It would be like riding the proverbial tiger. If we think we can somehow play the kingmaker and reap the harvest, that would be like Alice in Wonderland. Even the Taliban are no longer a cohesive force and some of them have developed their own agendas and are in cahoots with the TTP. In other words, the forces we can mobilise against the Northern Alliance and their external allies cannot be expected to serve as our strategic instrument. Indeed, given our internal and external situation, especially if there is a major rift with the US and others, the balance of power between us and the Taliban will shift in favour of the Taliban. And we may end up becoming their instrument. So much for strategic depth.
The balance of power will not only shift in favour of the Taliban. Our own extremist groups that want renewed confrontation with India will also seek to force the pace of events by provoking India into retaliatory strikes if there is another Mumbai-type operation by them. What happens then: we have a war on our western border and also a dangerous war-like situation on our eastern border, both at the same time. The TTP would do all it can to seize territory as they did a few years ago, but this time with the additional advantage of our military being stretched too thin. And it would not take much for the TTP and Lashkar-e-Taiba to weaken the government and military further by stoking sectarian and other forms of violence inside the country. Nor would external forces opposed to our strategic depth hesitate to weaken the military by doing their bit to destabilise the country. Prolonged regional stalemate and progressive domestic degeneration might even undermine the military’s stature, making it more vulnerable to the machinations of our extremist groups. We saw a bit of that over the Osama bin Laden episode. So the TTP and other groups would be the real beneficiaries if we tried to put the Quetta Shura back in the saddle and threw caution to the wind.
During the ten years that have elapsed since the Taliban were ousted from Kabul, the nature of the Taliban has changed in some respects. It has become a decentralised force consisting of commanders who have been operating more like warlords with their own sources of funds and areas of local dominance, some with close links to Al-Qaeda’s lucrative connections and to its regional ambitions. In other words, there are now various localised power centres, and their connection with the TTP as well makes the situation much more complicated. There are many foreigners too that are embedded with local Taliban outfits in a common cause not only to regain Kabul but also to pursue Al-Qaeda’s regional agenda encompassing Pakistan and Central Asia. Nor should Al-Qaeda be written off simply because it has weakened at the top. In a protracted conflict it will find new opportunities that might see it bounce back and the Af-Pak border might become more important than prospects in Somalia and elsewhere.
Clearly, then, there seem to be two courses of action open to Pakistan. To go down the old route and risk further conflict with the US, India, et al, and international isolation; or continue cooperating with the US and, rather than frittering our energies and attention in closing off the wiggle room Karzai has provided India, to do a better job in securing their lives and property and growing the economy.
Besides, in my opinion, India is not the issue. That’s a secondary thing. It’s the dysfunctional relationship between the US and Pakistan, more than anything else. And there are questions about their respective ambitions. Unless those ambitions are trimmed and brought into some balance, there is little hope of ending a war that seems interminable. That hurts Pakistan more than it does Afghanistan, which is already a failed state, or America, which is far away. Any peace settlement, unless underpinned by the US and Pakistan, has little hope in getting off the ground. We should be taking the lead on this, rather than allowing the deteriorating situation to overwhelm us.
The bilateral and trilateral diplomatic mechanisms are not enough as the past three years have shown. A more multilateral approach is required, if only to keep the main players (the National Alliance, the Taliban, Pakistan and the US) on the path to a negotiated settlement. Right now we are in a dangerous limbo, all the main players sharpening their knives for yet another decade of mayhem.
By Zafar Hilaly, The writer is a former ambassador. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org