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Uncle Sam blesses the swamp

November 05, 2003

Remember those good old days when the Pakistan army masterminded and participated in the Taliban's genocidal war against the Afghan populace -- well, worry not, those good days are back.

Afghanistan's Zabul province is now back under Taliban control and a few weeks ago, four Pakistani army officers actively working with the Taliban in Zabul were arrested and handed over to the US forces. Welcome to the swamp -- we're open for business again!!

Ah!! but the story gets even better.

Recollect those nerve-wracking days, when Uncle Sam would not stoop to negotiate with those vile, villainous Taliban -- they were instead bombed into oblivion, along with a few thousand Afghan civilians. Well, those days of diplomacy-through-B52s are gone -- the Taliban are back in favour in Washington.

US Assistant Secretary of States Richard Armitage met with Taliban's ex-foreign minister Wakeel Ahmad Mutawakil in Kandahar during his recent visit to Afghanistan. Mutawakil was recently released from custody for helping the US smoke the peace pipe with other senior members of the Taliban.

In short, Uncle Sam may be 'preparing to sub-contract its Afghanistan policy to Pakistan and the Taliban' and as The Telegraph puts it:

'Pakistan will once again get an instrument to interfere in Afghan affairs directly. The situation may begin to look a little bit better in the short run but eventually it would lead to the unraveling of the entire arrangement put together by the international community in Afghanistan.'

As if to prove this very point, on October 17, 40 Taliban prisoners, including several Taliban commanders and the brother of former Taliban defence minister Mullah Ubaidullah, mysteriously 'disappeared without detection' from a high-security prison in southern Afghanistan. And now, we hear that Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai is beginning discussions with 'moderate elements within the Taliban' -- the release of swamp-monsters-2. (see article.)

So, the very combination -- Pakistan and Taliban, that helped bring down the WTC on 9/11 and ethnically cleansed hundreds of thousands of Afghans, are now being resurrected in Afghanistan -- and this time with US blessings.

So, what happened here? Wasn't it just a few days ago, that we had President Bush's special representative to Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, tell The Washington Post that 'This Pakistan's attitude to the Taliban is simply unacceptable. We want good relations with Pakistan, and we appreciate their partnership in the campaign against Al Qaeda but Pakistan must do more.'

And wasn't it just a few weeks ago, that State Department officials were complaining to Time, as in 'a State Department official: Even the Saudis are doing better than Pakistan in countering Al Qaeda. The only thing Pakistan does is skim 10% off the top of the Al Qaeda presence when we complain. The margin decreases when it comes to the Taliban.'

Something sure has changed here!!

It's called weakening poll numbers.

Things start revealing themselves when you study the recent Newsweek poll. 'Fifty percent of US voters would replace Bush. Forty-nine percent of those polled disapproved of Bush's handling of Iraq, the highest percentage so far on a Newsweek poll, while 44 percent approved.' Apparently, Bush's poll numbers have been going south and fast.

You guessed it -- November 2004 elections are just over a year away -- national security be damned, local US politics will rule decisions henceforth. Apparently, the daily procession of body bags from Iraq, has the Americans a little peeved about this war on terror. So, it is no comfort to the pS President when he finds out that 'A Taliban army is mobilizing in Pakistan for an attack into Afghanistan before the start of winter. Up to 2,500 fighters are in Baluchistan province preparing to cross the border on motorcycles and attack United States and Afghan government forces, according to Western and Afghan intelligence officials.'

Trouble at this point on the Afghan front would spell disaster for the 2004 presidential campaign. With the Pakistanis doing their bit to help out their 'ally in the terror war' in the small matter of shipping body bags from Afghanistan, it's no wonder that Uncle Sam may decide to hand over 'nation-building' activities in Afghanistan to the Pakistani army and the Taliban -- at least no American body bags from Kabul.

But, given the stalwart success of these very same parties in 'building the nation of Afghanistan' during the entire decade of the nineties, what are the implications for India in all this?

There will be some miscellaneous amounts of money put into the grubby hands of Pakistani generals -- like the $400 million debt rescheduled by South Korea recently. But the Pakistanis are looking for more than money -- they want help with India.

