One of the lessons of Empire is that, for a time, Great Power intervention can perform a pacifying role, dampen down regional security dilemmas and stabilise otherwise unruly regions but that - unless underlying tensions are resolved - old enmities quickly resurface once the intervening power retreats. The historical record is littered with examples. The rise of a particularly grizzly form of ethno-nationalism in the Balkans after the retreat of Soviet power is only the most recent, and the pattern may be about to repeat itself in Afghanistan. For all the talk about al-Qaeda, a stable and enduring peace can only emerge once Afghanistan is closed down as a theatre of strategic competition between India and Pakistan. And this can only be achieved when the issues that motivate and sustain that competition are resolved.

Many of the problems we are encountering in Afghanistan are a direct result of our failure to fully comprehend the local contexts in which Islamic militancy emerges. In the initial phase of operations, between 2001 and 2005, policy dealt in abstractions. The tendency was to abstract the country from its surroundings, gloss over the wider strategic aspect and treat the security and development challenge in isolation from the regional context. Wrenched out of its historical setting, the Afghanistan of our pre-2005 imagination was de-contextualised, isolated and abstract. Conceived solely as a battlefield in the War on Terror and given over wholly to the generals, for whom the imperative is battlefield success, rather than any wider diplomatic settlement or regional solution, any trace of nuance was obliterated from the analysis, the threat was framed in terms of a great explosion of irrationalism and revolutionary nihilism bent on the destruction of the West, and the possibility of a comprehensive solution quickly receded.

In the second phase, from 2005 to the present, this has been remedied somewhat by a new, enlarged strategic concept in which attention is paid to the Pakistan dimension of the conflict. The articulation of the new concept reached its highest pitch of technical sophistication around the time of the election of the new administration, when then Secretary-Designate Clinton first introduced the concept of Smart Power into the debate. A product of work at Harvard in the 1990s by former Assistant Secretary of Defence for International Security Affairs Joseph S. Nye Jr., the new concept was intended to put right some of the most glaring failures of the old diplomacy, in particular the balance between hard and soft power. As I have argued elsewhere, the aim was to move away from what the new administration regarded as President Bush's lopsided reliance upon hard power and achieve a more subtle blend of elements, to bring all the aspects of American power into the mix and restore some measure of balance to American diplomacy.

The problem is that the attempt to transition out of the War on Terror frame, to fully disaggregate the threat and arrive at a more balanced strategic concept simply did not go far enough and we are still not fully engaged with the core strategic issues. In South Asia, what is still treated largely in isolation and abstraction by the West sits at the centre of a web of interlocking and overlapping security dynamics. Situated at the intersection of four great historical civilisations, the AfPak theatre’s strategic location as a land bridge between South East Asia, the Middle East, the Subcontinent and Russia adds a layer of complexity not always fully appreciated in the popular imagination or, indeed, in the policy debate.

Properly understood, what we are facing in Afghanistan - and throughout the Greater Middle East - is a set of discrete challenges, for the most part rooted in longstanding disputes over territory and resources, and only loosely - if at all - connected to any wider narrative. Groups such as Al-Qaeda and the Muslim Brotherhood have had some success in weaving the disparate strands of the resistance movement together by Islamising the traditional discourse of anti-imperialism and developing an ideology around what they regard as ‘apostate’ regimes, but the larger truth remains: Islamic militancy in South Asia is wholly unrelated to the Levant, or to wider Middle East issues. It is a discrete phenomenon, local in origin, driven by Indo-Pakistan strategic competition, and if we want to construct a stable and enduring peace, it is to this dimension of the conflict that we must look.

This means developing what Richard North has called an ‘Indo-AfPak’ strategy or what - stripped of the jargon - is simply a comprehensive South Asia strategy. It means acknowledging that, though the primary challenge in Afghanistan and Pakistan is a development one, encompassing processes of politics and economy and long term, large-scale processes of nation-building, you cannot begin to address the development challenge without moderating the security competition between India and Pakistan. Pakistan’s entire regional policy is driven by the security competition with India. Its cultivation of a pan-Islamic identity, its hedging strategy, its reluctance to confront radicalism or dismantle the madrassas - each element of its regional policy can be traced back to its strategic competition with its great rival to the South. It is because security is scarce along this, the primary axis of confrontation in the region, that resources in Pakistan are directed away from social welfare programmes such as education towards the military, the madrassas and the intelligence services, resulting in an overly-militarised civic culture that sustains the conflict and makes any transition out of the security competition that much more difficult.

So how to resolve it? Well, at a minimum, Pakistan will have to stop stoking separatist sentiment among India’s restive Muslim population. For its part, India must undertake to respect the integrity of the Pakistani state and end its policy of interference in the tribal areas. Beyond this, a mix of security guarantees, non-aggression pacts, and some resolution of Kashmir will obviously have to feature in any settlement, but ultimately, and quite apart from the development challenge, Pakistan must simply be persuaded to abandon its futile attempt to gain strategic parity with India and to accept its natural place in the emerging regional order. The challenge is as simple, and complicated, as that. As the dominant regional power, the most natural solution is for the string of states along India’s northern frontier to accept Indian leadership in return for a mix of security guarantees, non-interference and non-aggression pacts. In effect, for India to exercise a benign regional hegemony. Bangladesh and Nepal seem happy with, or at the least reconciled to, this sort of arrangement, each acquiescing in what most analysts regard as the natural regional order. Similarly the states along the Southern rim - Sri Lanka and The Maldives - are not challenging for regional status. The high politics of the region remain narrowly bipolar, with only Pakistan standing apart from the developing regional consensus.

This has to end. Pakistan has indulged this fantasy for too long. Encouraged by both China and the West during the Cold War to aim for strategic balance with India, primed by deadly infusions of military aid, Pakistan has striven for a relationship with India that is, in reality, beyond it. And it is time it was bought to this realisation by its patrons in Washington and Beijing. Islamabad prides itself on its ability to sustain the conflict, fancying itself as something of a practitioner of the art of realpolitik. It needs to understand that aiming for strategic parity with India is not realpolitik, it is fantasy politics and the only antidote to it is a heavy dose of realism. Without it, without some semblance of a comprehensive regional strategy, without mechanisms to moderate the security competition between India and Pakistan, without a resolution of Kashmir, at most we are busy constructing a temporary peace in Afghanistan.

Further Reading:

As usual, Richard North is way out in front on this issue, having developed the argument for a comprehensive South Asia strategy in a series of posts over the last month, each of which include links to more material on the wider strategic dimension. You can read him here.
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