Afghanistan: The girl next door

Irshad Salim — Islamabad has through its National Security Adviser Lt Gen (Retd) Nasser Khan Janjua presented a counter-narrative for the precarious situation in Afghanistan where the long-drawn 16-year war the U.S. started back in October 2011 appears unending militarily and very complex diplomatically at the best.

Janjua and the US Ambassador to Pakistan David Hale met on Thursday in capital Islamabad– as the US administration emphasized this week that Trump wants to work with Pakistan within the ambit of his recently announced Afghan policy albeit South Asia policy which draws Pakistan’s eastern neighbor India into the equation- to the discomfort of Pakistan for obvious and understandable reasons.

Both Pakistan and India have very serious issues on the latter’s past, present and stated role in Afghanistan and longstanding disputes between the two since partition– all of these have remained unattended and made the region stink like a leftover apple pie in a McDonalds.

The unfinished agenda of Kashmir since 1947 leads the pack. The water distribution issue between the two warring neighbors is another which may be developing into a crisis if not addressed within the international framework. And, over the recent years, India’s climbup into Afghan’s geopolitics has added red-hot-chili-pepper to the warming soup.

For any risk assessment professional, these are “simply issues” which need mitigating steps if the US wishes to make its stay in the region permanent with Afghanistan as its homebase – an invitation which was first extended by the former Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani during the fist phase of PPP-led government back in 2008-2012.

However, these issues cannot be done away with transactional handling on binary lines in isolation any more as they have morphed or have been morphed into a more complex scenario front-loaded with chaos, terrorism, insecurity, instability and unbalanced by back-end operations meant to deconstruct/reconstruct events and narratives to suit the purpose by using the “end must justify the means” tactics.

Islamabad thought-leaders are convinced according to some observers that a US train to Afghanistan is going nowhere– a view also held by many in the US. It’s costing almost $4 million an hour to taxpayers with no end in sight. And, Trump’s announcement of no timeline until an assured military victory in Afghanistan and lasting peace in the region is being interpreted as a maverick move while giving the US administration the rationale to negotiate with Kabul an extended stay in the war-torn country which could pass beyond Trump’s tenure.

The U.S. for understandable reasons (geoeconomic, geopolitics, and global supremacy) has come to stay in the region like it or not. Among the peripheral states of Afghanistan, it has established defense, strategic as well as workable alliances morphing into permanency. Kabul is one itself.

So Trump blaming Pakistan for America’s failure in Afghanistan– stated or actual, could very well be considered a meaningful effort to elicit Islamabad moves — much needed to finetune the predictability and control tool for a diplomacy-at-work as complex as AfInPk.

According to reports, Ambassador Hale has assured Janjua that President Trump did not blame Pakistan for the failure of the War on Terror in Afghanistan. That’s the “fine print” sans the wide-brush stroke Trump used to paint Pakistan as the bad guy of the neighborhood while making India look as the “good guy” who can help, and Kabul “the girl-next-door” available for the ride. Kabul is in fact the girl-next-door for all.

Interestingly, Janjua is reported to have stressed the need to work together to “close” the conflict in Afghanistan instead of “winning” it, which Ambassador Hale agreed with while claiming the perceived misconceptions of Trump South Asia policy arose due to the media taking it apart piece by piece instead of interpreting it as a whole. Another good news.

According to a press release issued by Janjua’s spokesperson, Hale said it was wrong to assume that the policy recommended a purely military solution, or that engagement with Pakistan had been ruled out. Military strategy, he said, was just one piece of the policy which espoused a political solution- an observation I’ve already made earlier in my posts here. It is also wrong to assume (I agree) that the policy recommends purely military solution.

As expected, Hale told Janjua that the US government was “aware of the feelings in Pakistan” regarding the role envisaged for India in the new strategy.

Hale said the Trump administration was “ready to play its role in reducing tensions between the two neighbors”, according to the NSA spokesperson. This was coming. Back in January Trump team made the first offer to mediate between the two warring neighbors. Pakistan welcomed it. India said NO, and called the internationally recognized dispute of Kashmir a bilateral issue.

But the genie may be out of the bottle now. Hale clarified that India’s role was envisaged for economic development in Afghanistan only. That’s something hard to swallow though, according to some observers. As for Janjua’s response on behalf of Islamabad that the creation of competitiveness within a campaign and alliance is “counter-productive” and “we should not go that way” was as predictable and already well known narrative among Washington thought-leaders –no reading the lines using palmistry was needed, nor is it warranted in future.

Both sides it appears have now evoked the old dictum: “A best fighter is one who never gets angry.”

Trump’s policy supports the role of regional countries in a peaceful settlement in Afghanistan. Pakistan has an important, in fact, the most crucial role to play. Why? If (and indeed it is so) geoeconomics is the actual dependable variable in the multiple regression for positive geopolitical results well-suited to the US, then Pakistan is the ground-zero not just for China, Russia, or the Central Asian states — but for Afghanistan, US and its defense-strategic ally in the region, India as well.

That’s the retained earnings of Pakistan it has accumulated over the years– using accounting standards to articulate the point, and the balance sheet looks damn good for serious players.

So Pakistan leveraging on its geoeconomic look-ahead, and hedging on principled stand backed by China and Russia — and even Iran, and looking for positive outcomes (which I foresee eventually based on being a “predictable” party in the ongoing game theory analysis), seems a very probable observation.

Thus, “Any kinetic action would further vitiate the situation and should be avoided, which Hale agreed with (Janjua), saying that the situation needs to be normalized.”

One thing is for sure. Neither the dice is loaded nor the roulette has been fixed, nor the croupier has been taken hostage. The great game may continue for sometime.

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