When the Turks were offered many billions as baksheesh for their support in the war on Iraq, the Pakistanis were mighty peeved. They felt they had prostituted themselves to the US for too little money. So, this time any Pakistan support for reduction of trouble in Afghanistan will cost the US tax-payer an arm and a leg and probably way more than a few arms and legs to the Afghans and Indians. Pakistan is going to extract its pound of flesh -- quite literally.

One-sided Arms Race

First, this constant blackmailing whine of 'we need conventional parity, otherwise nobody knows what we'll do with our nukes' will get some listening to.

I do not know, if it'll be F-16s, more P3Cs or some ABM batteries -- but, permission to buy some or all of the above will be given. Nothing, however, comes for free -- Uncle Sam does not hand out weapons for free so Pakistan will have to pay. The Pakistani shopping list is too long to be satisfied with the $1.5 billion military aid that the US has promised; so a significant amount will have to come from other sources -- such as cancelled social programmes, non-adopted development plans, selling arms to terrorists and of course the ever dependable drug-trade.

Does this pose a threat to India? Certainly, it does, but let us not go overboard about the threat. That our adversaries will update their weapon systems is to be expected. In any case, India is already on a multi-year programme to enhance and modernise its own armed forces. At least one of the goals of this modernisation is to force exactly the Pavlovian reaction from a delusional $60 billion economy that we're beginning to see now. For India's nearly $600 billion economy the current upgrade is very modest and well under the 3 to 3.5 per cent that it should be spending on defense. For Pakistan's economy, this is going to be an expensive arms race -- so, in a sense this is exactly what we were hoping for.

For Pakistan, this kind of spending will mean that its already weak institutions will further deteriorate, the confrontations between the army and average citizens will increase, the long desired Pakistani transition to the seventh century will hasten and centrifugal forces like the Baloch and Sindh nationalist fronts will strengthen. Overall, Pakistan in 2005 to 2008 may well start looking like Pakistan in 1971.

So, taking this line of thinking a little further one of two things will happen -- either Pakistan will implode or Uncle Sam fearing WMDs in the wrong hands, will issue some serious jhapads to Pakistan and enforce some form of democracy. Either situation is not wholly unacceptable to India.

Double Standards Strengthened

The second reward for this new Afghan strategy will be America's full-fledged attempts to thwart any retaliation against Pakistan's escalating attacks.

After the recent Israeli attacks against Syrian terrorist camps, Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf complained to the US that they would start a war (read nuclear war), if India carried out pre-emptive strikes against Pakistani terrorist training camps. After all Pakistani terrorists, oops freedom-fighters, are well within their rights to go and beat in the brains of 9 year olds, shoot down two-year-old informers or play ethnic-cleansing games at the expense of Pakistani Shias -- what ever could be wrong in setting up camps for such brave jihadis.

Pakistan, however, has become desperate on the Kashmir issue -- it has noticed that due to the growth of the Indian economy, its extortion and threats against India work less and less every year in most national capitals around the world. Furthermore, major jhapads like the deep US-supported ties with Israel, invitation from the Gulf Cooperation Council to which they were not invited in spite of repeated begging and constant support for Indian position by the UK have all had serious impact on the dignity of the jihadi generals.

Pakistani generals now understand that another few years of 6 to 8% Indian growth will mean that they will have to bid goodbye to their 'Kashmir cause'
and hence, to their pampered lives and even possibly to their country and source of loot. This has made them extremely needy -- the water situation in Punjab and Sindh has only exacerbated this. Hence, you are beginning to see some of this desperation come out in the open, as in:

  • Cross-border attacks by Pakistani SSG/BAT commandos in the past month are a new escalation -- this kind of a thing does not happen every year.
  • Given that the immediate US needs disappear after the November 2004 elections -- expect the Pakistanis to try stupid stunts like trying cross-border attacks in the middle of winter in order to precipitate things before the music stops (see rediff article.)
  • A large number of the terrorist deaths in the last few weeks have been due to full frontal attacks on security forces -- this is a very rare happening. What has suddenly caused this? Reports state that Pakistani terrorists are being encouraged to 'make things happen' quickly.
  • Reactivation of Dawood Ibrahim's D-company in terrorist activities against India has been reported by Indian intelligence.
  • The not-so subtle threat by Musharraf's buddy about 'retarding Indian economic growth,' unless Kashmir is taken care of.
  • The 100 detonators found near Nasik just half an hour before a pilgrim filled train passed through the tunnel makes it clear that the intent was to trigger another communal carnage.
  • Reports from like 'The British foreign intelligence service, MI-6, has warned India to expect a major terrorist strike from PoK, and while the immediate target could be military sites along the border and Line of Control, attacks on nuclear installations are not ruled out. In the past weeks, Pakistani military officers and commentators have been speaking of India's resilience to terrorist attacks, and the suggestion is that India could be staggered only by a 13-December-like attack on the Houses of Parliament, but this time, MI-6 has warned of targeting atomic installations.'

