Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Pashtun Second Front or Pakistani Sideshow?

Barnett Rubin has a very detailed and knowledgeable account of Pashtun politics and their implications for both Pakistan and Afghanistan at Informed Comment: Global Affairs .

However, when I look at his prescriptions for expanding the battle against the Taleban in Pakistan’s North West Frontier Province (NWFP), I think of escalating a conflict inside a nation unequipped to endure it.

In fact, the historical analogy that comes to mind is Cambodia, the “sideshow” that was supposed to secure our vulnerable client regime in Saigon by denying the North Vietnamese army its havens in Cambodia, but ended up shattering that vulnerable nation and its democratic institutions instead.

The Pashtun ethnic area is split between Pakistan and Afghanistan. Pashtun areas of Pakistan’s North West Frontier Province (NWFP) provide a haven for Taleban and al Qaeda extremists subverting the pro-Western government of Afghanistan.

I hope I am not oversimplifying Dr. Rubin’s argument by summarizing it as follows:

The rout of the Islamicist parties in the NWFP by the moderate, secular, and inclusive Awami National Party (ANP) on February 18 offers Pakistan, Afghanistan, and the United States a unique opportunity to cultivate a new focus for Pashtun aspirations, thereby denying the Taleban and al Qaeda their haven in western Pakistan and repudiating their pretensions to speaking on behalf of the Pashtuns in Afghani affairs.

Along the way, Rubin makes a good point of criticizing the mixture of disdain, fear, and opportunism that outside powers have used to objectify the Pashtun to their own benefit.

The Pakistani army and government have been perhaps the worst offenders in this regard, painting the Pashtun as violent and ungovernable, thereby acquiring plausible deniability for their proxy wars and tribal policies, while fostering and rewarding the extremist Pashtun factions that make “violent, ungovernable Pashtuns” a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The key element, in Rubin’s eyes, is getting newly democratic Pakistan and a newly responsible army to stop inciting violent and extremist Pashtun factions in the pursuit of shortsighted and amoral goals in Afghanistan.

By this reading, denied a logistical and ideological haven in NWFP and harried by the NATO forces supporting the Afghan government, there’s a chance that the Taleban will be neutralized and the Karzai regime can bring the benefits of secular, pro-Western democratic rule to all of Afghanistan.

My view of the situation is contrarian and darker.

I should add that it’s also much less expert than Dr. Rubin’s. So it has to be taken with a grain of salt.

I’ve argued previously that the key to the Pashtun situation lies not in victory through Pakistan, but defeat in Afghanistan.

It looks like the conventional security equation for South Asia is back asswards. Pakistan doesn’t hold the key to Afghanistan. Trying to tip the struggle into the West’s favor by injecting more arms, money, and backbone into Pakistan is simply going to expand the conflict into a nation totally unable to deal with it.

With Afghanistan driving the strategic thinking inside Pakistan both for the militants and their opponents, there is no magic combination of force and conciliation inside Pakistan’s fractured and vulnerable society that can solve the political and military equation.

The reaction of the Taleban to its encirclement by the forces of democracy and reason will be to expand its campaign of terror in Pakistan both inside the NWFP and beyond to the economic and political heartland of Punjab and Sindh.

Indeed, there have been successive waves of violence inside Pakistan in the last twelve months—including yesterday’s assassination of the Pakistani army’s surgeon general in Rawalpindi—that by their ebb and flow appear to me to be demonstrations by extremists to Pakistan’s elite of the high costs of confrontation versus the benefits of accommodation.

The Pakistan army, compromised by its previous support of the extremists and loathe to surrender the leverage the existence of these extremist groups have given it, will be tempted to cut a deal to go easy on the militants in return for peace inside Pakistan.

Since fondness for Afghanistan is not at the top of the list for Pakistani politicians and there does not appear to be anyone inside Pakistan willing to die for Hamid Karzai, this is a deal that Pakistani popular opinion would live with.

