"We cannot tolerate in any sense the idea that [Pakistan] is allowed to look both ways and is able . . . to promote the export of terror, whether to India or whether to Afghanistan or anywhere else in the world." Both the content and the location of this sentiment - voiced by Britain’s prime minister David Cameron on 28 July 2010 during his visit to India - ensured that it would provoke a strong backlash among both domestic political opponents and Pakistani government spokespersons. But if much political and media reaction depicted it as an error, the context and rationale of the statement suggest otherwise.
The immediate high-level response certainly gave the impression that Cameron had blundered. Pakistan’s lead intelligence agency cancelled a planned trip to Britain, and its foreign ministry summoned London’s high commissioner for Pakistan to receive an official reproach. Pakistan’s president, Asif Ali Zardari, came under intense pressure at home to cancel his proposed five-day visit to the United Kingdom on 4-8 August in protest at a perceived insult - a sentiment which was then reinforced by devastating floods across much of Pakistan, which led many citizens to accuse him of abandoning the country during a national emergency.
The balance of judgment of the furore - perhaps reinforced by earlier and later factual slips over the United States and Iran - indeed seems to be that Cameron’s inexperience and lack of understanding of the complexities of Pakistan and south Asia led him to commit a “gaffe”. Another view, however, suggests that both his comments and their place of delivery were well considered; and that they reflect real insight into the regional dynamics as they pertain to the US and Nato’s forthcoming drawdown in Afghanistan - arguably the British prime minister’s number-one foreign-policy challenge.
The Pakistan calculation
Some positive indicators notwithstanding, the coalition effort in Afghanistan is not going well. The killing of ten aid-workers in the northeastern province of Badakhshan on 6 August 2010, though more likely the result of banditry than of insurgent action, is but one illustration of the fragility of the current situation.
The four main planks of Nato’s transition strategy are each in some difficulty. The creation of a strong and unified Afghan national army and Afghan national police able to hold the country together is faltering; the US-led counterinsurgency (COIN) strategy has stalled in Kandahar; the Afghan government is surrounded by allegations of corruption and vote-rigging; and the process of the reconciliation and reintegration of the Afghan Taliban is making little headway.
Despite all this, the US and Nato appear to be preparing for their departure from Afghanistan. To many observers with longer memories, the Rolling Stone magazine article which led to General Stanley McChrystal’s sacking and the WikiLeaks revelations of American military communications recall the publication of the Pentagon Papers in 1971 and the wider atmosphere of civil-military turbulence in the United States which presaged the ignominious withdrawal from Vietnam.
But the coalition forces cannot “just” leave: the fact that so much western blood and treasure has been lost in Afghanistan means that Washington, London and other Nato allies are looking for a positive narrative in Afghanistan to tell their publics which can provide the political cover for disengagement. The key to that narrative, the US and UK now believe, is Pakistan (see "Pakistan and the 'AfPak' strategy", 28 May 2009).
Pakistan is the one state which can in principle advance four desirable objectives: deliver at least some elements of the Afghan Taliban to the negotiating table; help create and stabilise a more inclusive political settlement in Afghanistan which accommodates the Afghan Taliban and other Pakistani proxies like Gulbuddin Hekmatyar; encourage the Afghan Taliban to distance itself from al-Qaida; and host residual US bases in the region (such as the one at Shamsi, in Pakistan's southwestern province of Balochistan), thus enabling the US to maintain downward pressure on al-Qaida.
America and Britain have no illusions about the fact that Pakistan wields a strong hand in Afghanistan. The Pakistan army chief-of-staff General Afshaq Kayani and the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) director General Ahmed Shuja Pasha have made a series of visits to Kabul to meet Hamid Karzai, and have already had some success in influencing the appointment of the head of Afghanistan’s national directorate of security [NDS]. Pakistan has been involved in tentative discussions with the Haqqani network, with Hekmatyar’s group, and with members of the Quetta and Peshawar shuras. It has also cleared the way for the extradition to Kabul of Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, detained by the ISI in late January 2010, almost certainly with the aim of brokering a deal with moderate Afghan Taliban elements. At the same time the Pakistan army has reportedly been assisting the transit of Punjabi Taliban elements into the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) to strengthen its militant proxies.
Pakistan thus sees itself positioned as the key arbiter of the transition in Afghanistan, which will allow it both to ensure its interests are met and to seek to shape the nature of the US’s continued engagement in the region (in turn ensuring that the US does not again abandon Pakistan, as it did in 1989). It is precisely Pakistan's imminent ascendancy in Afghanistan which triggered the British prime minister’s intervention.
The fear of the United States and United Kingdom is that Pakistan may seek to maximise its dominance in Afghanistan in the years ahead in order to exclude all Indian influence and reassert itself as the de facto master of its neighbour (see "The Pakistan army and the Afghanistan war", 25 November 2008). The anxiety is that this will create the conditions on the ground either for civil war in Afghanistan or for renewed Indo-Pakistan conflict. The reasons for such a worry lie in the very different stakes for India in Afghanistan than those which were at play in 1989.
The Indian factor
Over the past twenty years, India has emerged as a dynamic rising economy whose fortunes are now dependent on the energy supply-lines from or through the middle east and central Asian states. Afghanistan is geo-strategically poised between these two regions, and Pakistani control of Afghanistan creates a powerful choke-hold on India, reinforced in turn by the vast Chinese-built port at Gwadar on Pakistan’s Balochistan coast (which has the potential to threaten India’s strategic waterways).
India - which has no contiguous border with Afghanistan, and which cannot project significant military power at distance into Afghanistan - thus faces a stark strategic predicament (see Kanchan Lakshman, "India in Afghanistan: a presence under pressure", 11 July 2008). Its options, in a situation where it is perceived to be pushed to the wall, are limited. They include revivifying the Northern Alliance to recreate a violently contested space in Afghanistan, which may shore up at least some of India’s interests; and pressuring Pakistan through Kashmir (and the main Pakistani rivers, which rise there and on which much of Pakistan depends). But both of these options are pathways to conflict.
In this context, David Cameron’s remarks in Delhi - which are likely to have been coordinated with Washington - can be seen in part as a statement of reassurance to India that its interests matter and align with those of the west. More importantly, they can also be seen as a strong signal to Pakistan that it should not overplay its hand in Afghanistan, and a warning that it should exert influence on the Afghan Taliban - by using its direct links, and by applying meaningful military pressure on the movement - so that the latter comes to play a constructive role in a plural transitional political settlement.
General Kayani, whose opinion matters far more than that of Pakistan’s President Zardari in relation to Afghanistan, has to find the political courage to limit Pakistan’s objectives in Afghanistan. India in turn could significantly encourage that by once again opening up the political space around Kashmir, and by working with the United States, Nato and Pakistan to underwrite a stable settlement for Afghanistan.