Come to terms with the “Afpak” realities


Brahma Chellaney, a professor of strategic studies at the privately funded Center for Policy Research in New Delhi, is the author, most recently, of "Asian Juggernaut: The Rise of China, India and Japan."

By Brahma Chellaney

Global Viewpoint

Los Angeles Times Syndicate/Tribune Media


Even as U.S. special representative Richard Holbrooke has embarked on his mission to find an answer to the Afghanistan-Pakistan predicament (“the Afpak problem” in Washingtonese), there is continuing reluctance in the international policy discourse to face up to a central reality: The political border between these two countries has now ceased to exist in practice.


The so-called Durand Line, in any event, was an artificial, British-colonial invention that left the large Pashtun community divided into two. Set up in 1893 as the border between British-led India and Afghanistan, the Durand Line had been despised and rejected by Afghanistan for long as a colonial imposition.


Today, that line exists only in maps. On the ground, it has little political, ethnic and economic relevance, even as the “Afpak” region has become a magnet for the world’s jihadists. A de facto Pashtunistan, long sought by Pashtuns, now exists on the ruins of an ongoing Islamist militancy but without any political authority in charge.


The disappearance of the Afpak political border seems irreversible. While the writ of the Pakistani state no longer extends to nearly half of that country (much of Baluchistan, large parts of the North-West Frontier Province and the whole of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas), ever-larger swaths of Afghanistan are outside the control of the government in Kabul.


The Pakistani army has lost increasing ground to insurgents in the western regions not because it is weaker than the armed extremists and insurgents but because an ethnic, tribal and militant backlash has resulted in the state withering away in the Pashtun and Baluch lands.


Forced to cede control, the jihadist-infiltrated military establishment and its infamous Inter-Services Intelligence agency have chosen to support proxy militant groups, especially the Taliban. However, with its own unity unraveling, Pakistan is paying a heavy price for having fathered the Taliban.


The international reluctance to come to terms with the new reality is because of the fundamental, far-reaching issues such acceptance would throw open. It is simpler to just keep up the pretense of wanting to stabilize Pakistan and Afghanistan within their existing political frontiers.


Take U.S. policy. As if determined to hide from this reality, Washington is now pursuing, at least outwardly, a military approach toward Afghanistan through a troop “surge” and a political strategy toward Pakistan centered on the tripling of non-military aid — or what Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi calls a “civilian surge.”


In reality, the Afghanistan surge is intended for a non-military mission — to cut deals with moderate Taliban leaders and other local commanders in the same way that the surge in Iraq was used as a show of force to buy off many Sunni leaders.


A surge-bribe-and-run strategy can hardly work in mountainous Afghanistan, a largely tribal society without the literacy level and middle class of Iraq.


A forward-looking Afpak policy demands consistency in approach toward two interlinked countries and recognition of the 2,640-kilometer Durand Line’s disappearance. The ethnic genie cannot be put back in the bottle.


To arrest further deterioration in the seven-year Afghan war, the U.S. military needs to focus less on al-Qaeda — a badly splintered and weakened organization whose leadership operates out of mountain caves — and more on an increasingly resurgent Taliban that operates openly and has sanctuaries and a command-and-control structure in Pakistan.


It is unproductive to keep blaming the fragile civilian governments in Kabul and Islamabad for the Afpak ills. In each of the two countries, the president is more like the mayor of the capital city. While in Afghanistan the assorted warlords and tribal chieftains call the shots, in Pakistan it is the powerful, meddling military establishment, except, of course, in the anarchic western tribal regions.


Presidents Hamid Karzai and Asif Ali Zardari, although regarded by their critics as too close to their American patrons, are powerless and helpless to deliver on anything. Yet the Obama administration is itching to dump Karzai as if his replacement with another U.S.-friendly figure in Kabul would help transform the situation.

Washington now complains that a weak, corrupt government in Kabul is driving Afghans into the Taliban’s clutches. So, even if it undermines the federal government, it wants to do business directly with provincial governors and tribal leaders and seek their help to set up local, Iraq-style militias.

Yet in Pakistan it is doing the opposite: propping up a shaky, inept central government while pampering the military establishment that is working to undermine the civilians in power.

Let’s be clear: Pakistan and Afghanistan, two artificially created states with no roots in history that have searched endlessly for a national identity, constitute the most dangerous region on earth. They have emerged as the global epicenter of transnational terrorism and narcotics trade. Additionally, Pakistan is where state-nurtured terrorism and state-reared nuclear smuggling uniquely intersect.

Yet, as if the forces of terror can be boxed in, the U.S. is now scaling back its objective to regionally contain rather than defeat terrorism — a strategy that promises to keep the Afpak problem as a festering threat to global security.


Given that this region has become ungovernable and borderless, it seems pointless to treat the existing political frontiers of Afghanistan and Pakistan as sacrosanct when the Afpak fusion term itself implies the two are no longer separate entities. The time has come to start debating what kind of a new political order in the Hindu-Kush region could create stable, moderate, governable and ethnically more harmonious states.


Make no mistake: The Afpak problem won’t go away without a fundamental break from failed U.S. policies. Continuing more of what hasn’t worked in the past, such as throwing more money at Pakistan and pouring more foreign troops into Afghanistan, is akin to feeding the beast.


(c) 2009 Global Viewpoint

February 13, 2009

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s