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Policy, contexts and scenarios


June 24, 2020

The writer is a former ambassador to the US, India and China and head of UN missions in Iraq and Sudan.

In Afghanistan, or anywhere else today, the overwhelming context is climate catastrophe, possible nuclear conflict which could have world-wide impact, the endless violence of corporate capitalist governance, successive waves of globally lethal pandemics, and civilizational collapse. All of this could happen this century.

The narrower diplomatic context for Afghanistan is the military and strategic presence of the US, and the uncertain prospect of a complete US military withdrawal. That would affect its political presence in Afghanistan and the region. The US will want a continuing presence, if only because of its cold war with China.

During the cold war with the USSR, the US sought to influence its periphery through regional alliances and an array of measures that would today be part of hybrid warfare. US 'soft power' (essentially the appeal of its culture and science) was as influential as its hard power, which comprised unmatched military power, cutting edge technology, and global economic strength.

US soft power has been declining since the end of the cold war. Since 9/11, and now under the dangerously degenerate Trump, who is the repulsive face of a pathologically violent political culture and a virulently diseased socio-economic order, the US is emerging as the primary menace to mankind. Unless, of course, massive counter-movements can globally coalesce to stop this menace.

Meanwhile, in order to deny as much of China’s periphery to China as possible, the US will need politically and financially dependent ruling elites in China’s neighbourhood. Neither Afghanistan nor Pakistan is an exception to US national security strategy to undermine the China challenge.

The US may not want conflict if it can derail China’s progress towards effective global parity. But this may already be a bridge too far. In which case, serious conflict with China becomes a serious possibility and therefore a serious US priority. Accordingly, serious US pressure on Pakistan to distance itself from China will mount.

Hence, the importance of India as a “regional influential” for the US with regard to consolidating a pro-US order in Afghanistan; piling the pressure on a recalcitrant Pakistan; and obstructing China’s BRI and CPEC projects. However, India’s Great Power aspirations are stymied by China’s emerging cooperation with other SAARC countries, especially Pakistan.

Nevertheless, India, despite its recent reverses in East Ladakh, remains the best US option to counter Chinese influence in Central and South Asia (CASA) and the adjoining Indian Ocean region.

Russia and Pakistan are potential 'weak links' in China’s counter-strategy towards US global, and Indian regional hegemony. Russia’s 'weakness' is the relatively narrow base of its economy, its latent fear of China, and its traditional cooperation with India. Pakistan’s 'weakness' is its inability to exit the soft state syndrome which renders it both a vulnerable target and an unstable and, therefore, unreliable ally.

Pakistan’s ruling elite interests and its national interests are seldom aligned. This fact is on daily display and is especially evident during national crises. As a result, East Pakistan was lost, the Kashmir case is in danger of being lost, essential Afghan goodwill is foolishly forfeited, and good economic and political governance is almost impossible.

The US will exploit these weaknesses to disrupt Pakistan’s cooperation with China. Accordingly, China will not close the door on India despite significantly increased tension between them. Moreover, China and India share 'Muslim problems'. While Kashmir and Xinjiang are not legally comparable they raise comparable political concerns in Delhi and Beijing.

Pakistan’s Kashmir and Afghanistan policies need to be much more systematically integrated with China’s broader strategy. Pakistan must significantly scale up its investment in becoming an even more critical and dependable strategic ally of China versus those who would contain it. This will require Pakistan to nationally transform itself to deal with its multiple challenges at home and abroad. Otherwise, it cannot be a strategic partner for China.

Nor will Pakistan be able to play a stabilizing role in Afghanistan without the spontaneous support of the Afghan people. Most educated Afghans, Pashtun and non-Pashtun, wonder why Pakistan wants the Taliban to dominate Afghanistan when it would never entertain such a prospect in Pakistan.

The Taliban also remember how Pakistan turned on them after 9/11 and facilitated the US invasion of Afghanistan and their removal from government after being the only country that recognized their government. Neither Kabul nor the Taliban trust Pakistan today, despite its active Afghan diplomacy. That is why the problem of India in Afghanistan for today’s Pakistan will not be resolved, even if the Taliban regain power in Kabul.

None of the above implies putting all of Pakistan’s diplomatic eggs in one Chinese basket. The US, Europe, India, Iran, Turkey, the Gulf countries, etc will continue to have significance as friend or adversary. But none of them can have the strategic potential for a transformed Pakistan like China.

Within these parameters, an active US military presence in Afghanistan will eliminate any prospect for peace and stability. An increased Indian role on behalf of US strategic interests in Afghanistan will ensure continued Pakistani intervention. Tensions will escalate between Washington and Kabul on the one hand and Islamabad on the other. It will become impossible for today’s Pakistan to broaden its support base in Afghanistan beyond the Taliban. An even more belligerent India will threaten Pakistan.

Many of Pakistan’s elite perversely believe a continued US military presence in Afghanistan will somehow contain chaos, minimize the prospect of Afghan refugees coming to or staying in Pakistan, enhance Pakistan’s diplomatic relevance, and reduce the Indian threat.

However, if a limited breakthrough in India-Pakistan relations were somehow possible it could avert many of these negative developments and perverse perceptions. But that would require a breakthrough on Kashmir which seems impossible under Modi, or any likely successor.

Despite this, can the Pakistan leadership launch an initiative towards India for a viable India-Pakistan dialogue on Kashmir and other issues, and alleviate the unspeakable human rights situation in IOK, which exhibits all the preliminary stages of genocide?

Unfortunately, Modi has in effect denounced the Simla Agreement which is the only mutually agreed basis for an India-Pakistan dialogue. Moreover, human rights violations in IOK derive from Kashmiri resistance to the forcible denial of their political rights.

Alternatively, can Pakistan delink its Afghan and Indian policies and, instead, adopt a 'generous' policy towards Afghanistan – despite its limited means, competing priorities and the prevailing mutual mistrust? If Pakistan can summon the policy imagination and political will it could regain Afghan goodwill, and nullify Indian efforts to keep the two countries apart.

Mutually agreed political cooperation, border management, refugee repatriation, transit trade, investment and joint development, water sharing, cultural exchanges, etc would need to be massively prioritized, upgraded and resourced. CPEC could even become CAPEC, including Afghanistan.

Pakistan, however, will need to develop an independent economic viability to support an independent foreign policy. This is beyond the capacity and will of soft elitist states. This is due to massive and deeply entrenched structures of corruption and formidable unrepresentative power centres that usurp the functions of political institutions. Accordingly, feasible alternative policies are ruled out, and Pakistan is denied a credible Afghanistan policy. Without good governance there can be no successful diplomacy, except damage limitation.

Governments in Pakistan, however, will not attempt to correct any of this. They represent status-quo power structures, not the people who elect them. What Napoleon said of China applies to the fears of Pakistan’s ruling elites: the people of Pakistan are a sleeping giant; if they awake they will shake our world!

(Based on a recent talk by the author.)

Email: [email protected]