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Clinton in Islamabad: Another game-changer? (ADREES LATIF/Reuters)
Clinton in Islamabad: Another game-changer? (ADREES LATIF/Reuters)

David Van Praagh

The 2014 Afghan marker hits Pakistan and Canada where it hurts Add to ...

The good news emerging from last week's 70-nation conference in Kabul is that Pakistan will be prevented from starting to take over Afghanistan a year from now. The bad news is that Canada, unless the Harper government adjusts to reality, will be even more out of step with its allies if its troops pull out of Afghanistan a year from now.

Underlining both points is a historical footnote that probably wasn't intended but is significant, nonetheless. If 2014 is, indeed, the new deadline for international forces helping the Afghan government protect the country from Islamist extremists and rapacious neighbours, it will be 100 years since 1914 and the beginning of the First World War.

"The war to end wars" produced, instead, a century of hot wars and cold wars, world wars and mini-wars, insurgencies and counterinsurgencies, civil wars and crimes against humanity. Will peace in Afghanistan change all that? Or will continued conflict in and around the pivot of Asia usher in another era of war?

The immediate question is what caused the U.S. and its NATO allies to change the date for saving Afghanistan and stability in Central and South Asia from 2011 to 2014. The easy answer is that the war is not going well and more time is needed to contain and crush the Taliban, especially in Kandahar province. But there's growing evidence that the real answer lies in Pakistan - and British Prime Minister David Cameron's recognition of the dangers it poses.

The corrupt, military-dominated, nuclear-armed government of Pakistan has been making too much progress too fast toward its goals of controlling Afghanistan through the Taliban - which it created - thereby gaining what it calls "strategic depth" against India, its much larger rival.

Barack Obama seemed to accept this Pakistani aggressiveness because it fit into his bottom-line aim of re-election in 2012. He may still accept it: U.S. troops would be out of Afghanistan by mid-2012, and his increasingly unpopular "Afghan war" would be over, with Pakistan's army and military intelligence taking the place of U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan. Last December, he said U.S. troops would start withdrawing in mid-2011. In March, his Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, hailed "a new era" in U.S.-Pakistani relations following "strategic" talks in Washington.

But, unless the new 2014 marker is a smokescreen, something has changed. Perhaps Mr. Obama realized that chaos in Afghanistan and the possibility of a nuclear exchange between India and Pakistan threatened his electoral prospects more than a continued Afghan war. Perhaps the Obama administration grasped that the strategic alliance between the United States and India (shaped by George Bush) was jeopardized by kowtowing to Pakistan and its closest ally, China. One irritant is Pakistan's blatant attempt to push India's consulates and even its embassy out of Afghanistan.

But two things drastically changed the picture. In Washington, the British Prime Minister made clear that his country's troops - the second-largest contingent in Afghanistan - would stay until 2014, despite popular opposition at home. Perhaps Mr. Cameron remembered that the British Raj in India made Afghanistan a buffer state despite losing three wars to the Afghans. But his new stand and renewed emphasis on Britain's "special relationship" with the U.S. were far more important than his back and forth with Mr. Obama on BP and the Gulf of Mexico oil spill.

The other game-changer was Ms. Clinton's stop in Pakistan on her way to Kabul. There, partly as a sop to the Pakistanis for the apparent change in U.S. policy, she upped the blackmail that Washington pays Islamabad for not behaving too badly by $500-million, to $7.5-billion of mostly wasted aid. Pakistan's delayed response was to appoint its hawkish army commander to a new three-year term.

As for Canada, it's perilously close to becoming an innocent bystander in Afghanistan despite all its sacrifices. Now the key year is not 2011 or 2012 but 2014. Some Canadians are debating Canada's future military role. But the Afghan mission is far from finished. Hello, Mr. Harper?

David Van Praagh, a professor of journalism at Carleton University, is author of The Greater Game: India's Race with Destiny and China .

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