Trust the Americans to come up with interesting and unique acronyms and short-forms (almost naughtily tongue-in-cheek). So when the late Richard Holbrooke had to be declared the point person for Afghanistan and Pakistan, they created the term “Af-Pak” (I really wonder what they would have come up with if Holbrooke had also got India in his portfolio). The term “Fak-Ap” is also not my creation, but that of a US Senator, who wanted to chide Barrack Obama. For those who didn’t get the connotation, it alludes to “F#*@ – up”. If you still didn’t get it, then you need to get a life! 🙂
Jokes aside, this post is on a very serious subject. My worries continue about the future of the state of Pakistan and its impact on India, US and the world. These are just my initial thoughts on how I see the Afghanistan-Pakistan situation panning out for the Americans and when.
The Americans came into Afghanistan in a huff and hurry, post 9/11, and then immediately got distracted with Iraq. After prematurely declaring “Mission Accomplished” in Iraq, and Obama finally moving attention back to Afghanistan, they are realizing every day that the real problem lies in Pakistan and not Afghanistan. Pakistan has perfected the art of running with the hare and hunting with the hound. Now even though the Americans know that they are playing this duplicitous game, Pakistan seems to have now convinced the Americans that they “can’t” control this jihadi monster, as opposed to “won’t” do it. The coverage, funding and support that the Pakistanis get from the Pentagon and the CIA is remarkable, I guess primarily driven by the fact that they share many “secrets” that they can’t afford to have come out, and Pakistan must be blackmailing them on this score.
The Americans know that the time is running out for them for three reasons. Obama had announced that he will start withdrawing troops from July 2011 onwards, after his “surge”, and the clock is ticking. The budgetary constraints in the US, both due to an almost “imperial over-reach” of power projection, and a sluggish economy, are so serious, that they know that they can really run out of money before they achieve their “objectives” (BTW, no one knows what these objectives are, or the metrics for the same). Lastly, Obama has a serous credibility crisis, and knows that if he wants to have any chance of getting re-elected in the 2012 elections, he needs to deliver a major foreign policy success (I mean, his televangelical “yes, we can” is not going to get him elected a second time round). The “headless chicken” kind of actions from the US are indicative of this desperation.
However, I feel that the game is not going to get played so smoothly, and events are going to overtake everyone, sooner rather than later (in my view, mid-to-end 2011).
I feel that the events over the next 2-3 years in this theatre are going to pan out somewhat like this:
- A major precipitating event
- Total meltdown in Pakistan
- Messy and violent exit of the Americans
- Bloody aftermath and vortex of violence
Now, let’s see what each of these could be.
I. A major precipitating event
One of the major causes of things threatening to spiral out of control is that despite the fact that the world is trying to impress upon Pakistan that battling the jihadis is an existential threat for their state, they still feel that India is their only existential threat (recent statement by Pervez Musharaff to this effect only confirms this) and that they can still select and attack only the inconvenient jihadis and keep the others as a reserve for the post-American withdrawal scenario (both for Afghanistan and India). This cockiness is what is going to be their downfall, but of course, they don’t see that as yet.
I believe that there is going to be a major major precipitating event that will trigger off a whole series of unintended consequences. It could either be:
- A dirty bomb (nuclear) attack by terrorists on India or a western country (could even be on Australia – as it has very weak defences)
- A brazen attack and acquisition of Pakistani nuclear bombs and missiles by Jihadis
- An assassination of a senior American / Western / Indian leader, or even the Pakistani Army Chief, by Pakistani jihadis
- A major attack by jihadis on China (Xinjiang)
You see, any of the above possible triggers will force the hand of the impacted country to attack Pakistan (even the perpetually full of “extraordinary restraint” India will not be able to withstand public outrage this time).
This incident (of course I hope it never happens, but I think it will), would trigger off unprecedented violence (even by Pakistani standards) and flurry of assassinations within Pakistan, and thereby force the military to take over power, once again (yes we’ve seen this movie before). The military will also be forced to attack these jihadis, as that is the only way in which the Pakistani Army can prevent or stop the attacks on Pakistan by the impacted country.
