The killing of Osama bin Laden in Abbotabad, 55km north of the capital of Pakistan has once again brought forth in stark terms the duplicity of the Pakistani establishment in negatively influencing the War on Terror. The fact that Osama bin Laden was living in a safe house right under the nose of the Pakistani military establishment rather than the rugged hills of FATA is particularly disconcerting. The larger issue is not so much the Pakistani tendency to simultaneously run with American hounds and hunt with the Taliban and al Qaeda but the motivation that is prompting this duplicity. It will be too obvious to state that Pakistan see these as strategic assets that will help shape the post-withdrawal political discourse. What, then, are the other motivations?
Pakistan today is on a gradual implosion course, with civil society and state institutions yielding political space to religious extremist forces who are fast gaining traction by aiming at both hard and soft targets. Adding to the above scenario is a poor economic situation with dwindling GDP, falling industrial production and little or no foreign direct investment. Soaring inflation, lack of essential commodities, high energy prices and 14 to 16 hours of power cuts is complicating the situation further, and making life for the average Pakistani very difficult.
Given the prevailing circumstances, it is only the military that is able to maintain a semblance of order by prodding the political establishment to be both more effective and responsive. However, towards this end, the military is also forced to make deals with religious extremist elements to ensure that the Frankenstein they created does not turn on them. All of these measures are to protect the base of their power, the Punjabi heartland. This can be seen by the support the ISI is providing to Punjabi-dominated groups like the LeT, JeM, and Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, seen as frontline soldiers against India. The military also continues to fight the Tehriq -e-Taliban Pakistan, against whom the Pakistani army has launched nearly 8 divisions in FATA and SWAT. Despite continuous operations using air and artillery, and large casualties to the tune of nearly 5000; the Pakistani military has failed to fully establish control over SWAT, let alone FATA. Despite prodding by the Americans, the military is reluctant to undertake operations in North Waziristan, where its assets like Haqqani brothers and other supporting Afghan Taliban groups operate.
The game of the Pakistani military is to ensure that while they deal ruthlessly with the TTP, they encourage the Afghan Taliban’s nationalist aspirations within the territory of Afghanistan, precluding any notions of ‘Pakhtunistan’ over both sides of Durand line. This to a large extent defines Pakistani policy of balancing Americans and religious radicals. It is under this policy construct that Pakistan continues its duplicity.
The question is to be asked is whether this behaviour will change with the death of Osama, in which regard, two issues must be addressed. First, there is a twin-track negotiation process on with the Taliban. One is between President Hamid Karzai and the Pakistani military leadership who are attempting to midwife reconciliation, and the other, between President Karzai and the Taliban, supported by NATO and endorsed by the Americans. Emerging signs indicate that a broad understanding has been reached between Pakistan and Afghanistan (High Council of Peace) mediated by Turkey, which supports the reconciliation and reintegration of Taliban for eventual peace and stability. As part of this understanding, Karzai has even agreed to the Taliban opening a representative office in Turkey or any other neutral location. Having been left out of these developments, an obviously concerned New Delhi reportedly sought clarifications from President Karzai during his off the record visit to New Delhi in April 2011. That Prime Minister Manmohan Singh sought to cancel his visit to Afghanistan following these consultations is significant.
In the second track between the Taliban and President Karzai, it appears that that post the Lisbon conference, Karzai, at the initiative of NATO and with a general endorsement from the US, opened negotiations for discussing broad modalities for reconciliation. However, the process has lately come to a halt owing to US and NATO forces not defining their exit plans. The second element of the puzzle is the forthcoming spring offensive and the US response. A series of incidents suggest an upping of the ante by the resurgent Taliban. These have in fact belied the coalition’s claims that the policy of degrade, destroy and defeat following the US surge is progressing steadily.
Given the above perspective, what options does the US have post-Osama? In the short-term, it needs the support of Pakistan, both for logistics and intelligence. Strong words notwithstanding, there is every likelihood of a workable reconciliation, including economic and counter-terrorism assistance in a classic TINA factor.
In so far as Afghanistan is concerned, in the short-run the US and coalition forces could up the ante against the Taliban as a show of their new found resolve. However this is unlikely to detract from the reconciliation and reintegration process that now underway within the Taliban. Whatever the rhetoric, political and economic compulsions will force a policy of cold pragmatism upon the US, leading to as early an exit as feasible from Afghanistan.