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South Asia: The Case for a Strategic Reappraisal

As Pakistani authority in the North West Frontier Province (NWFP) and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) unravels, as violence mounts across the border in Afghanistan, and as tensions between India and Pakistan are exacerbated by the terrorist atrocity in Mumbai, it is abundantly clear that the new Administration at Washington has inherited an acute and unprecedented crisis in South Asia. It must be increasingly evident, moreover, that past US strategies on Pakistan-Afghanistan have failed to secure their objectives over the last more than seven years since 9/11, and now demand urgent review. The imperatives of a critical strategic reappraisal become more insistent as Pakistan's evident 'descent into chaos' accelerates, and senior officials at Islamabad articulate fears of a threat of a Taliban takeover in wider areas, reaching as far as Karachi.

The crisis for American policy is heightened by a succession of attacks on US and ISAF supplies and supply routes, including several in the provincial capital, Peshawar. The most recent among such major attacks took place on February 3, 2009, destroying a crucial highway bridge in the Khyber Pass region, northwest of Peshawar. December 2008 had witnessed a succession of devastating attacks in and around Peshawar, starting on December 7, when a large group of militants attacked two transport hubs in Peshawar, destroying 220 containers and 70 armoured vehicles. The very next day, another terminal was attacked, followed by a fourth attack on December 13. These incidents were the culmination of a continuous stream of attacks through the year. Indeed, Pakistan started pushing supplies along a longer route through Balochistan and the Chaman border, after it was forced to suspended the supply line through the Torkham border on September 5, 2008, for a few days. Earlier, on March 23, two persons were killed and 50 others were injured when six bombs ripped through 40 oil tankers in the Bacha Mina area near the Torkham border in the Khyber Agency. Each tanker was carrying some 45,000 litres of fuel for NATO Forces in Afghanistan. Supply convoys have come under frequent missile and small arms fire en route through Pakistan.

These instances provide only a partial index to the growing risks to the ISAF supply routes through Pakistan. Taliban leaders, including 'commander' Hamidullah, the Taliban spokesman in the Orakzai Agency, have repeatedly warned of attacks on the ISAF supply lines. More significantly, these warnings have coincided with threats of 'organised protests' by various Islamist political formations, including the Jamaat-e-Islami, against continued supplies to the 'occupying Forces' in Afghanistan, through Pakistan. There are also some indications that these threats and attacks receive implicit support from certain elements within the state establishment. Pakistan has an agreement with the US for the secure transportation of supplies to Kabut but, as one commentator notes, "some officials in the Pakistani Government have ordered the security forces to shut their eyes to the attacks on US and NATO supplies in Peshawar."

Current thinking on 'solutions' to the problem emphasise increased protection for the supply hubs in Peshawar and heavy escorts to convoys on their journey through the Khyber Pass. At the same time, the necessity of developing alternative routes is increasingly emphasised. CENTCOM commander General David Petraeus, on January 20, 2009, stressed, "It is very important as we increase the effort in Afghanistan that we have multiple routes that go into the country… There have been agreements reached, and there are transit lines now and transit agreements for commercial goods and services in particular that include several countries in the Central Asian states and also Russia." Russia remains the principal source of fuel for the ISAF's needs in Afghanistan. Routes are also being explored through Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, and some agreements have been arrived at, though actual transportation across these countries is still to commence.

The Russian-Central Asian routes will, however, prove far more expensive than the current supply trains through Pakistan. Indeed, in terms of economy, only the route through Iran - from the Chahbahar Port and across the newly constructed Zaranj-Delaram highway to Kabul - offers comparative cost advantages, though its acceptability to the US in particular may prove problematic. It is clear, however, that an increasing measure of pragmatism is now prevailing in Washington on this count and, while US relations with Teheran remain fractious, top NATO officials did clarify, on February 2, 2009, that its members could use Iranian routes to re-supply their Forces. Despite both Iranian and US sensitivities on the issue, moreover, the Iranian route can certainly be activated through third-country supplies - and India can play a significant role in this - either to participating NATO Forces, or better, to the Government at Kabul, evading the burden of political and diplomatic baggage that any direct negotiations with Tehran may necessitate.

