The Afghanistan game

As I prepare to return to Lahore after a two-day India-Pakistan dialogue in Bangkok, the big news from Pakistan is about the arrival in Islamabad of the US delegation led by US Secretary of State Mrs Hillary Clinton, accompanied by the new Chairman Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey and Central Intelligence Agency Director David Patraeus, a veritable ‘diplomatic overdose’ as one friend tweeted.

So, what’s the agenda? Friend Barkha Dutt from across the border did her TV programme on the theme of the US-Pakistan meltdown. Pakistani officials said Mrs Clinton wants to remove the confusion about US objectives in Afghanistan, i.e., what does the US want between now and 2014 and perhaps beyond. If this is indeed the case then something has recently happened in Washington that has largely gone unnoticed: clarity on how the Obama administration wants to go about what it wants to get to.

The US policy reminds me at one end of the famous dialogue between Alice and the Cheshire Cat and at the other of the sardar joke about counting sheep in a flock.

‘Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?’

‘That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,’ said the Cat.

‘I don’t much care where—’ said Alice.

‘Then it doesn’t matter which way you go,’ said the Cat.

The sardar joke is more profound: it’s easy to count sheep in a flock, he told a friend. Count the number of legs and divide them by four.

This ‘clarity’ now comes to Islamabad and it is backed by an urgency that will be pitted against the perceived interests of Pakistan in the region. The obvious question is whether the visit is conciliatory or meant to be a full court press on Pakistan. Here are some facts.

The current Afghan government has penned a strategic deal with India that places Kabul squarely in the Indian sphere of influence. This development has been encouraged and accepted by the United States, a far cry from how President Barack Obama viewed the region while on the campaign trail and before he asked Bruce Riedel to do the Afghanistan review. Plainly, in the absence of full India-Pakistan normalisation, with Kabul having thrown the gauntlet, Pakistan should have little incentive to see his government survive.

The US and India, on the other hand, would like to not only see this government survive but sustain itself beyond 2014. The most likely scenario, ceteris paribus, is for Kabul to enter into a Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) with Washington. That would mean retaining some of the existing US bases in Afghanistan. Argued from this perspective, we can either say adios to talks with the Taliban or have the pace slowed down to a bare crawl. While the Taliban would gain control of large swathes of territory, the US would use technical means to hunt them down and degrade their forces. On the ground, the US would rely heavily on the 400,000-strong Afghan National Security Force to operate against the Taliban. Given that the ANSF is Tajik- and non-Pashtun-heavy, motivation should not be a problem.

While India, until now, might be reluctant to commit ground troops, in the event of a US counterterrorism-plus strategy that also targets areas inside Pakistan, it might place trainers and support elements in Afghanistan. The opportunity to project power would be too tempting in that situation to not be utilised.

This is of course the trajectory of collision with its many negative, intended and unintended consequences. The policy has its temptations but working it has many costs too. The effort, therefore, would be to try to compel and cajole Pakistan into facilitating a dialogue with the Taliban in order to secure the current power configuration in Kabul.

Pakistan, for its part, has already been indicating engaging the Taliban. It hasn’t become proactive on this track because of America’s sardar syndrome so far. But given Islamabad’s own calculations, the comparative advantage as well as the possibility of a concerted move to alienate it, Islamabad would not want to push for an all-or-nothing approach.

It is this small space that needs to be exploited for a convergence of interests by all sides. The US trio that lands in Islamabad Thursday night would talk tough and offer an olive branch simultaneously. That is to be expected. Pakistan, for its part, needs to put its own map on the table clearly. Roughly, it should look like this:

• Pakistan wants to normalise with India but it does not want to be encircled from the west.

• The US must spell out clearly the role it wants to assign to India in Afghanistan. There are too many voices in Washington that seem to want a predominant role for India in the region both to isolate Pakistan and have India as a counterweight to China.

• The US must level with Pakistan on its strategy and objectives in the run-up to 2014 and beyond. Does it intend to keep bases beyond that date? If so, what would its presence mean and what would be the scope and objectives of such presence.

• The US, if it wants to talk to the Taliban meaningfully, should announce this formally and declare a ceasefire. This is important if all sides want to avoid an escalation in violence with the perceived interest to strengthen their hand in negotiations.

• Pakistan should be able to guarantee that in case of such an announcement by the US the Taliban groups will respect the ceasefire agreement.

• India-Pakistan talks, bilaterally, should include Afghanistan in the agenda. Pakistan should spell out its concerns and India should make clear the intentions behind its presence in Afghanistan and the scope and range of its activities.

• India and Pakistan bilaterally, and in tandem with Afghanistan and the US, should develop cooperative strategies. They must explore if such a possibility exists. It should be clear that in the absence of some basic agreement on how Afghanistan should look in the future all the actors would be playing a competitive game.

• If this can be done, the actors could then play a nested game in a consociational model. That phase will have its own frictions but at least the actors would be playing without the incentive to wreck the process.

None of this obtains at present. But all of this and more needs to be done if the world does not want to see more instability in this region and a terrible civil war in Afghanistan. The most important factor in this are the Taliban. They need to be engaged at an early stage in the game. One must also accept that that they will have their own incentives to either play the game or scuttle the process depending on how much the current power configuration in Kabul – in association with India and the US – is prepared to concede. The Taliban would not like to lose at the table what they have gained on the ground.

But just like the US, the Taliban can also not score a victory in any Clausewitzean terms. For various reasons, some of its own making, others owed to external actors, Pakistan is now stuck with the Taliban. Without prejudice to that option, Islamabad needs to increase its options. That is its biggest challenge. There are challenges and opportunities on all sides and the US and India would be well advised to not sacrifice long-term interests for short-term temptations.

The writer is Contributing Editor, The Friday Times.