United states officials have been warned not to use the term ‘Afpak’ when they are actually in the greater South Asian region. The term may encapsulate what the Obama administration believes differentiates it the most from the previous US president, but Pakistan hates the term. It breaks the hyphen with India. And joins it at the hip – note the lack of punctuation – with Afghanistan.
Islamabad’s Afpak allergy is an indicator of the diplomatic minefield that awaits the US special envoy to the region, Richard Holbrooke. Washington has no illusions: Pakistan is the most difficult part of the strategy. Americans like Holbrooke, who have been visiting the country over the past several years, are shocked at what India’s neighbour is becoming. In Islamabad people are too scared to walk their dogs at night. Meeting local journalist contacts is a cloak-and-dagger operation.
The new Obama administration believes that turning Pakistan around is the key to bringing stability to Afghanistan. Holbrooke’s priority is to make the Pakistani military and civilian establishment scared when they look west, not when they look east. The recent wave of terrorist attacks in the Punjabi heartland have rattled the Pakistani establishment, both its military and civilian halves.
But the obsession with India remains overriding. A recent poll of urban Pakistanis shows that a majority of them believe India is behind the violence around them. An Islamabad diplomat says even the most educated assure him that many of the militants killed in the tribal areas are uncircumcised.
Until this maleficent obsession is somehow overcome, Obama’s Afpak policy will be stillborn. One, it means the Pakistani military will insist on supporting the Afghan Taliban, despite the cost at home. That is the only way the men in khaki will be certain that Pakistan won’t be strategically sandwiched between India and an unfriendly Afghanistan. Two, it will mean that resistance to the Pakistan Taliban by Islamabad will be half-hearted. The military will keep looking over their shoulder at India. Sections of society will delude themselves into seeing Baitullah Mehsud as a spearhead against India, rather than a pillager of Pakistan.
When Holbrooke says he sees a “critical role” for India within the Afpak policy, in strategic terms he’s talking about this obsession. His praise for India’s aid programme, especially because of its emphasis on small agricultural development projects in Pashtun areas, is genuine. But as the new US administration comes to grips with Afpak in all its, and with all its, demons, it keeps stumbling over Pakistan’s obsession with India.
Washington is on the hunt for anything and everything that makes Pakistan feel more secure about its environment. So it is talking with fringe Taliban leaders. It is giving Pakistan military aid – in part to bridge the trust deficit that has arisen, thanks to years of US sanctions. The State Department would like China to be more involved. And it would also like India to hold talks with Pakistan: Kashmir, cashmere, cricket, whatever. Old hands like Holbrooke know to ask that would ensure India won’t. Hence the careful avoidance of the K-word. What he will keep peddling: Indians need to understand that a Taliban takeover either in Afghanistan or Pakistan, or both, would be danger cubed. Implicit in this is that confidence boosters between India and Pakistan would, therefore, be in India’s interest. New Delhi doesn’t disagree, but dealing with Pakistan requires a mix of opportunity, courage and luck that hasn’t been around in New Delhi for some time.
Both countries are clear that much remains unclear about the state of Pakistan. How radicalised are Pakistan army officers? Who exactly are the Taliban? How resistant are Pakistani Punjabis to the idea of a Pashtun Taliban takeover? Neither country has any real idea. The answer is almost certainly a floating target. As Holbrooke complained to CNN, “I am very dissatisfied with the amount of knowledge that exists in Washington about our enemy.” Afpak special envoys are going to be regular visitors to India. They will come to educate and be educated. But most of all they will come because they are treating a patient single-mindedly obsessed with his neighbour.