Pakistan: a precarious balance

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The decision to re-open the NATO supply routes through Pakistan to Afghanistan was not unexpected. Historically, Pakistan’s powerful military establishment, wielding tremendous influence even during periods of ‘democratic’ rule, has been a willing partner of US imperialism, and the current war in Afghanistan is no exception. For all the sound and fury that accompanied the suspension of NATO’s supply routes after a US?attack killed 24 Pakistani soldiers in November, it was neither a principled stance against US aggression nor a response to domestic opposition to drone strikes and the Afghan war. It represented an attempt by Pakistan’s military establishment to reinforce its bargaining position in the context of a likely US withdrawal from or reduction of forces in Afghanistan.

If ten years of war in Afghanistan have made one thing clear, it is that the most powerful military the world has ever seen has failed in its attempts to conquer the country. While it is certain that the US will attempt to maintain a presence in Afghanistan to safeguard its interests, either through the establishment of permanent military bases or the manipulation of puppet governments, it is also clear that it will be unable to sustain its current level of military involvement in the country. The question of what will fill the space left by the withdrawal of the US lies at the heart of the decision to close, and re-open, the NATO supply routes.

Since independence in 1947, the Pakistani military establishment has been paranoid regarding the security threat posed by India. Fuelled by the on-going conflict in Kashmir, the spectre of Indian aggression has been used by the Pakistani military to justify both its disproportionate share of the national budget and its continuing role in politics. The Pakistani military has, since the 1980s, looked to Afghanistan as a source of ‘strategic depth’, providing territory, resources, and support in the event of any war with India. Following the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1989, (Pakistan having provided the Afghan mujahideen with training and funding), the Pakistani military used its extensive links to different mujahideen groups in order to ensure that political outcomes in Kabul matched their strategic objectives. For this reason Pakistan supported the rise of the Taliban in the 1990s.

When the Taliban government was dislodged by the US/NATO invasion of Afghanistan, the Pakistani military was faced with a dilemma; it could either continue supporting its proxies in Kabul and thus run the risk of incurring US wrath, or abandon its carefully cultivated assets and support NATO instead. It has become clear that the Pakistani military chose to pursue both options. On the one hand, it has provided the US with supplies, military bases and intelligence. On the other hand, it maintained links to groups like the Haqqani network, recently blamed for a string of high-profile terror attacks in Kabul. Even as the Pakistani military undertakes brutal military operations against Islamic militants in the north-west of Pakistan, it continues providing safe havens and support to similar groups operating in Afghanistan.

This position of both supporting and undermining the US war effort in Afghanistan appears contradictory. It makes sense in the context of the Pakistani military’s strategic vision. Officially, the Pakistani military disavows any connection to militant groups in Afghanistan, claiming that their presence in Pakistan is a result of an inability to control the restive Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) that border Afghanistan, and which have historically existed beyond the writ of the government. In reality the Pakistani military establishment, which has relied on Islamic political parties and militant groups to support its political aspirations, is hedging its bets.

The US has little choice but to continue working with Pakistan, given its proximity to Afghanistan and involvement in its domestic affairs. By using aid to gain collaboration, and threatening withdrawal of this same aid, the US has made effective use of Pakistan’s dire financial situation to ensure its compliance. Where this has failed, drone strikes in the FATA, combined with covert operations such as the one that killed Osama Bin Laden, are used to achieve the US’s strategic objectives in Afghanistan.

The relationship between Pakistan and the US is based on a precarious balance, with both pursuing divergent paths in Afghanistan, while simultaneously being constrained by the need to co-operate with each other. In this context, the suspension of the NATO supply routes was just another round in a strategic game wherein Pakistan and the US attempt to extract further concessions from each other regarding the post-invasion political shape of Afghanistan. Meanwhile, thousands of people in Pakistan and Afghanistan pay the price in blood for these imperialist machinations.

Hassan Javid

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism 228 August/September 2012

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