It’s time – way past time – to stop the tail from wagging the dog.
The latest confrontation between the United States and Pakistan underscores the futility of working with an “ally” that is hell-bent not on saving Afghanistan as an independent country but on taking it over with China’s backing as U.S., Canadian and other foreign soldiers leave by 2014.
In the geopolitical sweep of Asia, Pakistan is not a friend of the West but a nuclear-armed enemy that can cause huge damage to stability and democracy in the Indian subcontinent. Yet, U.S. President Barack Obama and his Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, have offered little but abject apologies when Pakistan has taken unintended casualties at the hands of NATO forces in the war to keep Afghanistan free of terrorist intruders.
This is the case in the wake of a weekend engagement in one of the most rugged parts of Afghanistan, near the border with Pakistan, in which 24 Pakistani soldiers were killed. NATO says its troops took fire first, a fact acknowledged by a senior Pakistani defence official to The Washington Post. Both sides say they believed they were attacking insurgents along the border. Predictably, however, Ms. Clinton offered condolences as if the U.S. were to blame – and the Pakistani government made sure this was the message received by the poverty-stricken people of Pakistan, whose hatred of the U.S. grew accordingly.
But the collection of political hacks and vengeful generals in Islamabad and Rawalpindi went further, as they had in a similar but smaller incident a few months ago. They closed indefinitely the Khyber Pass between Pakistan and Afghanistan and a southern route starting in Karachi, cutting off the vital flow of military and other supplies to more than 100,000 international troops in Afghanistan. For good measure, they banned use of a base for the unmanned Predator drones that have been effective in finding and killing Taliban leaders. And they say they’re boycotting a key international conference, set to take place in Bonn on Dec. 5, on Afghanistan’s future.
This is an ally? No, this is the regime that created and armed the Taliban, the Islamist extremists who took over most of Afghanistan in 1996 following the withdrawal of Soviet troops, and that continued to command them after 9/11 despite promises to the contrary. Lest we forget, the Taliban and their Pakistani overseers were responsible for the deaths of Canadian troops in Kandahar province, the tribal Pashtun Taliban’s home base.
The excuse for maintaining full relations with Pakistan, including billions of dollars in misused U.S. military and economic assistance (although Canada has quietly pressed for cutting aid), is that choosing any other option is riskier. This was the argument of George W. Bush, who at least applied pressure by publicly exposing the nature of the Pakistani regime. The Obama-Clinton duo relaxed the pressure while, nonetheless, making clear they understood what they were up against.
But the time has come for a surgical change in U.S. policy in South and Central Asia. Otherwise, the war in Afghanistan will drag on beyond 2014 with no decisive end in sight. The change – which could well lead to Pakistan’s severing relations altogether – would entail stopping all U.S. aid, except possibly humanitarian assistance. It would also mean that Pakistani co-operation in military operations, as conditional and duplicitous as it is, would end.
With patience, however, a new alliance to maintain Afghanistan’s integrity as the historic pivot of Asia can come into being. It will have to go beyond the current U.S.-NATO alliance. In particular, it will have to include India – Pakistan’s bugbear. This has started to happen, given the recent signing of an unprecedented strategic pact by Kabul and New Delhi. The U.S. and India have already established a strategic, if non-specific, alliance.
Indeed, putting an end to the Pakistani tail’s wagging the U.S. dog could well become a landmark event in what is beginning to emerge as a series of steps to establish credible collective security against China’s ambitions to dominate Asia and the Pacific. Another step is the recent agreement by South and Central Asian countries not to interfere in Afghanistan’s affairs. This may not restrain Pakistan but should deter China for the time being.
But what’s most important is the long range. America’s distancing itself from Pakistan now would be a major development in this direction – a prospect that some of the Republican candidates for the U.S. presidency clearly recognize and welcome.
David Van Praagh, a professor of journalism at Carleton University, is the author of The Greater Game: India’s Race with Destiny and China .