Then it will be up to the United States to take the politically awkward step of taking the battle to the militants inside the NWFP.

Even if the U.S. armed forces conduct their operations inside Pakistan with less than their usual ham-fistedness, the gains of the megamillions of hearts-and-minds projects the US is prepared to fund in the frontier will be offset and the ANP will be compromised and weakened as a respected nationalist force.

With the Taleban entrenched in southeast Afghanistan and western Pakistan, it’s going to take more than ANP good intentions and Pakistani lip service to uproot it from the NWFP.

It would take something like a white terror.

And as long as the beneficiary such an immense and bloody effort is seen as the Karzai regime in Afghanistan and its Western backers—and only secondarily and at remote remove Pakistan’s national polity—it’s going to find little support even among Pakistan’s more enlightened citizens.

That’s why, paradoxically, the deradicalizing the Pashtun areas of south Asia might require a Taleban victory in Kabul.

Then Pakistan’s policy for the Northwest Frontier Province could be decoupled from its preoccupation with promoting a favorable geopolitical alignment in Afghanistan, and inside the NWFP the ANP would be spared the headache of reconciling its political aims for the Pashtuns with support for a U.S.-led counterinsurgency campaign.

And the issue of subduing extremism in the borderlands would no longer be confounded by the need to maintain at America’s insistence (and in return for a subsidy so large it threatens to compromise Pakistan’s sovereignty) the NATO supply line from Karachi to Afghanistan that keeps the Afghan war bubbling.

For an interesting insight into the ramifications of the Afghan war in Pakistani politics, read this article in Dawn describing what it perceives as American attempts to influence formation of the ruling coalition (that will determine Musharraf’s fate) by revising the terms of U.S. financial assistance—about $1 billion of which has, over the last five years, directly underwritten the budget deficit of the Musharraf government on a no questions asked basis:

The sources did not agree to a notion that the US administration was withdrawing direct budgetary financing to Pakistan’s new government – a facility that has been available to military-led government all these years. They said it had more to do with the pressure the Bush administration faced due to accountability concerns expressed by the Democrats.

Oooh, those Democrats.

Actually, oooh those Musharraf supporters fighting a rear guard action to preserve his political clout.

They obviously leaked this story to Dawn to indicate that Washington does not trust the PPP’s Asif Zardari a.k.a. Mr. 10% or Nawaz Sharif to handle America’s vital ocean of cash responsibly and honestly (there has been a minor boomlet of articles and posts positing, to my mind ludicrously, that Musharraf—the one of the most distrusted and despised people in Pakistan—should be kept in the presidency as the United States desires, so he can protect the Pakistani people by thwarting the kleptocratic tendencies of Pakistan’s new political leaders).

No matter which interpretation one chooses, the corrupting and complicating factor of U.S. aid on Pakistani politics (and public opinion) is incontrovertible.

Neither can it be denied that the Afghan war—which creates an unhealthy dependency on U.S. cash and enlarges the anti-democratic national role of the Pakistan military as well as destabilizing the country through terrorism and ethnic and confessional division—is an unwelcome distraction in Pakistan’s politics.

Trying to work through all these issues without destroying Pakistani national unity and democracy for the sake of effective anti-Taleban operations in western Pakistan and eastern Afghanistan may be too much to ask.

If, on the other hand, the Taleban triumph in Afghanistan and the U.S. throws in the towel, Pakistani politics become a lot simpler.

Then Pakistan’s civilian government might be able to get its political and military house in order, wean the army from its lazy and immoral reliance on extremist proxies in the Pashtun areas, and concentrate its efforts on providing political and economic justice for the NWFP and fully integrating it into Pakistan through the ANP.

Then the NWFP under the ANP would be a strong and useful bulwark against the Taleban in Afghanistan.

But that would require a level of hope, patience, and sacrifice from the people of Afghanistan—and a degree of honesty and enlightened self-interest by Pakistan’s military and political leaders--that may be unattainable and, indeed, would be unreasonable to expect.


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