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Thursday, February 22, 2024

Pakistan: Cheney meets a general in his labyrinth

By M K BhadrakumarIs US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice no longer in the loop on Washington’s Pakistan policy? At any rate, Rice appeared altogether unaware of the leak to the New York Times last Sunday that President George W Bush has finally decided to send “an unusually tough message” to Pakistani President General Pervez Musharraf that unless the latter played ball with grit and sincerity in curbing Taliban activities inside Pakistani territory, Washington would be constrained to cut aid.    Rice wasn’t prepared to pay attention to the leak. On the contrary, in an interview with American Broadcasting Co television on Sunday, she paid her most handsome tribute ever to Musharraf. She spared no effort to let it be known that Washington regards him as a gallant soldier.     Rice said: “This has been a stalwart fighter, Pakistan’s Musharraf, in this fight. Let’s remember that al-Qaeda tried to kill him a couple of times [actually, according to Musharraf, five times] and the Pakistani leadership knows that al-Qaeda would like nothing better than to destabilize Pakistan and to use Pakistan as a base rather than Afghanistan for its operations.”    A day later, US State Department spokesman Sean McCormack repeated Rice’s warm sentiment. Lauding Musharraf’s new border strategy in the lawless Pakistani tribal agencies bordering Afghanistan, McCormack said, “Let me reiterate and underline that President Musharraf is a good ally in the war on terror, Pakistan is a strong fighter in the war on terror … Steps have been taken, cooperation has improved.” He wasn’t to be drawn into the “leak” either.      Rice was justified in ignoring the leaks in the New York Times. After all, the daily carried so many leaks in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq that the venerable newspaper finally ended up apologizing.War clouds in the Persian GulfBesides, with another war looming, there are leaks galore in Washington. The frequency of these is increasing in almost direct proportion to the descent of the fog of war in the Persian Gulf region. Everyone, or almost everyone, including great powers, has begun hedging. It is difficult to recall another instance in recent memory when the Kremlin chose to release to the media excerpts of a sensitive cabinet discussion anticipating an impending war.    At that meeting presided over by President Vladimir Putin in Moscow on Monday, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov referred to “the increasingly frequent and worrying predictions that air strikes will be launched against Iran. In particular, the US vice president [Dick Cheney] mentioned such a possibility.”Whereupon Putin asked: “What are we talking about here – strikes that do not have United Nations Security Council authorization?”     Lavrov replied: “None of those who are talking about such a possibility have mentioned any such authorization. While he was in Australia, Cheney said recently that he does not rule out such a possibility because Iran cannot be allowed to ignore the international community’s opinion.”The Afghan angle So, what was Cheney’s surprise halt in Islamabad on Monday all about?Without doubt, there was an Afghan angle to Cheney’s mission. The threshold of US defeat in Afghanistan is nowhere near being reached. There is bipartisan support in Washington for the “war on terror” in Afghanistan. Military commanders see the Taliban as a “defensive insurgency” and the war as eminently “winnable”. But all the same, Washington faces a grave challenge in Afghanistan.     The message from the recent meetings of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) defense and foreign ministers in Seville and Brussels is that there is a real danger of the Afghan war transforming as an Anglo-Saxon war, with major NATO allies from “Old Europe” looking in. The latest British decision to augment troop strength in Afghanistan to 7,000 soldiers testifies to the fence-sitting by major NATO allies Germany, Italy, France, Spain and Turkey. Here the problem is also of geopolitics. There are serious misgivings in Europe that the secretive Anglo-American agenda is to inveigle the Euro-Atlantic community in a new cold war with Russia.     China too has begun expressing disquiet lately about the geopolitics of the Afghan war – US global strategy of “taking control of the Eurasian continent and proceeding to take the helm of the entire globe” by establishing a military presence on an “unstable arc from the Caucasus, Central and South Asia down to the Korean Peninsula” (emphasis added), to quote the People’s Daily.    It is against this background that Cheney was called on to weigh the cruciality of Pakistan’s role in Afghanistan. On the face of it, Musharraf enjoys seamless maneuvering space vis-a-vis the United States. But having said that, a continued US presence in Afghanistan is vital for Pakistan’s national interests. Ideally, the war must roll on.    The Pakistani economy does well only when US capital flows become available. The highly respected former Pakistani finance minister and vice president of the World Bank, Shahid Javed Burki, warned recently that the specter that haunts the Pakistani economy is that out of sheer war fatigue, US troops may soon pack their bags and take leave of the Hindu Kush and head for home.   Writing in the Pakistani daily Dawn, Burki substantiated that whenever the US “poured economic and military assistance” into Pakistan as a quid pro quo for serving US geostrategy, the Pakistani economy had a windfall, and, conversely, whenever Washington became indifferent toward Pakistan, its economy slumped.   Thus during president Ayub Khan’s rule when Pakistan took pride of place in the US Cold War strategies toward the Soviet Union, Pakistan’s gross domestic product (GDP) grew by more than 6.5% annually. This was a significant jump from the annual 2.7% GDP growth in the first 10 years of Pakistan’s independence after 1947. Again, when the Afghan jihad of the 1980s against the Soviets brought Washington and Islamabad close together and US aid resumed, Pakistan’s GDP shot up 6.5%, as against less than 4% previously.   However, with the end of the Cold War and the decline in Pakistan’s geopolitical importance in the 1990s, US aid declined and its GDP growth rate dropped to an average of 4.7% during the period 1988-99. Then came the attacks of September 11, 2001. The commencement of the “war on terror” has turned out to be a bonanza for the Pakistani economy. Burki concluded, “There is a direct relationship between Pakistan’s economic performance and its foreign policy.”   