By Syed Talat Hussain.
PRETENSIONS aside, Pakistan is in a corner on Afghanistan. The raids from across the border continue with impunity: one day it is Afghan-government backed lashkars, the next day it is mortar shells.
For all our feisty resistance to India`s role in Afghanistan, the new term being used for the Afghan endgame is “regional solution”. This includes all of Afghanistan`s neighbours, including the so-called “distant ones” that have no geographic proximity to the war-torn nation. Worse, while we hear the military spokesman plead that Washington should show understanding about our constraints, the US continues to bang on the diplomatic table demanding that Islamabad deliver the Haqqani network militarily and Mullah Omar`s politically.
Meanwhile the drone attacks continue, mocking every word that the military and the political leadership have recently uttered on the subject promising the nation that “this will not be tolerated”.
For a nuclear power whose chief of army staff was a couple of months ago giving written advice to the US president on how to manage Afghanistan, this is a sharp turn in strategic fortunes. We are as helpless in protecting our border posts against Afghan raiders as we are in guarding our naval bases and territory at large against visible aggression.
This seeming change of status looks quite dramatic when seen against the rhetoric that was poured into our ears about Pakistan holding the balance of power in Afghanistan. Actually, it is not that dramatic. The reality of our influence in Afghanistan was always different and limited.
Even at the best of times it was obvious that while Islamabad was one of the central cards that made the Afghanistan pack complete, it was never the only card. We took our strategic location and our affinity with the Pashtun belt so seriously that we forgot the centuries-old lesson: in Afghanistan, there is no centre of gravity except where total power lies.
The fact is that the US created a global alliance and, by enlarging its footprint, created a logic of power that was bound to become the centre of Afghanistan`s final choices.
There was a window of time available to Pakistan to use its influence intelligently and become part of the choices that were being discussed, but the hangover of “the US can`t do without us” elixir was so strong that it blinded policymakers to the idea of considering these possibilities.
This window of time lasted between 2007 and the end of 2009. Pakistan had a good combination of factors stacked up in its favour. The successful completion of the Malakand operation had driven home to the world the point that the Pakistan Army was capable of and willing to take on the Taliban. Smaller campaigns in Bajaur, Dir, Mohmand and South Waziristan had reinforced this image.
The world, and Washington, was in a listening mood and, for a change, willing to consider giving Pakistan importance in accordance with its proven strategic weight. Their dependence on Pakistan as a main supply route for their forces also widened Pakistan`s advantage.
We should have used that window to do the wisest thing: firmly secure our border areas, eliminate sanctuaries, force the local Taliban to comply with the writ of the state and incorporate them all into our template of enduring national interests.
That was the time to also deal firmly with all free agents, whether Al Qaeda or Taliban leaders, on our soil. Having dealt with the internal issues, we would have been free to focus on the border with Afghanistan, demarcating it with a stronger presence, building more check posts and plugging the so-called `traditional routes` that have now become the ingress of choice for invaders from Afghanistan. With military momentum in our control, we could have pushed decisively on the diplomatic front.
But we did none of that. Military planners declared early victory against militancy and started to use tactical success in strategic negotiations with Washington. In running this victory lap, so much time was wasted that all these gains became meaningless. By not closing the local Taliban chapter completely we allowed them to jump out of control again and engage all our core military energies in endless smaller campaigns, which today *** the landscape of the border areas.
It remains perplexing why it was decided in those crucial years that Pakistan`s interests were served best by assuming that Islamabad`s status as a central player in Afghanistan was unchallenged and that there was no further need to eliminate the last vestiges of the Taliban from our soil. To put it simply, why did we not build on the momentum we had gained in the tribal belt and finish off the job of decisively establishing our hold?
The result of that poor judgement is now upon us. We can`t even defend our borders against attacks from the Afghan National Army or local goons. Moreover, sensing our weakness and internal turmoil, Washington has tightened the vise. The days of being mollycoddled by Mullen are gone.
The new reality of Washington`s approach is reflected in what was said by Vice Admiral William McRaven, nominated commander of US Special Operations Command, or Socom, and Lieutenant General John Allen of the US Marine Corps, nominated commander of Isaf and US forces in Afghanistan, during their congressional hearings. They both sounded tough notes on safe havens and raised doubts about Pakistan`s willingness and capacity to deal with insurgency on its soil.
It is clear that with one last fighting season left for US forces before the drawdown starts, the new commanders will do everything in their power to prove their military success in Afghanistan. Their target is not Afghanistan but Pakistan.
That means more raids across the border in Pakistan, more drone attacks and more demands to “do more”. Far from being in charge of the situation in Afghanistan, the Pakistani establishment will have to now prove that it is in control of its own territory. Such is the cost of missed opportunities. These are the wages of poor judgements.
The writer is a senior journalist at DawnNews .