The Bizarre South Asian Power Game

One bloody rule of South Asian strategic affairs is that when your enemy is down make sure that you start kicking hard because it will be the same when his turn comes. Pakistan is down right now, its Inter Services Intelligence agency coming under attack from all sides.

The United States is leaving ample room for equivocation but is still leaking ample “evidence” of Pakistan’s duplicity in its fight with the war on terror. Meanwhile, India is doing its own kicking by doing all it can to escalate its strategic profile in Afghanistan, something that infuriates Pakistan to no end.

The fact of the matter is that Pakistan is duplicitous, but so is the United States and so is India. As long as the United States has remained in Afghanistan, since November 2001, to be precise, it has acted like a novice about the bloody strategic affairs of that region. There are some principles that the US either doesn’t know or appears to be ignoring.

First, India and Pakistan hate each other’s guts. India’s decision to acquire nuclear weapons and emerge as a major military power has a lot to do with the shellacking its armed forces received at the hands of China in the 1962 border war between the two. Similarly, Pakistan’s decision to emerge as a nuclear power has a lot to do with India’s sole participation in the dismantlement of East Pakistan.

Second, Pakistan, like Israel, has never internalized the fact that it will be around as long as other nations. Except in the case of Israel, there is no power in the Arab Middle East that can seriously pose an existential threat to Israel. Pakistan, on the contrary, is a lone wolf. It has no friends. Only China comes close to being called an all-weather friend. However, no country in the world is as pragmatic as China when it comes to international relations. What that means is that China would abandon Pakistan’s side in a heartbeat if or when it finds it appropriate to do so.?Third, thus, Pakistan has to depend on its own nuclear deterrence. However, in the aftermath of 9/11, one often hears Pakistan’s sustained fear that the United States and/or India would be highly interested in depriving it of those weapons. Whether such a development is possible is entirely different matter. But any scenario of a non-nuclear Pakistan also means it would be a supplicant of India. And no Pakistani government would allow the materialization of that scenario.

Fourth, in the post-9/11 era, Pakistan is watching with ample dismay (or even with horror) the growing strategic relationship between the rising India and the declining hegemon, which is desperately looking for strategies to maintain an upper hand over China. While the raison d’être of that partnership is focused on China; Pakistan is envisioning it exactly in the same manner as India would if the shoe is on the other foot.

Fifth, as the US-India strategic partnership becomes increasingly comprehensive, Pakistan envisages its own strategic options shrinking palpably. For instance, that partnership has a lot to do with India’s boldness about escalating its strategic presence in Afghanistan, a place where Pakistan has long committed itself in the name of seeking “strategic depth.” Because of that development, Pakistan finds itself relying on its age-old tactic of relying on its Islamist card to terrorize India in Afghanistan, a tactic that it has long used in the Indian-administered Kashmir.?However, the Afghanistan of 2011 is not the same place it was in the 1980s, when Gen. Zia Ul-Haq declared his own doctrine of strategic depth. There is a new sheriff in town called the United States, which thinks it can change the bloody rules of South Asia. Whether it can or not is not relevant. The fact that it thinks it can is emboldening India into escalating its strategic profile in Afghanistan. India’s media reported on June 1: “At a time when Pakistan is constantly attempting to increase its presence in its western neighbor, India Wednesday committed itself to the capacity-building of Afghanistan’s armed forces by promising to continue training the country’s security personnel.” Thus, the chances are high that the politics of Afghanistan involving India and Pakistan will be bloodier in the coming months.?For Pakistan the toughest aspects of its agenda are how to avoid becoming labeled as a “pariah” or a “rogue” state by the United States. The only reason it has avoided that is that the lone superpower needs Pakistan’s logistical help in providing war-related supplies to Afghanistan. However, Obama, unlike his predecessor, has bought into the Manichean view of his Vice President Joe Biden, who fancies himself as some sort of South Asia expert. Thus, Pakistan is constantly being given a heavy dose of “hard love” in America’s insistence on starting a bloody war with the Taliban of Pakistan, eradicating the “Quetta Shura,” eradicating the Haqqani group, etc. as a quid pro quo for continuing economic assistance under the Kerry-Lugar legislation.

In the meantime, Pakistan is watching the rising strategic profile of India in Afghanistan, while it volubly complains about India’s own alleged complicity in the destabilization of Baluchistan, which India denies. However, from Pakistan’s point of view this is the same India that gleefully presided over the dismantlement of East Pakistan. As India’s strategic profile in Afghanistan escalates, Pakistan’s fear of India’s role in escalating upheavals inside Pakistan also rises.

Given these types of developments, Pakistan has attempted to explain its American interlocutors the modalities of its security concerns. However, the naiveté that is so idiosyncratic of Washington’s involvement in South Asia is keeping it from completely understanding Pakistan’s security concerns. While it is perceived as being ignored by the United States, Pakistan is using the typical South Asian logic of doing unto your enemy before it does unto you.

Regarding Pakistan’s ISI, the chief reason why it is adamant about not buying the constant American pitch to demonize it is because that entity played an awesome role in creating the Taliban regime in Afghanistan in the mid-to-late 1990s. Once the United States leaves that country, Pakistan’s top military brass envision their ISI to play a similar role. The much-talked-about “rogue” elements of the ISI can be controlled when the Pakistani Army wants to do so. Right now it has no interest in upsetting the applecart of ISI when America’s own role in Afghanistan appears so unpredictable, increasingly governed by a US public that has grown weary of a 10-year war attempting to protect a corrupt government and showing little progress.

Bottom line, given the kind of cards the ever-changing strategic affairs of South Asia are dealing Pakistan, it is acting like a highly rational actor. It knows that, in the final analysis, it has to rely on itself. It is doing its best in that regard. And in that role, Pakistan is second to none.

Dr Ehsan Ahrari is the CEO of Strategic Paradigms, an Alexandria, VA–based defense consultancy and professor of national security and strategy at the Joint Forces Staff College in Norfolk, VA