The attack on Sri Lankan cricketers in the middle of Lahore has injected a new urgency into Washington on how to “save Pakistan”. Some commentators such as Ahmed Rashid are calling for emergency infusions of financial assistance (what else?): greater in quantum than the $1.5 billion per year envisaged by the Kerry-Biden-Lugar plan and without any conditions attached. If the Obama administration allows itself to be scared into buying this argument, then it will be sending a very dangerous signal to Pakistan’s military-jihadi complex—every time you need quick, unconditional cash, just do something nastier than before.
Others are suggesting the traditional Pakistani solution—for the US to back a de facto military dictatorship that can arrest the slide into chaos. Because memories of the Musharraf regime are still fresh in the minds of the Pakistani people, a military coup will not only have to be bloodless, but it will also have to be nicely packaged—like the one by Gen. Moeen U. Ahmed in Bangladesh—as an interim national caretaker government with a mission to pull the country back from disaster.
Photograph: Fraidoon Pooyaa / AP
However, army chief Gen. Ashfaq Pervez Kayani might not want to take over just yet. That’s because the instability in Pakistan is intimately connected with the US-led war in Afghanistan and, specifically, to the pressure on the Pakistani army to fight against its own proxies. Last year, seven years after Pakistan signed up as the US’ frontline ally in the war against terror, Gen. Kayani was caught describing the Taliban-affiliated Haqqani militia as “strategic assets”. As the Obama administration completes a review of its strategy in Afghanistan and Pakistan, the big question in Gen. Kayani’s mind is what this means for the army and its strategic assets.
It is highly likely that Washington’s policy review will call for negotiating with the “good” Taliban. Good Taliban is, of course, an oxymoron. But it is also a label of convenience, using moral connotations to render realpolitik-driven compromises acceptable. For instance, in American minds, the term mujahideen brings back memories of the Afghan struggle against the Soviet empire. However, the term jihadist—which means exactly the same thing—describes evil terrorists who fly planes into high-rise buildings. Similarly, the “good” mujahideen are better known as Northern Alliance in India. To the extent that the term is used to wrap the insurgents whom the US negotiates with, the question then—for Gen. Kayani as much as anyone else—is just who gets anointed as the good Taliban?
So who might end up as the good Taliban in the coming months? Mid-level commanders of the militias fighting Western forces are one likely set of contenders—a combination of political accommodation, financial rewards and astute exploitation of inter-tribal rivalries might help distance them from their top leaders. Another set of contenders are the warlords (now called Taliban commanders) who might not share deep loyalties to the Al Qaeda leadership and the Pakistani establishment. How all this will fare is difficult to say, though the cards are heavily stacked against its success. Nevertheless, its course and outcome will determine Gen. Kayani’s political moves in Pakistan.
If the US decides to engage the type of individuals and groups that are backed by the Pakistani military-jihadi complex, Gen. Kayani is likely to want to quickly arrest Pakistan’s political unravelling. The army can then expand its own bargains with the Pakistani Taliban, and relieved of pressure, go back to being its usual self: wielding power, cornering economic opportunities and fighting India.
If, however, the designation of good Taliban does not square with the interests of the military-jihadi complex, then Gen. Kayani has every reason to wait and allow matters to worsen. For the bad Taliban will continue to hurt US forces in Afghanistan until Washington folds or quits. Pakistan’s military leadership very likely believes that the US cannot simultaneously accept the failure of a nuclear-armed Pakistan and the triumph of the insurgency in Afghanistan.
In any case, Pakistan will get increasingly Talibanized. Pakistani society remains powerless even when it is not in denial. The crisis is way beyond the capacity of the civilian politicians. As Ahmed Rashid concedes, “the real issue...is the lack of leadership in a country that teeters on the edge of chaos”. And the Pakistani army, after generals Zia and Musharraf, is not quite the Westernized force it used to be. Why should a future military dictator care if he is president of an Islamic republic, or amir-ul-momineen, of an Islamic state?
What does this mean for India? There is an urgent need for India to protect itself from the fallout of Pakistan’s Talibanization. This involves, first, ensuring that the Omar Abdullah government succeeds in ending the insurgency in Jammu and Kashmir. The new Union government will have to imaginatively wind down the visible security presence in Kashmiri towns and villages even as it strengthens vigilance along the Line of Control and within the state. Second, the internal security lessons of the 26/11 attacks on Mumbai must be learnt. And finally, India simply cannot continue the non-serious approach to political violence: There must be zero tolerance of vandals, rioters, sainiks of one form or another and terrorists.
On the external front, the only way to save Pakistan is to put it under international management. The US, to paraphrase old Winston Churchill, can be trusted to do the right thing after it has exhausted all other options. It is in India’s interests to see that it exhausts them fast enough.
Nitin Pai and Sushant K. Singh are editors of Pragati—The Indian National Interest Review, a publication on strategic affairs, public policy and governance. Comment at firstname.lastname@example.org