II. Total meltdown in Pakistan
The military takeover and the violence in Pakistan will trigger off the following types of reactions:
- The jihadis will aggressively start making general mayhem in the form of bomb blasts, suicide attacks, etc., and this time will particularly focus on the military establishment.
- The Baluchis, who are straining at the leash to get the yoke of Pakistan off them, and have been bearing the brunt from the Pakistani establishment, might start throwing all the non-Baluchis out and attacking even the Chinese in Gwadar. They could even declare independence, knowing full well that the Pakistani army is too thinly stretched and will not be able to move in with full force (of course they won’t pull troops from the Indian border because of the “existential threat” remember!).
- The Pashtuns, both in NWFP (I am sorry but I can’t call it Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa – ugghh), and in Afghanistan, who have never accepted the Durand line as border, could just start moves to merge the two entities, again taking advantage of the general chaos.
- The Sindhis and the Mohajirs, who have been at each others throats since independence, will stop attacking each other, and frankly start entertaining thoughts of secession from a “power-crazed” and domineering Pakistani Punjab.
- Finally, how can Punjab be left behind. The hardline Sunnis here will see this as their best chance to eliminate anyone who is not “purest of the pure” – the Shias, the Ahmediyas, the remnants of the Hindus and Christians, etc. etc. etc.
In a nutshell, with a weakening army, the entire state could go into a meltdown.
This will lead to a refugee exodus towards India, Iran and Afghanistan, of unimaginable proportions. Both India and Iran will be very hesitant in accepting refugees, as they would suspect that many jihadis will cross over under the guise of refugees (Afghanistan of course being a weak state will not be able to do anything). Both Iran and India have not planned for the possibility on what should they do if 10-15 million refuges land up on their borders, escaping the violence in Pakistan. Frankly, no one knows what to do here (remember, East Pakistan crisis was triggered off by less than 2 million refugees, and it forced even a forever reticent India to act).
III. Messy and violent exit of the Americans
The Americans have been searching for years now, for an excuse to get an “honourable exit” from the Af-Pak theatre (as a wag had once said, the American strategy is to “surge, declare victory and run like hell”!). Since they have not been able to exit peacefully until now, I doubt whether they will be able to find a “fig leaf” very soon!
This meltdown of the Pakistani state will be happening right around them, with their supply lines getting impacted and their soldiers getting caught in the middle of it all. It is at this point in time, driven by a livid public opinion back home, which would be screaming to withdraw their troops from a “mad” region, that the Americans are likely to finally decide to cut their losses, accept defeat and just get out!
Having said this, even then the exit will not be smooth, but very messy and violent, as their troops will be caught in the thick of this meltdown. They also know that none of their NATO allies (and definitely not China) would be willing to put boots on the ground.
Amidst mounting loss of life, I think that the Americans will face a humiliating exit from this theatre, a thousand times worse than what they faced in Iran, many many years ago.
IV. Bloody aftermath and vortex of violence
With the Americans gone (which the Paksitani Army has been waiting for), the entire Af-Pak theatre will become one common zone of conflict, with each small group free to carry out their own little agenda of violence. The reason why this could go on for some time (definitely months, if not years) is because no one would be willing to step in to stem the violence and pull the warring groups apart. No nation on earth would be convinced that it is worth their while to do so.
The only way this violence will stabilize is frankly with fatigue, hundreds of thousands of deaths and also the dramatis personae eventually running out of weapons (hopefully even the US and China would have stopped providing “military aid” by then).
It is only when this violence has stopped or reduced dramatically; that the world will start looking for people from within this region to engage with and figure out what the hell should be done with it! It would need an international conference, facilitated by the UN, and hopefully, this time the pompous western powers will not keep India out of the dialogue. India has a stake in this region and will only be a part of the solution and not the problem.
My final solution for this region still remains the same as what I have espoused in another blogpost of mine (What do you do with a problem like Pakistan?).
