Monday, August 18, 2008

Pakistan, Land of Circuitous Problems

What to do, what to do? If we want to achieve some sort of success in Afghanistan (and what that might look like grows smaller as the years pass), there will have to be some breakthrough in Pakistan.

Musharraf is gone. Like most things that happen in Pakistan, that's a mixed blessing, certainly for NATO forces in Afghanistan and probably for the Pakistanis themselves. Mushie might not have been a great ally to the West in the fight against al Qaeda but he was a somewhat effective keel for his country.

Without Musharraf, the two ruling parties will now have to try to govern and, in Pakistan, that's a Herculean chore. The pols are going to have to carve out turf that has been traditionally dominated by Pakistan's army. The military is actually far more than just an armed force. It's also a wealthy and powerful political and economic institution and, as such, tearing the country out of the generals' grasp may not be all that easy. Pakistan's military is more than familiar with seizing power in coups.

The other key segment of the military is Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence agency or ISI. This secretive outfit is still believed to be harbouring Taliban forces in the tribal lands and is also strongly believed to have played a role in the July 7th bombing of the Indian embassy in Kabul. Some experts believe the ISI remains a free agent utterly beyond the control of the civilian government.

While the attempted orderly transition of power into civilian hands proceeds there's the question of Pakistan's nuclear arsenal and Dr. Kahn's nuclear weapons export shop that was never completely dismantled. There are some experts who fear that Kahn & Co. could surreptitiously resume business if the fledgling government gets distracted.

Finally there's al Qaeda and the Taliban operating relatively freely in the tribal lands. Mushie was never able to bring them to heel and he was Washington's boy, something that severely wounded his popularity and political survival. The new bunch seems intent on distancing themselves from America and, when it comes right down to it, there's really only one way to do that.

America keeps raising the notion of crossing into Pakistan to hunt down the terrorists and the insurgents but that's probably just noise. The US and ISAF are woefully understrength in Afghanistan as it is. Where would they get the megaforce it would take to try to tame the tribal homelands and purge them of the insurgents? That's really tough, forbidding territory and any infidel who seeks to take it on will be fighting more than the insurgents. They'll have to fight the tribesmen themselves and they are genuinely tough customers.

There seem to be no good answers on how to deal with Pakistan. Perhaps with infinite patience, and perseverence and solid groundwork, some breakthrough may yet be achieved, eventually. And yet the Bush administration's recent courting of India has created an enormous setback in relations with Pakistan.

What we ultimately achieve in Afghanistan may well depend on Washington's ability to sort out its problems with Islamabad. Don't hold your breath.

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