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Outmanoeuvred, Mr Musharraf?

Outmanoeuvred, Mr Musharraf?

Author: Mariana Baabar
Publication: Outlook
Date: November 26, 2001

Sidelined internationally, in trouble internally and unlikely to play a future role in Afghanistan, Musharraf's cup of woes is brimful

Never before in the last 52 years has Pakistan been left wringing its hands in anguish over a foreign policy debacle as it's doing now. With the Northern Alliance (NA) riding on US shoulders to occupy Kabul, and the Taliban on the run, it seems Islamabad's Afghan cards have been snatched away overnight. Pakistan now faces the grim prospect of isolation abroad and violent convulsions at home.

Indeed, the fast unfolding events in Afghanistan illustrate vividly the perils of leaving foreign policy issues in the hands of those who graduate from military academy. Witness Musharraf's confusing, changing rhetoric on Afghanistan - he first justified Islamabad's support to the Taliban because they represented the Pashtoons who also inhabit the Pakistan border areas. Close ethnic ties between the people of border areas and those in Afghanistan were cited as compelling reasons for Islamabad's policy.

Then came September 11 and Musharraf's about-turn, seeking only a role for 'moderate' Taliban in a post-Taliban government. Finding no takers for this nomenclature, Musharraf switched to moderate Pashtoons, provoking one Afghan leader to say: "There is no such thing as a moderate Pashtoon. Either you're a Pashtoon or you ain't."

Strategic thinkers feel Musharraf can do nothing now other than sit back and watch the cataclysmic changes in Afghanistan, precisely what he did during the relentless bombing of the last one month. Just how overwhelmed and helpless Islamabad feels can be discerned from what additional secretary at the foreign office, Aziz Khan, told Outlook: "We have no presence inside Afghanistan and so have no means of verifying reports about what is happening there. We rely completely on media reports."

It's a response in sharp contrast to what Pakistan had been doing in Afghanistan a few months back-providing military support to the Taliban, posting its spies in Afghanistan and selling Mullah Omar in every capital of the world. Last week, Islamabad's efforts came to naught, condemned as it was to watch the NA slaughter or arrest hundreds of Pakistanis in Afghanistan.

Musharraf's problems are now threefold. Should he stop the Taliban from pushing through the border towns of Chaman and Torkham to enter Pakistan? Should he take advantage of the "peace zones" (or areas the NA occupies) inside Afghanistan and pack off nearly three million Afghan refugees from Pakistan? Most important, should he seek US support in bringing about a rapprochement with the NA, which isn't expected to relinquish Kabul as easily as most international observers thought it would?

Much of Pakistan's future strategy now is closely linked to the Taliban's fate. Where will these armed fighters go, and what plans do they harbour? The News speculated in its editorial: "These fighters (Taliban and Arabs) are now going to spread out in droves, with weapons, to all neighbouring countries. Governments around Afghanistan have to gear up to this threat as it may take any shape, any dimension and any intensity. The raw students who left the madrassas in Pakistan five years ago are no longer immature, misguided children. They are now trained fighters who will roam around as headless chickens, an impression Mullah Omar himself conveyed in his desperate last message. Those who created the Taliban must now learn some hard lessons of such misadventures and prepare to 'welcome' these chickens, coming home to roost." In such a scenario, Shireen M Mazari, director - general of the Institute of Strategic Studies, suggests that Pakistan should first accept the limited nature of its alliance with the US.

Says she: "Pakistan needs to do a hard reality check and accept that the US goals in the region do not entirely coincide with Pakistan's, neither on the nuclear issue nor Afghanistan, beyond some basic premises." Mazari says there's no reason for Pakistan to formulate a new policy on the NA as India has invested so heavily in it that all attempts to appease its leaders and commanders would be futile. In the long run though, Mazari says Pakistan "should evolve a hands-off policy on Afghanistan, especially overtly. We need to learn some lessons from our pragmatic western neighbour, Iran".

Mazari, who is considered extremely close to army headquarters, says Musharraf's already under immense pressure to rein in obscurantist groups which sent Pakistani volunteers into Afghanistan and so are responsible for their deaths. As Mazari points out: "No matter how wayward one may consider the obscurantist fighting in Afghanistan, seeing any Pakistani being beaten up or seeing a Pakistani dead body lying on the roadside or being taken prisoner is upsetting. First, these obscurantist forces (read Pakistani religious parties) created confusion and trouble for Pakistan by getting embroiled with the Taliban. Now if the Taliban opts for a long-drawn-out guerrilla war, the state should take a firm stand on imposing the law of the land countrywide." In other words, Islamabad should desist from mollycoddling the radical Islamist parties.

The new situation in Afghanistan will also determine Pakistan's relations with nations bordering Afghanistan. Ties with these countries had soured due to different approaches towards bringing peace in that war-ravaged country. Islamabad will find it difficult to repair these now. Iran and Pakistan are on opposite sides over Afghanistan. Teheran now sees in the NA's spectacular march in Afghanistan a chance to bolster further its bases among the Shi'ite Hazaras. Pakistan's ties with Tajikistan and Russia have at the best of times been lukewarm.

Even in the Muslim world, Pakistan's reputation has taken a beating. Wary of its own Islamist movement, Turkey is delighted at Taliban's defeat and has, till date, refused to accept Musharraf's cards of moderate Taliban and Pashtoons. Islamabad's traditional ally, Beijing, too should feel delighted at the Taliban's rout. It had once sent a delegation to meet the Taliban leaders requesting them not to create problems on its northern borders. Spurned, Beijing voted in favour of UN sanctions imposed on Afghanistan.

So, where does this leave Musharraf? Says Shaheen Sehbai, editor, The News: "With absolutely no bargaining power for conducting a war against terrorism inside Afghanistan, the huge lever Islamabad had is gone. The US forces can now use any of the captured cities, including Kabul, to launch strikes against the Taliban and to dig out bin Laden. Sadly for Pakistan, the time to test the US promises of a 'long-haul' friendship has come even before we could start receiving some of the goodies. If Pakistan does not play its cards smartly, Islamabad and Musharraf may soon find themselves redundant for the outside world and engulfed in serious domestic turmoil." And Musharraf doesn't hold too many Afghan cards.

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