U.S. flip-flop on Central Asia

Washington is severing its partnership ties with Pakistan. Following the resignation of Pervez Musharraf, the United States has not been able to keep the country from collapsing. To justify its withdrawal, the White House accuses Pakistan of treachery, blaming it for its botched Afghanistan campaign. Over the past few weeks, Islamabad has faced an information war waged by western media and supported by a number of leading politicians, including British prime minister David Cameron, who, during a visit to India, accused Pakistan of playing a double game and warned against exporting terrorism to India and other countries, thus violating the canons of British diplomacy and supporting India in its standoff with Pakistan. Cameron’s move came days before the official visit by Pakistani leader Asif Ali Zardari to Britain.

Secret reports from the State Department and Pentagon that leaked to the WikiLeaks site have added fuel to the fire. Almost 180 documents tell about links between Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) and Afghan militants, including weapons and ammunition supplies to Afghan rebels and other ways of supporting them. According to one document, Pakistani spies transferred 1,000 motorcycles to the Hakkani movement responsible for recent bombings in Kabul. Another document describes the 2009 meeting of former ISI chief General Hamid Gul (the founder of the Taliban, along with the then Pakistani Interior Minister Naseerullah Babar) with al-Qaeda commanders, where plans for terror attacks in Kabul were discussed. According to Indian political analyst Bahukutumbi Raman, the leaked documents confirmed three well-known facts: Pakistan’s part in arming and training Taliban fighters; the role of ISI and the Taliban in a suicide bomb attack on the Indian embassy in Kabul on 7 July 2008, in which 58 people were killed; and ISI’s attempts to use the Taliban for destabilising Hamid Karzai’s regime.

Most analysts agree that this information war is aimed at preparing public opinion in the West to accept the U-turn in Washington’s policy in Central Asia, including a shift from a union with Islamabad, whose foreign policy no longer satisfies the United States, and closer ties with a more appealing India.

Pakistan disappoints

The United States has long been unhappy with Pakistan’s regional policy, especially its role in the U.S.-led war against the Taliban. U.S. officials hoped that Islamabad would help stabilise the situation in Afghanistan, allocating billions of dollars to do so; however, encouraged by the national government, Pakistani intelligence services continued to support Afghan fighters. Washington repeatedly tried to pressure Islamabad by demanding the expulsion of Taliban-linked officials from the law-enforcement agencies, but to no avail.

The Pakistani authorities realise the danger posed by Taliban fighters to Pakistan’s statehood, yet they cannot stop supporting the Afghan rebels. because this would contradict the basic principles of Pakistani’s statehood itself. After the collapse of colonial India, the government of the newly founded Pakistan was faced with the challenge of building a nation in an area inhabited by many ethnic groups and tribes, sometimes openly hostile to each other, including Punjabis, Sindhis, Baluchis and Pashtuns. In the end, two popular ideas were selected to cement the Pakistani nation: Islam and hatred for India. These ideas were cultivated in society, while radical Islamic groups’ positions are quite strong in Pakistan today, a country of 170 million people.

The Indian factor also plays a part in support of the Taliban. With growing alarm, Islamabad is looking on as Deli builds close ties with Hamid Karzai’s regime. Pakistani generals fear that Afghanistan is act as India’s ally in its strategic rear, therefore supporting Karzai’s enemies, the Taliban. The military wants to set up a coalition government in Afghanistan, which would include Taliban fighters.

One more factor in favour of supporting the Taliban is the ethnic structure of Pakistan’s armed forces, with many middle and top ranking officers coming from Pashtun tribes, from which most Taliban fighters also originate (Pashtuns being the second largest ethnic group among officers after the Punjabis). Given traditional strong clan connections, Pakistan’s Pashtun officers cannot stop supporting their countrymen on the other side of the Durand Line.

Another reason for Washington’s disappointment with Islamabad’s policy is its close ties to China. Pakistan destroys U.S. plans to establish control over China’s trade routes, including for energy supplies. Beijing plans to build a transport corridor across Pakistan to the Near East, while also laying a pipeline to import energy from Iran, thus lifting its dependence on the Strait of Malacca. Also, Pakistan leased the Gwadar port, located close to the entrance of the Persian Gulf.

Not to be easily dumped

India is widely seen as a new U.S. favourite in the region. Unlike warlike Pakistan, India is a steadily developing country with stable democratic institutions. India is hostile to radical Islamic ideas, and it supports Washington’s ideas to restrain the spread of Chinese influence across South and South-East Asia. The United States has already begun to build a strategic alliance with Deli, lifting nuclear sanctions imposed after India’s nuclear tests and allowing American companies to participate in India’s nuclear programme. Negotiations are also underway to supply American weapons to India.

If Washington changes its partner too soon, however, the region could face unpredictable consequences. First, this could destabilise Pakistan. Islamabad fully depends on American financing, both in the civil sector, with U.S. aid being a key factor in balancing the national budget, and defence, as Washington provides billions of dollars to arm Pakistan and help its army fight rebels. If the White House abandons its alliance with Pakistan in favour of India, it will be difficult to convince Congress to continue providing Islamabad with billions of dollars in financial aid. If left without American cash, Pakistan is likely to face a financial crisis that will further fan separatist sentiments, especially in Baluchistan, home to most of the country’s gas fields, and in the Pashtun-populated north-western regions. Things are further complicated by Pakistan’s having nuclear weapons (as India was seen as the main enemy, much of the nuclear facilities are located along the border with Afghanistan now swarming with Islamists). In the event of the country’s disintegration, the nuclear components and documentation could fall into the hands of Taliban fighters, who could then sell it on the black market.

Pakistani generals will also help destabilise the country. They have long been nervous about India’s superior conventional arms, viewing close ties with the United State as a kind of defence shield against possible Indian aggression. If the United States withdraws its shield, Pakistani generals could see the balance of power as being disrupted, and that India wants to solve all its problems with the Kashmir region and Muslim fighters by staging a local operation against Islamabad. Or rather that India, prompted by disintegration processes in Pakistan, could join forces with China and the United States to take away Pakistan’s nuclear weapons. In this case, Pakistani generals could resort to extreme measures.

If the United States turns its back on Islamabad and withdraws troops from Afghanistan, Pakistan will become a classic failed state. Yet, unlike other similar countries (Sudan, Iraq, Myanma, etc.), Pakistan will continue to have a huge destabilising effect on the entire region. All countries of the region will have to join forces to neutralise the threat posed by a nuclear-armed Pakistan. Otherwise, Central Asia could turn into another Middle East.

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