That is to say, there is a degree of merit in the tendentious assumption underlying the New York Times story about Cheney’s mission to Islamabad. But that is about it.   One thing is clear. There is a sense of urgency in Cheney’s decision to travel across the globe. Cheney doesn’t stir out of the US easily – not, certainly, as a courier transmitting an odd message over the Taliban spring offensive.The Iranian angle In the usual course, there are only two items on Cheney’s calendar – oil and war. He is not a presidential hopeful in next year’s election. He has about 18 months until retirement, and is at the pinnacle of an enviable career in public life. Seldom has a US president allowed himself to be so entirely led by his deputy. He is a 1,000-pound gorilla within the Bush administration. The departure of Donald Rumsfeld from Bush’s cabinet as defense secretary hasn’t debilitated him. In fact, Cheney’s finest hour has just about come – sorting out Iran, the “last frontier” in the energy war, before he retires.    It is this sense of urgency that brought Cheney to Pakistan during an extended tour of the two of the United States’ staunchest remaining allies – Australia and Japan.    Cheney’s visit to Pakistan signifies an extraordinary moment in the diplomatic history of the Southwest Asia region. Washington expects Musharraf to stand up and be counted if a confrontation ensues with Iran. Musharraf is already allowing US intelligence to stage covert operations against Iran from Pakistan’s Balochistan province.    Washington has great use for Pakistan’s stature in the Islamic world. Musharraf is doing all he can in rallying the Sunni Muslim world. Last weekend’s conclave of the foreign ministers of the Organization of Islamic Conference in Islamabad was exclusively of select Sunni Muslim countries. Iran was pointedly excluded, even though the subject under discussion was the cascading tensions in the Middle East.    The meet’s odd lineup prompted Turkish Prime Minister Recep Erdogan to issue a public denial, saying that Turkey was not about to join any “anti-Shi’ite alliance”. Turkey certainly cannot annoy Tehran when Iran’s cooperation is vital during the coming months as tensions build up over the November referendum on northern Iraq’s autonomy and at a time when Kurdish separatist militancy is deeply worrying Ankara.   In the turbulent period ahead, Musharraf may have a greater role to play if the security of Saudi Arabia is threatened in any armed conflagration in the Persian Gulf region. Pakistan has fulfilled such roles in Saudi Arabia and Jordan in the past on different occasions. Indeed, if Iran gets seriously destabilized as a result of the incessant pressure from the US, especially if Washington were to apply military pressure, Pakistan’s role in neighboring Iran could become extremely important.    Equally, Washington needs Islamabad to ensure that the Afghan war remains on track in its present state of animation, while it moves against Iran. Pakistan is being called on to ensure that the Taliban do not raise the ante within Afghanistan at a time when US eyes are trained on Iran. Whether it is within Musharraf’s capacity to do so is another matter.    The fact is that Tehran has considerable levers of influence inside Afghanistan. Senlis Council, a British think-tank, last week assessed that Iran might have begun reaching out to the Afghan resistance.The mujahideen rises It is not particularly difficult for Iran to heat up the Afghan situation. Within the Afghan jihadist constituency, Iran continues to wield considerable influence. The impressive public rally by mujahideen commanders in Kabul on Monday must be a wake-up call for those who thought the jihadis had been branded as “warlords” and conclusively discredited in Afghan opinion, and mothballed and put away for good.    The rally shows that the mujahideen’s shelf life has far from expired. The rallyists chanted, “This is a mujahideen nation. We want the law of Islam, and the government of the mujahideen.”    Significantly, mujahideen leaders who participated in the rally included national figures who have worked very closely with Tehran over the years – Hazara Shi’ite leader Karim Khalili; the “czar” of western Afghanistan, Ismail Khan; former defense minister Qaseem Fahim; and former president Burhanuddin Rabbani.    The rally has given an unspoken message as well to Washington – that the Taliban is a generic name, after all. Indeed, who is a Talib? Anyone could be a “Talib” or a “mujahid” in today’s Muslim world when civilizations have begun clashing. He needn’t be necessarily Wahhabi or anti-Shi’ite. Curiously, the Kabul rally signifies in a peculiar Afghan way that the terms “Talib” and “mujahid” can become interchangeable in certain circumstances if push comes to shove.     It is a warning that Washington (or the NATO capitals) can ignore only at great peril. The developing intra-Afghan equations hold the potential to place the US in a highly delicate position within Afghanistan if it chooses to embark on a misadventure against Iran.     From the perspective of US geostrategy, the Afghan war has been a success story. Washington has managed to get an unwilling NATO to come and slouch in a region that is the soft underbelly of Russia and China. Washington would like NATO to remain there for a long time to come. And if tomorrow NATO becomes part of the US missile-defense system, its occupation of the Afghan high plateau gives it a huge strategic advantage by overlooking the back yards of four of the world’s eight nuclear powers.     The congruence of interests between the Bush administration and the Musharraf regime has no parallel in the chronicle of US-Pakistan relations. To belittle the general, to chastise him like an errant schoolboy, to ridicule him or to send him sulking to a corner – this was the last thing Cheney had in mind.     Five years ago, Washington threatened that it would reduce Pakistan to the Stone Age, and thereby got Musharraf’s support for the “war on terror” in Afghanistan. Along the line, the Pakistani economy has done rather well, thanks to the estimated US$20 billion in US assistance that may have flowed into Pakistan during the past five years. But Washington’s dependence on Musharraf’s cooperation has also increased.    And a point comes when no matter who you are, you can’t threaten anymore. Nothing could have brought this home more poignantly than when a suicide bomber blew himself up within earshot of Cheney in Bagram Air Base outside Kabul on Tuesday.M K Bhadrakumar served as a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service for more than 29 years, with postings including ambassador to Uzbekistan (1995-98) and to Turkey (1998-2001). Note: This article was first published on Asia Times online.

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