This desperation and the resulting cost in Indian lives, will be met with strong US pressure on India and even possibly subtle threats not to retaliate against the terrorist state. Pakistan in return will feel further emboldened to carry out escalating attacks on India, with fairly limited possibilities of facing any retaliatory action. So, expect more 9 year olds beaten to death and 4 year olds shot through their chests, by Pakistani braves.

Musharraf also needs some gesture of Indian capitulation, to keep his jihadi populace happy -- so, there will also be significant US pressure on Vajpayee to go back on his statement of 'no bilateral talks with Pakistan at SAARC.' This pressure will take the form of both bribes like access to dual use technologies, as well as threats or the odd planted hatchet-job articles.

Of course, to give the quid pro quo a touch of reality, you can always count on the nautanki factor. A couple of days ago, over generous helpings of nimbu pani and samosas, invited international reporters feasted close-up, over the killing of Al Qaeda keedas by the brave army of Pakistan. As B Raman suggested -- some magical shooting happened; the bullets only struck the non-Pakistanis in the group. Drama over, everything is back to safe and sound -- for Al Qaeda of course. In return for the matinee and free munchies, the press-wallahs gushed all over Western media 'wah-wah!! Totaal Al Qaeda killers – these Pakees yaar!! Pass the chutney, please.' Oscar nominations may follow for jihadi General Aziz Khan -- who knows.

Now, here's a short compilation of things that I expect to happen in the coming months:

  • Pakistan's war on Indian civilians will continue with increasing involvement from Pakistani regulars and special forces. India will be strongly dissuaded from retaliation or self-defence. Expect, winter attacks this year, though.
  • Pakistan will get some more arms and probably will get Indian acceptance to come to the table for talks, in spite of continuing terrorism.
  • The US will get a quieter Afghanistan till 2004, but also the risks against the US public will increase -- since, the Pakistan-Afghan swamp has just been refilled with state (Pakistani) supported terrorists -- now with a wink and a nod from the US.
  • Pakistan will play little brother at meetings such as OIC to try and scuttle anti-US resolutions. As a country, whose leadership decrees are issued from somewhere in Virginia, Pakistan's leaders will prove to be a much better spokesperson for US views in the Islamic world, than Saudi Arabia.
  • India will increase its arms purchases and so will Pakistan. The cost to Pakistan will be tremendous, since India will raise the stakes in weapon systems. Ships, aircraft, BVR missiles and submarines do not come cheap. Destabilisation in Pakistan due to excessive army spending is a definite possibility and so are highly dangerous transfers of WMD technologies to terrorists or rogue states.
  • India willy-nilly will have to respond with some covert activities within Pakistan and some support for the Baloch and Sind national fronts. Pakistani institutions cannot handle such attacks and will reply with untold aggression against Pakistanis. Essentially, the US will have achieved exactly what it has been trying to avoid.
  • Of course, the Afghans will increasingly come under Pakistani-Taliban edicts, like no school for girls and no music. Uncle Sam will play the fiddle till November 2004, as the Taliban is reinvented as a moderate entity

All this, basically because George junior wants 'peace in Afghanistan' till November 2004 -- but at what cost to Indian and Afghan lives. At this point, I like many other Indians, feel much more comfortable with General Wesley Clark's foreign policy vision than what Bush is putting out. In his interview with Newsweek's Evan Thomas, Clark identifies what should be the central focus of the war on terrorism: Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. Without drastic change in Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, the benefits of a democratic Iraq to the war on terror will likely be marginal -- at least he's put his finger squarely on where the issues need to be worked. The rest of the Democratic field hasn't exactly made Saudi Arabia or Pakistan high priorities, even as they attack Bush's stewardship of the war on terror. By and large, the candidates echo Bush's silence on Pakistan. Though the observation cries out for elaboration, Clark is identifying what it will take to win the war on terrorism. And Clark has won wars before.

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