Af-Pak: US’ indecent proposal

Published: September 30, 2009 - 17:22 Updated: July 3, 2015 - 16:12

India seems to be left out in the cold due to strategic confusion and lack of foresight among its security managers on Af-Pak policy

Zorawar Daulet Singh Delhi

The present tumult in the Hindu Kush and the insurgency's modest strategy of "winning by not losing" suggests that barring a massive deployment of several hundred thousand American boots, the Atlantic powers face the nightmarish prospect of several bloody years digging themselves "out of a hole" in the Af-Pak region. In the not too distant future, if the US and NATO forces enter into a dialogue with the Pashtun peoples straddling the borderlands between Afghanistan and Pakistan, it would be a welcome development. For the past eight years, the "tyranny of the minority" as Selig Harrison calls it, has been the guiding principle for organising the political and military power structures in Afghanistan.

In a break from a historical pattern, northern ethnicities - Tajiks, who constitute a quarter of the Afghan polity and have emerged as a disproportionately powerful ethnic group along with Hazaras and Uzbeks - have come to dominate Afghanistan. The southern Pashtuns, comprising 42 per cent of the population, have been sidelined. This was, perhaps, the result of anti-Taliban operations that provided the rationale for the US intervention in late 2001. There should have been a systematic rollback of radicalised Taliban Pashtuns with an attendant plan to destroy the umbilical link to its benefactors in the Pakistani military-intelligence establishment. Also, there should have been a parallel quest to empower secular Pashtun tribes. But, it became an unthinking and politically zero-sum strategy of siding with specific ethnic groups in northern Afghanistan.

The outcome is an outright alienation of the entire Pashtun community that consists of diverse tribes with varying degrees of sympathy to a radical Sunni ideology emanating from Pakistan. This untenable situation is now staring the US and NATO forces in the face. Yet, rather than address the grievances of the marginalised ethnic groups from the power structures of the US-sponsored regime in Kabul, Washington is seriously evaluating a replay of the 1990s when the CIA and ISI collaborated to sustain the Taliban as a leading institution to mobilise Pashtun support. The process of legitimising the Taliban then was only interrupted by the events of 9/11.

The blunt reality is that Washington and Islamabad, via various acts of omission and commission, have ensured that the Taliban remain the principal and legitimate voice of the Pashtun peoples. Pashtun nationalists might disavow an Islamist ideology. They would have an aversion to seeking political guidance from Islamabad or Rawalpindi. Thus, it offers a genuine counterbalance to the radicalised ideology that the Taliban Pashtuns seek to employ to unify various Pashtun tribes. But, they have not been shored up by Washington.

It would be an exercise in self-deception to expect Pakistan to voluntarily dismantle its leverage among certain Pashtun tribes. It would not only provide Islamabad a modicum of influence in the future politics of Afghanistan but also would stave off the prospect of Pashtun nationalism gaining sway and unifying the 40 million Pashtuns divided by an illegitimate colonial-era border.

The division of Pashtuns in 1893 was intended to ensure that the Afghan buffer would remain susceptible to external leverage from British India's frontiers (that had absorbed a number of Pashtun tribes).

Pakistan inherited this geo-strategic leverage and subsequently abused it to undermine its Pashtun minority. After the defection of East Pakistan in the 1970s, Islamabad accelerated its policy of encouraging radical Islamisation to preserve national unity, control ethnic contradictions, and legitimise the rule of the Punjabi-military elite. This process reached its apogee during the US-Pakistani anti-Soviet operations through the 1980s. Its final manifestation was the capture of power by the Taliban in the 1990s.

Rather than drawing lessons from the past, Washington appears committed to buttressing the legitimacy of the feudal-military superstructure in Pakistan. The US has been willing to empathise with the Pakistani Punjabi's irredentist aspirations and its manifestation in the form of the Taliban (and similar machinations to undermine secular Pashtun tribes). This indicates that Washington values the leverage that their patrons in the Pakistani military establishment possess. It is also indicative of an American consensus that the stability and territorial integrity of Pakistan overrides any consideration of stabilising Afghanistan via a legitimate inter-ethnic political process, especially, if the latter course lifts the veil on the ethnic contradictions in Pakistan.

The US's evolving Af-Pak strategy has made this abundantly clear - that the security and preservation of the Pakistani State will not be subordinated to the quest for Afghan stability. Washington has accepted a legitimate role for Pakistan in Afghan politics and acknowledged its potential as a vital intermediary in future negotiations with Taliban factions. Thus, it is only logical to presume that in a future scenario of US negotiations with Pashtuns, Washington will rely upon Pakistani-Taliban linkages to identify and modulate selective tribal groups that will pave the way for a reorganisation of the political play in Afghanistan.

India appears to have been left out in the cold, partially due to the strategic confusion and lack of foresight among our security managers. A modification to India's Afghan strategy (and presumably its Pakistan strategy) with the corollary of reaching out to Pashtun nationalist groups both independently and in coordination with other anxious regional powers is required. If such a hedging strategy is politically unpalatable, then prepare to bandwagon with the geopolitical trend in the Hindu Kush and keep our peace.

The writer is an international relations analyst at the Centre for Policy Alternatives, New Delhi


India seems to be left out in the cold due to strategic confusion and lack of foresight among its security managers on Af-Pak policy Zorawar Daulet Singh Delhi

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