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The AfPak Divorce

Posted by Steve Hynd on January 21st, 2010

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Yesterday, Josh Rogin told us that Ambassador Holbrooke’s favorite self-coined neologism, “AfPak”, had been quietly dropped from the administration’s lexicon because Pakistan’s leaders and populace hated it. Josh quotes:

“The Af-Pak terminology is disliked and has received strong criticism across Pakistan,” the Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs wrote in a recent report on Pakistan. “The Pakistani intelligentsia is not pleased with a de-hyphenation of the Indo-Pak equation and the hyphenation of the Pak-Afghan calculus. The issue is not only one of national pride; there is a genuine concern among the strategic enclave that the permanence of the threat from India has not eroded. … There is objectively no interest for Pakistan to be fully involved in what is happening outside its borders, namely in Afghanistan.”

All true except for the last sentence. The Pakistani military has a deep interest in Afghanistan, as a possible position of strategic depth in the event of a war with India, and doesn’t see the threat of such a war ever going away. Using Afghan territory in such a way is simply not possible as long as there are US and allied troops in Afghanistan and so the Pakistani military sees its long-term interests best served by those troops leaving. Whether that is best accomplished by US or Taliban “success” appears to be one of the great internal debates within Pakistan’s elite, with much of the ISI and military coming down on the side of the militants they have backed for three decades.

None of which is helped by Pakistani fears that the Obama administration has quietly decided to favor India while publicly proclaiming impartiality. When Holbrooks goes to India and says that India is “a tremendously important participant in the search for peace” in the region or Gates goes there and says that India has been restrained in its response to terror attacks launched from Pakistan and wouldn’t be likely to show such restraint again, Pakistan’s military leadership hears tacit favoritism. When Gates suggests an Indo-Afghan-Pakistan council, Pakistan’s military hears an open invite to India to outflank.That has two immediate effects: it pushes Pakistan into recalcitrance in dealing with the Afghan Taliban and other imperfectly-controlled proxy assets and it pushes Pakistan further into China’s orbit in a dynamic that sets a US/India axis against a Sino-Pakistani one for regional domination.

And while Pakistan is by no means a democracy at present – with a feudal elite entrenched in power and military chief Kayani the de facto kingmaker and deciderer-in-chief behind the curtain – other issues such as US drone attacks on Pakistani soil and US strings attached to Pakistani aid have meant that there is popular antipathy to Pakistan’s fighting what is seen as America’s war for it. Given the geopolitical dynamic and Pakistani views of military reality, it could be expected to foot-drag on any action against its proxies anyway - as it always has done since Bush’s Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage told Pakistan that it would be “bombed back to the Stone Age” if it didn’t play ball - but that popular anger gives plenty of political cover for more obvious recalcitrance.

Thus we have two news stories today.

In the first, an official army spokesman has told the BBC that the “overstretched” military has no plans for any fresh anti-militant operations over the next 12 months, stating publicly that it has no intention of doing what Gates is there to ask for privately.

The BBC’s Syed Shoaib Hasan in Islamabad says the comments are a clear brush-off to top US officials.

Our correspondent adds they are embarrassing for Pakistan’s shaky coalition government, and likely to further destabilise already-low ties with its US ally.He says it also threatens to render ineffective an expanded coalition troop deployment in Afghanistan, as the Taliban over the border would be relieved of any pressure from the Pakistan army.

Before arriving in Islamabad, Mr Gates told reporters travelling with him from India: “You can’t ignore one part of this cancer and pretend that it won’t have some impact closer to home.”

His visit comes amidst a slight cooling in relations between the two allies. In an article published in a Pakistani newspaper on Thursday, Mr Gates referred to a “trust deficit”.

In the second, Pakistan is now repeating a call for a nuclear deal it gave to Bush in 2007, following Bush’s deal with India.

RAWALPINDI, Jan 21 (APP): Pakistan has asked the United State of America to enter into Civilian-Nuclear Energy Cooperation with Pakistan and also to recognize it as Nuclear state. This was conveyed to the visiting US Defence Secretary, Robert M Gates, by Federal Minister for Defence, Ch. Ahmad Mukhtar, at a meeting held here on Thursday.

That’s just so not going to happen, given Pakistan’s problems with proliferation. But the last time it was turned down, China stepped in with an offer of nuclear assistance and I wouldn’t be at all surprised if that’s  what Pakistan is angling for this time too.

(Interestingly, Mukhtar also told Gates that Pakistan wanted the job of training the Afghan National Army – a bank shot hoping for the US to aquiesce greatfully in trying circumstances and allow Pakistan both to edge out India in that nation and to ensure the Afghan military’s eventual loyalty should push with India come to shove. That’s not going to happen either, is my bet.)

And so we’ve come to a fairly obvious divorce between US interests in the region and Pakistani national interest – although both parties will continue to pretend they’re happily living together as “just friends”. As in every divorce, both parties are partly guilty of unrealistic expectations from their relationship, but in this case the US must take the lion’s share of the blame. Although America is probably correct that it’s more recent affair with India is a better relationship in the long-term, that affair has short term consequences for its own interests. And that America imposed its own good on Pakistan by bullying was never a good basis for a partnership, especially when Pakistan’s own natural interests were so diametrically opposed.

America would probably be better off in the long term by admitting that Pakistan is not a natural partner or even a “just friend”. Unfortunately, that would mean admitting deep mistakes over decades and isn’t going to happen anytime soon. Pakistan, on the other hand, has a lot to gain by allowing the possibility of reconcilliation while milking its partner for everything it can. And so the soap opera saga will continue.

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