The principal limitation of all current and emerging arrangements - through Russia, Central Asia or, potentially, Iran - however, is that the transit countries are only agreeing to the passage of 'non-lethal' supplies over their soil. This will remain problematic, of course, but is not insurmountable. The overwhelming bulk of supplies for war are non-lethal and the necessary quantities of lethal supplies may continue to be transported through Pakistan till alternatives crystallize.

But the challenge of establishing multiple supply routes into Afghanistan goes far beyond maintaining the integrity of supplies. It is critical, now, to recognize that the strategic choice on the routes is far more fundamental to US objectives in Afghanistan-Pakistan - and in its 'war' or struggle against terrorism - than a question of maintaining uninterrupted supplies. Pakistan has had a stranglehold over US policy in the South Asian region for far too long, and its principal instrumentalities have been its loudly proclaimed, though consistently ambivalent, assistance to the 'war on terror'. In this, Pakistan has extorted a maximal price for every one of its apparent 'services', even as it has remained no more than a 'minimal satisfier', acquiescing to the least of available conditionalities for the liberal aid it is receiving, even as strong evidence accumulates that the state's agencies remain complicit with at least some elements within the Taliban and the complex network of Pakistan-based (and in many cases, state-backed) al Qaeda-linked terrorist and Islamist extremist organisations.

It is, furthermore, increasingly apparent that the 'problem of Afghanistan', and, overwhelmingly, of global Islamist terrorism, is squarely located in and emanates from Pakistan. The excessive reliance on a duplicitous Pakistani state and military-political leadership for any counter-terrorism goals or for stabilization of Afghanistan is necessarily counter-productive. Within this context it is crucial to understand that Pakistan has an enduring vested interest in provoking and sustaining instability in Afghanistan. There is, of course, a rooted commitment in Islamabad to the peculiar 'doctrine of strategic depth' but, more significantly, any measure of strength and stability at Kabul would directly tend to create challenges to Pakistan's territorial integrity. No regime at Kabul has accepted the validity of the Durand Line as the international border between Afghanistan and Pakistan since the withdrawal of the British from the region. It is significant that the Durand Line agreement of 1893 had no clause defining the expiry of its term, and Pakistan claims the territories of the NWFP only as the successor state in the region to the British Empire. While there is evident dispute on this, it has variously been claimed that, by international convention, any agreement that does not define a date of termination, can in fact be terminated with due notice by either of the contracting parties; or that the agreement would automatically lapse after a duration of 100 years. Pakistan, of course, insists that the absence of a termination clause implies agreement in perpetuity. Nevertheless, it is certain that, if Afghanistan were to stabilize, the question of the Pashtun areas of Pakistan would immediately become extraordinarily volatile and would constitute a direct threat to Islamabad's waning control over its border province. Pakistan, consequently, has an abiding rationale to provoke perpetual instability in its northern neighbour - and this must necessarily militate against the objectives of both the ISAF and Kabul.

In any event, it is now time to urgently explore every possible policy alternative with regard to Pakistan. The West has, since 9/11, been trapped in a policy cul de sac in South Asia, sinking billions into an unreliable 'partner' in the global war on terrorism, only to see the situation worsening steadily. It is, moreover, abundantly clear that, irrespective of what the international community chooses to do, restoring order and accountability in Pakistan in the foreseeable future is increasingly passing out of the scope of any conceivable external intervention. As both the global and domestic jihad take firm roots within Pakistan, and as powerful elements within the state structure remain complicit with the objectives and instrumentalities of this jihad, it is necessary for the international community in general, and for the US-NATO-Kabul alliance in particularly, to marginalize Pakistan's significance to their goals along every feasible parameter. While establishing multiple routes for supplies into Afghanistan can only go a small way towards releasing the region from Pakistan's destructive dynamic, it is, nevertheless, a significant step in this direction. The consolidation of a supply route through Iran, particularly, has the potential of opening up wider avenues of cooperation with Tehran in support of Afghan stabilisation. These are imperatives that the US-led alliance cannot afford to ignore.


(Published: Asian Conflict Reports, Issue 3, March 2009, Council for Asian Terrorism Research)





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