-tracking bilateral commerce over his recent trip to India). As for the military side, sure, Cameron Munter is doing the rounds at the foreign office and the presidency, General Mattis is being a good Marine with his air-drops into Chaklala Garrison, Hina Rabbani Khar has finally ditched her Birkin bag for a verbal bazooka, and General Kayani has cancelled a trip to Britain, but Pakistan will not – and cannot – confront the US militarily for this “clean break” to happen.
Instead, Pakistan shall (and already has) deploy its other options. Just this week saw political consolidation, diplomacy and counterintelligence gather pace. The prime minister chaired the All Parties Conference that symbolically, if momentarily, united the country’s various political factions. The Chinese deputy PM’s visit to Islamabad was incidentally timely, if token, and while the Saudi counterterrorism delegation which was visiting Rawalpindi was publically spun as an emergency intelligence gathering, the pre-scheduled joint military exercises with Saudi forces that were Bahrain-focused played out on a gullible – and increasingly Yanko-phobic-mainstream media as America-centric breaking news.
That is an indication of things to come. Pakistanis have long complained that nothing really binds them together. Could this “break up war” (which is definitely combative, but not in the military sense) provide the impetus that a new sense of ultra-nationalism will thrive on? After all, nothing brings a nation together like a militarised confrontation, even if it is imagined. Expect uber-nationalist warmongers to make hay (or man their jets) while the sun shines. Also expect the narrative on the documented and anecdotal “anti-Americanism” of Pakistan’s rank and file, masses and elite, to finally come full circle, especially on mainstream media.
But if this “good bye, good luck and don’t come again” approach that Islamabad is fast hurtling towards – that too with an unprecedented national consensus – is being piloted by the aggressive hawks in Aabpara who cannot look at Afghanistan as anything less than their fifth province (and at the present government as nothing less than an opportunistic, Western-liberal stage-show) will they back down, especially after the public display of American “thanklessness”? Surely they are perceiving this as their finest hour: with the imagined trappings of a grand-regional anti-American coalition in the works, coupled with fantasising about the historical achievement of staring the Americans down, the Pakistani combatants of the Yanko-Pak war are seeing a victory in this crisis the same way as a guerilla sees it against a superior force: not losing is good enough, and depriving the big gun of its goal is even better.
As for their raison d’être, well, it just changed: if you’re going to beg, beg on your feet, not on your knees. And if you have to beg, might as grovel before sympathisers (China), role models (Saudi Arabia), lukewarm neighbours (Iran) or potential wildcard benefactors (Russia). Not your estranged, angry and abusive Uncle Sam. That is the new world of imagined, even schizophrenic, Pakistan-centric multi-polarity.
The writer is a former fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School and a broadcast journalist. Email: wajahat_ email@example.com