A disintegrating Pakistan: Choices for US and India

Last Updated 03 May 2018, 05:31 IST

David Petraeus's (top US military commander in Afghanistan) vaunted military talents, what remains of America's struggle to wrest Afghanistan from eventual Taliban investiture is almost certainly doomed to failure.

US President Barack Obama's pledge to draw down the American military commitment in Afghanistan may ultimately turn out to be more a Vietnam-like strategic capitulation than a victory lap.

Should this turn out to be the case, in the face of a Pakistani political collapse, what other alternatives will exist which an already war-weary American public will accept?

Viewed in historical perspective, what is gradually taking place before our eyes is the final consequences of flawed political choices which the emergent Pakistani elites made following the nation's founder Mohammad Ali Jinnah's death in 1948, which were compounded by subsequent regimes, and further exacerbated by faulty US Cold War policies towards the South Asia region. In this sense, the story of Pakistan is one of "chickens coming home to roost!"

Put succinctly, the subsequent history of Pakistan has been the systematic rejection of the efficacy of Jinnah's vision of a consensual political mode for Pakistan, in keeping with the multi-cultural, politically accommodative model that alone has proved viable in the South Asian context, literally since the Indus Valley Civilization, and irrespective of whether the regimes in power have been Hindu, Buddhist or Muslim. The political contrast between India and Pakistan makes this clear.

One might say that over the years the Pakistani public allowed itself to be hijacked by Islamic fundamentalism, partially as a means of coping with its phobic fears of "Hindu India" and partially because the lack of socio-religious flexibility left religious extremism, and its political extensions, as the sole doctrinal basis for attempting to achieve a politically coherent state.

Islamic fanaticism, conjoined with military authoritarianism, has ripped Pakistan to shreds and soon will provoke its political disintegration. What alternative is left for US, NATO and Indian strategic policy in the face of a Pakistani political meltdown?

In my opinion, the best option is what I would call strategic consolidation. That is, India, the US and its allies, must "step aside", let the holocaust happen, and try to contain in every way possible its spread beyond Pakistan's borders and the Pashtun region now dominated by the Taliban.

As the dimensions and ramifications of the "implosion" become apparent, the US, NATO and India can deploy their military and diplomatic resources in whatever manner they deem necessary and possible to contain, ameliorate and mediate the undoubtedly pervasive violence that will ensue and must run its course.

With regard to Afghan policy in the face of a Pakistani political meltdown, and an inevitable consequent upsurgence of Taliban militancy in the Pashtun region, former US ambassador to India (2001-3) Robert D. Blackwill has offered a highly imaginative interim solution.

The US, he says, should for the time being consolidate its forces and resources in the non-Pashtun portions of the country where Tajiks, Uzbeks, and Hazarras predominate and originally formed the core of the Northern Alliance which in concert with the US after 9/11 defeated the Taliban.

His observations concerning the interim realignment of forces in Afghanistan in the face of the worst-case scenario are highly pertinent.

"Washington should accept," he declares, "that the Taliban will inevitably control most of the Pashtun south and east and that the price of forestalling that outcome is far too high for the United States to continue paying."

Even prior to the impending collapse of Pakistan, or indeed if in the end it avoids this terminal fate, Blackwill rightly concludes that "the emergence of a clear division in Pakistan might provide just the sort of shock the Pakistani military apparently needs in order to appreciate the dangers of the game it has been playing for decades."

Leading American commentators, including this one, are now convinced that Pakistan is only a furtive step away from ceasing to be a viable modern state capable of carrying out its responsibilities as a purported "non-NATO ally" of the US in the war against the Taliban, Al Qaeda and other jihadi extremists.

Yes, this implies a comprehensive realignment of forces, resources and strategic orientation towards the Af-Pak theatre. But in the face of a steadily disintegrating, politically pathological Pakistan state, it is only a matter of time until such a realignment takes place anyway. For US-Pakistan relations, as we have known them, it is indeed the end of the affair.

Harold Gould is Visiting Scholar in the Center for South Asian Studies, University of Virginia

(Published 16 January 2011, 04:07 IST)

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