Strategic misconception – Shahzad Chaudhry

I must refer to Sheikh Rashid’s rather blunt enunciation of his philosophy of politics: ‘line and length’, and ‘timing’. Make whatever you can of it, and I don’t know if he has himself always observed the essence of these two rather defining principles, but I have often marvelled at such reductionism of what lies at the core of successful politics.

I equally wonder whether he himself appreciates the profoundness in his expression; earlier I had attempted to translate these into what strategists might call ‘time and space’. Hope Sheikh Sahib would agree. Today’s concern though is the ‘timing’ of politics, and I wish to relate this to what poor judges we are of this important dimension of politics.

Here is why. There have been two most significant developments – one almost seismic – in our immediate neighbourhood, but we have let the moment slip by without even noticing them. Afghanistan is on the anvil of signing a bilateral security agreement with the United States, which will authorise the US to keep its forces in Afghanistan – at a reduced scale – for the next ten years.

One clause binds the US to jointly defend Afghanistan against any threat. This is bound to impact our health as a nation, depending on how we manage this presence and how we can avoid being seen as a threat. Around 2002, most war games in military institutions began playing a third force in any future strategic construct; it was called the ERF – Extra Regional Forces. It mostly played a benign presence. But that had more to do with the lack of imagination on the part of the detailed ERF commander who was always greatly more enthused by what his more interesting peers, Blueland and Foxland, were engaged in.

Reality though has been far more biting, and certainly not as benign. The ERF has had a pervasive presence and has impacted the region in no insignificant way. Nato and Isaf have virtually run Afghanistan and its internal and external dynamics. From being a major non-Nato ally, Pakistan has now earned the infamy of being seen as a ‘frenemy’. That explains how relations between the US and Pakistan have ebbed and risen with each tide of the decade-long war on terror.

Politics has been muddled, especially for Pakistan, while others too have not been as crystal-eyed either about where they wish to go. In the end, for Pakistan, drones, Nato supplies and carefully nurtured heaps of anti-Americanism have all conflated into a single issue complicating the conduct of foreign policy even as close neighbourly proximity is inevitable with US presence in Afghanistan for another ten long years.

While drones and Nato supplies are extensions of a decade-long war, relations with the US are a more sustaining facet. Political opportunism, though, has morphed these into a common identity. That has institutionalised hate as the common denominator that underlines Pakistan’s policy towards the US in the public domain. Irrationality, institutional interests, politics of populism and disregard for national interest rule the roost. Political parties desperate to hold on to their constituents use the ploy at the cost of vital national interests. Parties in power can defy such sentiment only at great political peril. Such is the viciousness in this entire circus.

The PTI and JI’s ongoing farce in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa is the unfortunate driver of such institutionalised irrationality. They flag the issue of drones as a military excess and then factor in blocking supplies to Nato/Isaf as a relevant tactic to push the US to stop using drones. Historical experience trumps any such notion, but riding high on hyper-nationalism sated with outsized doses of ‘honour’, beats sense, reason, or logic. It also sells cheaply and readily.

Without as much as contextualising what they hope to achieve with the reality of Nato’s diminishing dependence on such supplies, what such mindless narrative instead achieves is lethal to Pakistan’s long-term health. First, it turns the US into a real enemy (from a perceived) enemy – quite opposite to what diplomacy would dictate – and second, such divisive narratives only increase polarity in an already divided nation.

Ethnic and religious eminence gains frequency using anti-Americanism as a common tool. This in turn has pushed the entire spectrum of political thinking to the right, where marginally right parties too are now being pushed further right on the spectrum to hold onto their support base. Such extreme attitudes is what will disable Pakistan from any kind of progress, social or economic. In such a sub-context, groups like the TTP gain recognition and relevance.

American presence in Afghanistan can offer a more stable transition, if all play a helpful hand. This is good for Pakistan, helping us avoid the anarchy that ruined Afghanistan when the US last left it unattended in 1989 – anarchy that also ruined Pakistan. Equally, American presence can cause further friction between Pakistan and the US and Afghanistan, and can derail a relationship of mutual benefit forcing Pakistan into isolation.

It all depends on how well Pakistan manages this continuing equation, and how prudently domestic politics factor in Pakistan’s pervasive and more vital interests – above partial and parochial domestic imperatives. We can also turn it into another testing decade for us.

And now to the real ‘seismic’ development. After over three decades of defiance, Iran and the world have decided to patch up and look for a more acceptable coexistence, shunning the possibility of a war that seemed imminent. Khamenei calls it “heroic flexibility”. Did you hear that, PTI and JI? Chances are this rapprochement has the making of a robust reconnect.

All these years India has been developing the Chahbahar Port, as well as connecting it through road and rail link with Afghanistan. The Delaram-Zaranj road is already a reality, while work is underway on other links with Kandahar and Kabul in the east and Herat in the west. The PTI may want to hold on to its Khyber Pakhtunkhwa link; soon that may be the only asset it is seen to retain.

Other nations are building roads and railways, and opening routes of communication. We are closing down what we have, and inhibiting communication. People are connecting; we are disconnecting. If things go this way, Pakistan will face US presence all around – Afghanistan, Iran and India. It will be our combined prerogative to either connect or isolate ourselves into a closed, regressive society incapable of working with the world and therefore increasingly irrelevant but for our nuisance.

Out there in the world prosperity is visiting those states and nations that are part of the international system, bringing with it goods, people, ideas and innovation. We in our wisdom though have decided to live in our own little world of stone-age idealism, and crass stupidity.