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Pakistan is the real problem
The stage is set for the next stage of the conflict in Afghanistan. On March 21, Afghan President, Hamid Karzai, will announce that his forces will take over security of at least four provinces and three cities from July 2011. It will mark the beginning of the Western draw-down in Afghanistan, which is expected to end in 2014. Nobody is quite sure what happens after that.
The Taliban remains in control of a large part of Afghanistan. Thanks to an effective drone assault in Pakistan and Afghanistan, coupled with daily military campaigns by US Special Forces in Helmand and Kandahar throughout the winter months, the traditional quiet of winter has seen some break in the Taliban's momentum. As the snow melts, the Taliban has returned with suicide attacks to show that it's not down. Its cousins in Pakistan are making bloody headlines everyday. Af-Pak is in ferment again.
And the West is running around in circles, stuck with old ideas of how to resolve this conflict. After Af-Pak diplomats of key countries met with the OIC in Jeddah last week, there is a new PR exercise on the anvil: an international agreement among regional powers committing themselves to staying out of Afghanistan's internal affairs. This may be unveiled as the new initiative during "Bonn-II" a 10th anniversary meeting, which wants to set the ball rolling on a political process. There can be no quibble about such an agreement but not only is it impossible to enforce it, with everybody having such divergent aims in Afghanistan, it's also difficult to define what "interference" actually means. India would take it to mean Pakistan's support to the Taliban, Pakistan would focus on India's presence, Iran on US troops, etc.
Nevertheless, for the West to move out of Afghanistan, the Taliban should be somehow incorporated into the power structure in Kabul without destabilising Karzai - and cleansed of al-Qaida and Pakistani influence. The Karzai government is expectedly weak and corrupt. The real problem remains Pakistan's financial and military support for Taliban and other Islamist extremists who are destabilising Afghanistan and Pakistan itself.
The US has "incentivised" or bribed Pakistan with large sums of money for the past decade to change Islamabad's mind. Pakistan army chief General Kayani's contention that he is "India-centric" continues to involve India in the imbroglio. In their less inspired moments, some European governments continue to publicly ask India to "reassure" Pakistan, knowing full well that nothing will reassure Islamabad. India started this year by conceding the full panoply of engagement that Pakistan had been holding out for. It won't help change the course of Pakistan's destiny - even if Indian officials take Pakistanis on a guided tour of its consulates in Afghanistan.
The truth is, Pakistan's Taliban policy has come back to bite it. That has everything to do with how Pakistan sees itself, how its society and politics has embedded extremist sentiments and ideologies within itself with absolutely no checks from the state. What was a "creeping" Islamism is now in full bloom. What was a foreign policy option for the Pakistan army-ISI combo is now a wag-the-dog situation. The Pakistan army could not bring itself to even condemn the assassinations of Salman Taseer or Shahbaz Bhatti.
That's the real face of the conflict in Af-Pak. It isn't whether India is responsible for Pakistan's insecurities. Or whether Karzai has a governance deficit. The Afghanistan conflict changed while the West was paying Pakistan's army billions of dollars and allowing it to ramp up its nuclear weapons collection. Afghanistan is now a management issue. A paradigm shift in the conflict can only be made when the world focuses its attention on Pakistan.
Pakistan and its intellectuals need to reverse their national passtime of blaming others for a self-inflicted mess. There is still enough of a moderate Pakistan that can and should be saved by its most powerful institution, the army. Saudi Arabia and its tribe of powerful clerics should be persuaded to delegitimise jihad as a policy in Pakistan. None of this can be done by Pakistan alone. Pakistan feels that it's too big to fail. It should be brought out of its comfort zone. India should do its bit - strong trade benefits to Pakistan, to shore up its business community. India should also work on getting Iran and US to the table. That's when we will start having a viable transition policy on Afghanistan. Everything else is only dancing around the fire.
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