Pakistan’s Other Frontier
by Sandhya Jain on 20 Jul 2010 23 Comments

If there is a reason behind the madness with which Pakistan foreign minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi blew the dialogue with his Indian counterpart S.M. Krishna, we should look for it on the frontiers of that imploding nation. Not Indian Kashmir, but the western sector - Afghanistan, Iran, even Central Asia, where growing American interventionism can only exacerbate tensions and faultlines.


Pakistan is now coming face to face with the fatal flaw in its birth chart. Conceived and created as a western colonial outpost in a supposedly post-colonial world, its primary purpose was to help the west contain the rising power and ambitions of India and China. Its second purpose was to serve as a watch tower to oversee Russian moves in Central Asia, and the Muslim states of Iran, Iraq, and on to the Gulf.


It was thus a strategic land bank of the colonial west. As Islam failed to give Pakistan’s constituent provinces the civilisational unity once bestowed by Hindu Sanskritic tradition (which flourished up to the borders of eastern Persia), it failed to evolve into a coherent nation-state. Army rule or power alone could hold it together.


Nowhere did the original blueprint envisage using Pakistan for action on its western frontier, a situation first created by Soviet intervention in Afghanistan in 1979, and now the current American-NATO war. Pressure to help America in the un-winnable Afghan war, and perhaps support a strike on Teheran, has placed Pakistan is a bind.


Far from being able to make territorial or other gains in the region via its American ally (Kashmir in India, strategic depth in Afghanistan), the regional instability may cause it to collapse. Mr Qureshi’s intemperate outburst against Mr Krishna may have been a political ruse to maintain status quo on the eastern front; Pakistan knows it faces no threat from quietist India, but wants to stir the Kashmir pot as a pretext to evade deeper involvement on its western front.


America-watchers argue that the internal rift between Islamabad and Washington is wider than acknowledged, and poses a threat to US troops in Afghanistan. America needs a graceful retreat from the ‘graveyard of empires’ to boost President Barack Obama’s re-election bid; it is desperate to exploit the huge strategic metals reservoir uncovered there, for which it hopes to rope in Russia, China, India, Iran and even Pakistan. Besides, it needs a foothold in this strategic region between Russia, China and Iran.


But America’s key ally, Pakistan, is the world epicenter of Islamic terror. The forthcoming US-Pakistan strategic dialogue in Islamabad, the second high-level meet in four months, will reveal how Washington plans to deal with Pakistan’s sponsorship of terrorism, and the Taliban in Afghanistan. This will also decide the fate of President Obama’s proposed visit to New Delhi in November.


For those of us who view India-Pakistan dialogue as an exercise in futility, the failure of the July 16 talks was welcome. But we should not believe that Home Secretary G.K. Pillai’s reference to David Headley’s revelation about the direct involvement of Pakistani army officers and the Inter-Services Intelligence (then headed by current army chief, Gen. Pervez Kiyani) in the Mumbai attacks provoked the collapse. The ISI has been principal suspect from Day One, even before the Americans decided to out Headley.


Islamabad may have felt pressured by insistent reports from Washington that the Obama Administration is seriously contemplating a strike against Teheran, an action bound to trigger turmoil in the region. On July 15, Time magazine carried a story by Joe Klein, “An Attack on Iran: Back on the Table,” which claimed that the Pentagon for the first time regarded military action against Iran’s nuclear program as feasible and possibly necessary.


Klein quoted an Israeli military source saying Tel Aviv has been consulted on the war planning as the White House does not want Israel to attack Teheran by itself. It is said Iran’s Sunni neighbours (read Saudi Arabia) want this. This is consistent with reports that the Anglo-American axis no longer views the Israeli-Arab conflict as the key to controlling the Muslim world, and is banking on promotion of Shia-Sunni and Arab vs. non-Arab divides.


Also on July 15, Spiegel Online carried a similar story titled, “A Quiet Axis Forms Against Iran in the Middle East,” by Alexander Smoltczyk and Bernhard Zand, who claimed that Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates were urging the United States to attack Iran, regardless of the consequences. Critics believe the temptation for Obama to attack Iran will increase as the war in Afghanistan falters. Iraq is already brimming with sectarian violence. A new front in Iran offers the promise (or mirage) of a victorious war against a defiant Muslim nation and gives Obama a chance to retain both houses of Congress (or so it is hoped!)

Pakistan would also have felt alarmed at Mr Robert Blackwill’s suggestion of a ‘low cost solution’ to the Afghan imbroglio by de facto partitioning the country between Pashtun and non-Pashtun areas. The former US envoy to India, now senior fellow, RAND Corporation, said US should concentrate forces in non-Pashtun areas and use heavy air power, including drones, and special forces, to strike at Taliban in Pashtun areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Washington, according to this thesis, should target Al Qaeda bases in Afghanistan, Afghan Taliban leaders aiding them, Afghan Taliban encroachments across the proposed de facto partition lines, and terrorist sanctuaries along the Pakistan border. US should keep a long-term residual military force of 40,000 to 50,000 troops in Afghanistan for this purpose. Blackwill fondly hopes that Tajiks, Uzbeks, Hazaras and anti-Taliban Pashtuns will join this plan, along with NATO allies, Russia, India, Iran, perhaps China, and Central Asian nations.


Islamabad rightly fears this mad adventure, even without a new misadventure in Iran. A Taliban-dominated Pashtun Afghanistan and Pakistani Pashtun areas under Pakistani Taliban influence will inevitably push towards unity in an independent Pashtunistan, triggering Baloch, Sindhi and Balti aspirations. Far from gaining strategic depth in Afghanistan, Pakistan could be virtually dismembered! This could exacerbate Islamic radicalization of the country, and raises legitimate fears about the security of its nuclear arsenal.


America may earn the dubious distinction of attacking Iran to abort its nuclear ambitions, and thereby triggering off an adventure by a heavily nuclear-armed Pakistan!


The writer is Editor,

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