Desperate for good news, the Obama administration was full of joy this month playing host to the presidents of Afghanistan and Pakistan in Washington.
The media were fed a narrative of hope. Pakistan, under its new president Asif Ali Zardari, was reported to have moved onto the offensive against the Taliban. For its part, Afghanistan, under a reinvigorated President Hamid Karzai was prepared to cooperate with Pakistan in defeating “violent extremists”, the term Obama uses instead of “terrorists.”
The CNN interrupted its program to broadcast live a declaration by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. The “important news” was that Pakistan and Afghanistan had agreed to sign “a document” to advance the war against “violent extremists.”
Then followed a series of interviews with the usual “talking heads”, an army of “experts” who hailed the “great success” achieved by Obama and Clinton where Bush and his “cowboy diplomacy” had failed.
The “talking heads” asserted that, for the first time in years, news from “Afpak”, the term designed to describe the Afghanistan-Pakistan landmass as a single unit, was encouraging.
A closer examination, however, could reveal a different picture.
Karzai and Zardari may have been taking the Americans for a ride in the same ramshackle vehicle of promises that had taken the Bush administration nowhere for years.
The “historic document” initialed live on television, turned out to be a memorandum of understanding, the lowest form of diplomatic commitment. Even then, the MOU was not about fighting “violent extremists”. It merely committed the two sides to resume talks about a transit agreement to boost trade. Those talks started in 1965 after a border clash between Afghanistan and Pakistan that ended thanks to Iranian mediation. Interrupted and resumed on numerous occasions for 43 years, the talks led nowhere because neither side accepted the other without qualms.
Since 1947, when Pakistan came into being, no Afghan regime has been willing to recognize it as a permanent fact. For years, Afghans refused to extend diplomatic relations to their new neighbor.
Even after recognition was granted, Afghans refused to demarcate their borders with Pakistan in accordance with the so-called Durand Line, the frontier fixed by a British army officer when the Indian subcontinent was part of the empire.
The Afghan ruling elite, consisting mostly of feudal Pushtun families, dreamed of annexing the tribal areas of Pakistan where some 12 million fellow-Pushtuns lived. The Pakistanis called those areas “The Northwest Frontier Province”. To the Afghans, it was “Pushtunistan.”
The largest ethnic community in Afghanistan, Pushtuns account for 38 per cent of the population. If joined by their brethren in Pakistan, the Pushtuns would become 65 per cent of Afghan population.
The Pushtun ruling elite in Kabul feared a loss of its dominance. The rapid demographic growth of Tajik, Uzbek and Hazara ethnic communities intensified that fear.
Pakistan, for its part, has always regarded Afghanistan as part of its glacis in an existential struggle against India.
Lacking geographical depth, Pakistan needs Afghanistan as a corridor to Central Asia, a massive landmass where fellow Muslims form a majority. A hostile Afghanistan would provide one arm of a pincer the other arm of which is India, with Pakistan caught in between.
Pakistan backed the Afghan Mujahedin because the USSR was an ally of India at the time.
A Soviet-controlled Afghanistan would have created the pincer that Pakistan feared. When the Soviets withdrew, however, elements of the Mujahedin supported by India and Iran, and to some extent Russia, came to power in Kabul. Again, Pakistan felt excluded and threatened.
The Pakistanis retaliated by creating the Taliban and, after four years of fighting, managed to win control of 95 per cent of Afghanistan. Then came the 9/11 attacks against the United States. This time the Americans overthrew the pro-Pakistani regime in Kabul, again leaving Pakistan excluded from Afghanistan.
Karzai has continued the traditional Afghan policy of excluding Pakistan.
The Americans did not notice, but Karzai underlined that position dramatically only days before flying to Washington. He did so by naming his two vice-presidential running mates for the August election.
One is Qassim Fahim, a former Tajik Mujahedin commander with close links with India. The other is Karim Khalili, a Shi’ite Hazara leader regarded as Iran’s principal ally in Afghanistan. This means a triumvirate in which Kazrai is America’s man while his two deputies reflect Indian and Iranian influences in Afghanistan. Thus excluded, Pakistan has no interest in helping stabilize a situation in which its two regional enemies, India and Iran, dominate Afghanistan thanks to American military support.
Pakistan needs the Taliban as its only instrument for influencing Afghan politics. This is why President Pervez Musharraf, never really wanted to crush the Taliban. And this is why Zardari would not do so either. Musharraf always started some kind of military action against “violent extremists” before flying to Washington to ask for more money from the Americans. Zardari has done the same. As soon as he is back from Washington with a new cheque, the campaign against “violent extremists” will grind to a halt.
The US has no particular interest in excluding Pakistan from Afghanistan and favoring Indian and Iranian influence in Kabul.
The only way to persuade Pakistan to crush the Taliban is to end its exclusion from Afghanistan and help it regain some influence in Kabul. Karzai could have made a gesture of goodwill by naming a pro-Pakistani politician as one of his two running mates. He did not.
And, judging by the present shape of his Cabinet, if re-elected, he will forge a coalition of pro-American, pro-Indian and pro-Iranian figures, again excluding Pakistan.
Pakistan can crush the Taliban but would have no reason to do so as long as it fears geopolitical isolation.
The tripartite summit of Obama, Zardari and Karzai in Washington solved nothing because the American side wanted trompe-l’oeil diplomacy. It wanted good news, or semblance of good news, to use for taking another dig at the “cowboy Bush.” It got what it wanted. Thus, “violent extremists” might think Washington is more interested in how things look rather than how they are.
Amir Taheri’s new book ” The Persian Night” is published by Encounter Books in New York and London