I still maintain that the restructuring required in this region is as follows:
- NWFP to be merged with Southern Afghanistan (for the state of Pashtunistan – northern Afghanistan should be created into a separate state of Khorashan)
- Baluchistan should become an independent country
- Sind should become an independent state, with a possibility of eventual merger with India, through a plebiscite
- Pakistani Punjab is the real cancer and I have no answer for it. It has to remain a wastrel state of “Punjabistan” where no one is willing to go
- POK and Northern Areas should come back to India, as per the Instrument of Accession signed in favour of India in 1948.
I feel that if there is a global conference, after all this aftermath, the above will be the conclusion that they will come to also.
Having said all of this, I actually don’t wish it to happen and would love it if there was a simpler and saner way to tackle this state of Pakistan, but I don’t think there is. I can actually see the situation degenerating and heading towards the precipice, and I know that the people responsible will not act, as they are too cocky about themselves and think that they can handle everything.
I actually blame three sets of people for this situation, and would call upon them to introspect, and pull back from the precipice, as it is still possible. In order of priority, they are as follows:
- The Pakistanis – the biggest cause of the failure of the state of Pakistan are the people who were sworn to create, uphold and defend the state of Pakistan. The Army, the politicians, the civil society, have all failed. They could have actually built a state in line with the vision of Jinnah, who had called for a secular “Muslim-dominated” state, like India is a secular “Hindu-dominated” one. Of course they forgot this no sooner had he died, and unfortunately, he died very quickly for them, after independence.
- The Americans – The Americans have always treated the state of Pakistan like a “condom” (apologies for the analogy, but its true), to be used and then thrown away (of course, egged on by a very willing Pakistan, in order to hurt India). It’s the Americans who have bolstered this weak state to harbour illusions of grandeur, that with US support, it could stand up to and even attack a much stronger India. It suited their interests, as India was perceived to be in the Soviet camp, and hence Pakistan could be propped up to keep India boxed in. They winked at Pakistan’s attempts to steal designs and get nuclear weapons, in order to get strategic parity with India. They conveniently ignored Pakistan treating the sovereign state of Afghanistan as its own backyard, because it gave strategic depth against India. And now all these things are coming home to bite the Americans.
- The Chinese – If the Americans were the old (and current) “condom users”, then the Chinese are the current (and future) ones. Pakistan has unfortunately and willingly prostituted itself. China for its own geo-political games sees India as a strategic threat (please see my earlier blogpost “India firmly in China’s crosshairs!”) and wants to use Pakistan to keep India boxed in. They don’t get it, that with India’s size and market, if the US had to side with a growing India and give up on a neurotic Pakistan, China will also have to do the same eventually (but it will take them some time to realize this – their arrogance is as vast as that of the Americans, and definitely much deeper). China has blatantly proliferated nuclear technology to Pakistan, and supplied missiles, fighter jets, etc., again to seemingly give parity with India. China will pay for this mistake very dearly in future.
These three countries are playing a very dangerous game in the Af-Pak region, for their own disparate reasons. They are being extremely irresponsible towards the people of this region, who have almost become psychological wrecks because of the constant exposure to violence, especially the kids (who are getting brainwashed into becoming suicide bombers). India has also been significantly impacted, maximally in Kashmir, but frankly all over. All Indians are subjected to draconian security measures on a daily basis, and we can’t even enjoy World Cup Cricket peacefully, due to the genuine fear that some Pakistani jihadis would attack during this time.
This Frankenstein has been created by the actions and inactions of these three countries. The rest of the world, led by India, needs to ask some tough questions to these countries as they inexorably push the world towards this potentially nuclear flashpoint.
If my above fears are to not materialize, the world needs to call for a conference today, on “What do we do with a problem like Pakistan”, before this abnormal state forces the world over the precipice.
I hope and pray that my fears are unfounded, but frankly, they’re not! The most scary thing about all this from an Indian perspective is that the “large global emerging power” of a state next-door, India, sits blissfully unaware and woefully unprepared for this fast-approaching jihadi-tsunami, which will blow the Richter Scale right out of the water!