May 28, 2012

The Chicago-Cairo-Kabul-Karachi trapeze

By C. Uday Bhaskar
The NATO Summit held in Chicago on May 20-21 under the leadership of U.S. President Barack Obama to deliberate on the future of Afghanistan may well be the tipping-point for the already strained U.S.-Pakistan relationship. Concurrently, electoral developments in distant Cairo and the deplorable actions of the Taliban in Afghanistan, where they poisoned a girls' school, point to the disturbing potential that lies ahead,  as certain inflexible and extremist ideologies ostensibly derived from Islamic tenets gain ground in state and society.

The implications of the Egypt elections will be particularly significant for west, central and southern Asia with its large Islamic demography, given the traditional leadership role that has been accorded to Cairo for the interface between religion and politics.

Chicago is relevant for the manner in which the U.S. and its allies-cum-partners -- a total of 50 nations -- reiterated their support to efforts to enable the Afghan people to re-build their future. While the U.S. and other International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) nations are committed to cessation of an operational role for their troops from 2014  (the new French President Francois Hollande has paid a surprise visit to Kabul and announced the withdrawal of his military by end 2012 ), there was a formal pledge of support till 2024 as the Afghan state acquires appropriate capacity to manage its own affairs.

This will be a daunting task given the enormity of the challenges that lie ahead -- political, economic, fiscal and security-related -- but President Obama asserted that this time around, Afghanistan will not be abandoned by the international community.

However, the Chicago summit was also marked by the slightly cold reception given to Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari. Pakistan has a critical and distinctive roe to play in the future of Afghanistan and the last time the global community abandoned that nation, the Pakistani military in Rawalpindi ensured the Taliban takeover of Kabul. But after the Osama bin Laden led 9/11 attack, Pakistan, under General Pervez Musharraf, became a front-line state (again) in the U.S.-led war against terror and even Kabul acknowledges the critical role that Rawalpindi can play – for good or bad – in the future evolution of Afghanistan.

Pakistan's ability to leverage events in Afghanistan is currently on display in the manner in which the U.S. and ISAF troops are vulnerable to the re-opening of the Karachi-Kabul logistic supply routes and Rawalpindi's refusal to do so after the drone attacks of November last that accidentally killed Pakistani troops.

Thus it was instructive that President Obama did not specifically mention Pakistan during his remarks at Chicago and the tension between the Pakistan military and the U.S. continues. Ever since the Abbotabad operation that eliminated bin Laden in May 2011, the Pakistan military has lost institutional credibility both within the country and with external interlocutors. The Pakistan military, with its Musharraf-Kayani refined strategy of hunting with the U.S. hounds and running with the "jihadi" hare, has defied both domestic and global pressure to come clean on this issue. Paradoxically, as if to prove a point and cock-a-snook at the U.S., just a day after the Chicago summit, the Pakistani state sentenced to 33 years of imprisonment the doctor who had provided the vital information about bin Laden's whereabouts.

Public opinion within Pakistan is dismayed and as the Daily Times noted in an editorial comment: "Being a coalition partner in the war on terror, it was one of the responsibilities of Pakistan under international law and the UNSC's mandate to find bin Laden. However, instead of feeling pleased that one of its citizens has helped reach the target, it has been treating Dr. (Shakeel) Afridi's effort as treasonous. This is not only appalling but also unjustified. It reinforces the suspicion that OBL's presence in Abbottabad was not a secret for the Pakistani intelligence agencies."

This remains the critical conundrum – when and how will the Pakistan military GHQ in Rawalpindi take the corporate decision to sever its links to terror groups? This is as significant for Kabul, as it is for Delhi, whether it is the Haqqani or the LeT. Here President Zardari is a mere spectator and it is General Kayani who is in the drivers's seat about the future orientation of Kabul.

The post-Chicago fallout was even more deplorable and daunting for the international community led by the US. On Wednesday (May 23) more than 120 Afghan girls in a school were exposed to poisonous substances that were sprayed in the Bibi Haji school in the Takhar province of Afghanistan. Taliban insurgents are deemed to be responsible for this attack on girls as young as 10 years old. As per Taliban writ, schools for girls are forbidden.

The contestation between the Taliban ideology that  allows attacks of this nature in the name of religion and the forces of progress and tolerance as represented by President Karzai will be played out over the next few years -- and Pakistan can tilt the scales in a definitive manner. Will the deep-state in Pakistan, with its nuclear arsenal, support the ideologies and fervour that led to the assassination of Punjab Governor Salman Taseer in January 2011 -- and by extension the same elements in Afghanistan -- or support the more tolerant and inclusive socio-political arrangement that is equitable and sustainable?

This is where current developments in Egypt and the final political outcome in Cairo acquire relevance for the Muslim-inhabited belt of Asia. Preliminary results from the historic post-Tahir square Egyptian election point to a  tense stand-off between Mohammed Mursi of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood and Ahmed Shafiq, ousted President Hosni Mubarak's last Prime Minister. Will the Islamic spectrum of  Egyptian politics be able to realise the socio-economic aspirations of its citizens -- or will they revert to a more inflexible Taliban-like orientation if they come to power? These are complex questions but the non-linear linkages from Chicago to Cairo will impact the extended swathe from Karachi to Kabul over the next few years as the region oscillates between today's turbulence and the elusive tranquility of tomorrow.

(C. Uday Bhaskar is a strategic affairs analyst. He can be reached at


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