If all goes as planned, the caretakers will assume office and the challenges to handle a plethora of complicated, unresolved domestic and international issues seeking immediate attention. These include structural deformities precipitated by the present government through opportunism and bad governance. It will also take charge of issues of international significance that the present government will callously palm off to the incumbents at the twilight of its tenure. The composition of any caretaker government is likely to be in the nature of an interim government with acumen and willingness to handle critical issues of international implications. This means that its mandate will be far beyond the 90 days stipulated period to conduct free, fair and transparent elections for the next political transition that must pick the threads and continue. It seems that the interims will have to work overtime to clear the backlog and set a definite course for the next political government. This is not possible without the consensus of countries that have a stake in Pakistan.
Enough has been written in these columns about the onerous impossibilities that the caretakers will have to undertake like the yawning budget deficits, negotiations with IMF for fresh loans and halting the economic recession. This article of enduring significance will be restricted to Pakistan’s internal issues with international implications like the growing waves of militancy, gas pipelines from Iran and the handing over the operations of Gwadar Port to a Chinese company in the back drop of US led ISAF withdrawal from Afghanistan.
The planned US withdrawal from Afghanistan is a tactical retreat with no change in objectives. Though President Obama has announced quashing al Qaida, he has not announced an end to the war. By May this year, force levels may decrease to around 60,000 but the military commanders on ground will continue to have a say on the minimal maintainable force ratios. Afghanistan is not likely to have an effective Air Force till 2017 means that some of the US-ISAF air bases will continue to function in support of the Afghan National Army and Police and with them the allied protective arrangements. At the thinnest, provided Afghan security forces are successful, stay behind parties varying from 9,000- 20,000 US-ISAF troops would at best facilitate a tactical withdrawal and yet maintain some pivots leaving options for raising the force levels. This composition is too small to ensure a peaceful transition; rather hold its own against the Afghan ferocity and therefore improbable. Concurrently, peace talks have remained inconclusive and hence an overhang on the historic potential of Afghan warring factions to resolve issues amicably. At the heart of the problem are the diverse and competing objectives of these factions to do anything but national consensus. As the withdrawal begins to take shape, so would the fissures between these COIN influenced coalitions. Without NATO support, it is questionable that the Afghan security forces would be able to stand ground for long. Due to its short life and having grown as underlings to USA-ISAF, they lack the military tradition, revolutionary professionalism and the military corporatism to hold their own.
It also appears that like Pakistan’s influence over the TTP, Pakistan’s sway over the Afghan Taliban could ultimately turn out to be illusionary. It is most likely to spill over with greater fury inside Pakistan. In such a scenario, Pakistan will be left to contend with the chaos astride the Durand Line. Targeted Drone strikes between far and few will necessitate ground combat with a high rate of attrition. Pakistan’s reluctance and inability to handle waves of militancy inside its heartland will aggravate insecurities. As a last resort, the armed forces and law enforcement agencies will have to be inducted in Aid of Civil Power under Article 245 of the Constitution meaning urban counter terrorism operations. The tone and allegations of Mr. Rehman Malik implying Punjab to be the hideout of sectarian terrorist groups is an indicator of the events to come. In a most dangerous situation, Pakistan along with Afghanistan could be mired in the worst form of violence from Karachi to Quetta, FATA, Kabul and Kandhar akin to a civil war. Much of the blame for such a scenario must fall squarely on the shoulders of the military establishment and the government. Both could never reach a consensus on formulating and implementing a national counter terrorism policy despite involvement in a war for over 10 years with no objectives and high casualties.
But the blame for such a situation must also be shared by USA and its ISAF allies. In the rush to capitalize an opportunity, they played into the domain of Pakistan’s sensitivities. Their alliance with the non Pashtun North, insensitivity to Pashtun traditions, most unethical use of munitions of mass destruction like daisy cutters, C130 gunships, cruise missiles and drones led to alienation of populations on both sides of the divide springing a reaction and hate that coalesced around TTP. For Pakistan, it will be a mammoth task to change these perceptions clouded by feelings of revenge and hate. Hence, in the interim, though the USA and its coalitions could withdraw tactically, Pakistan will be left to deal with the genie it helped create at a very high cost; a situation worse than the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan in the 80s.
Had all parties involved in the conflict picked up the threads of the 1996 Benazir Initiative with Taliban under General Naseer Ulah Babar her interior minister or under her auspices, the Taliban offer to hand over Osama Bin Laden to a neutral Muslim country post 9/11, events could have beed different. It appears that some segments of this plan will form part of the Afghan reconciliation process, 18 years too late. Perhaps the contours of such a plan were worked out during a tri lateral summit in UK giving Pakistan the space to handle the situation, at its own and the region’s interests.
The second development with a direct bearing is Pakistan’s desire to build a gas pipe line from Iran. In a hopeless scenario such as this, a country gone bankrupt, economy not performing and citizens resigned to their plight, why must Pakistan conclude a deal with Iran on the gas pipeline that can invoke American and international sanctions adding to the misery? Given the rise of foreign sponsored violence in Balochistan how would the government ensure the protection of the project? Most how will Pakistan under international and US sanctions fight an internal strife fuelled by bases inside Afghanistan? Perhaps the answer can be found i9n the explanation that some level of US withdrawal is crucial to President Obama’s credibility, and as a quid pro quo, USA will look the other way as long as Pakistan facilitates USA.
It appears that USA is also prepared to give a similar concession to Pakistan on Gawadar. Knowing that it will take decades for the new economic corridor to be effective and before that, years to restore normalcy in the region, USA in the short term is prepared to accede to Pakistan’s position with hanging Swords of Damocles. On the positive side, the huge economic benefits for both Pakistan and China could eclipse Pakistan’s traditional paradigm of a security state and ultimately like China, an economics dominated security policy. Suffice to say that these two concessions could never be possible without a nod from two major regional actors, China and Iran.
If the script for NRO II is close as discussed, Pakistan is likely to see the de-arabisation of its culture and therefore a rise in sectarian violence. Pakistanis will ultimately pay a very high cost of promoting proxies for the short term ambitions of its dictators and political leaders. Come the ides and all shall be clear.