At Large

Aftermath of the Great Game

When Pakistan ponders Afghanistan it thinks India.

By 10.15.10

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For Pakistan's military and intelligence community, the 2,640 km border with Afghanistan always represents a vulnerability to attack by India. It may be hard for outsiders to understand, but Pakistan believes it is a strategic necessity that it control its neighbor to the north in order to prevent any possibility of an encircling attack by India.

When challenged with the claim that this is a strategy left over from the days of the "great game" of Russia against the British Raj or from the Cold War's alignment of India and Russia with China siding with Pakistan, the reaction among the Pakistani high command is swift and negative.

The Pakistan defense thinkers, usually retired generals, are quick to point out the construction of India's military air base in Farkhor, Tajikistan, as an example of India's encirclement strategy. They note also that India seeks an Afghan transit route for a projected Central Asian energy pipeline. Of perhaps more immediate concern tactically has been the opening of Indian consulates in Kandahar, Jalalabad, Heart, and Mazar-e-Sharif, providing an intelligence collection capability throughout Afghanistan. The Indian embassy in Kabul has returned to full operation after being bombed in July 2008, killing forty.

Ultimately, Pakistan's own intelligence apparat, Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), operates on the principle that President Hamid Karzai always will lean toward India as a result of his many political and economic contacts going back all the way to his years in an Indian university. It may appear counter-intuitive that Pushtun Afghan leaders such as Karzai would be biased toward India instead of Pakistan with its impressive Pushtun minority. But that, too, is the quixotic nature of tribal allegiances

General Ashfaq Kiyani, Pakistan's chief of army general staff, has referred to his country's need for "strategic depth" in order to maintain an effective defense capability against what he considers "Indian territorial ambitions." All of which brings into play the military and political logic that fears the creation of an American and Karzai government-engineered arrangement with the Taliban that excludes Pakistan's guiding hand.

This same logic has driven the seemingly purposeful motivation of the Pakistan military in not providing protection for the NATO supply lines traversing their country. Why would the ISI escalate its covert cooperation with Taliban elements by assisting in inhibiting resupply of NATO forces? The answer lies -- as it always has in Pakistani strategic thinking -- in the need to influence and control Afghanistan in order to counter perceived Indian strategic ambitions. Last week's blowing up of petrol trucks is a reminder that nothing can or should be done in that part of the world without Pakistan's approval -- whatever such action might be.

The threat of mutually assured destruction of both Pakistan and India as a result of both countries' nuclear weapon capability has not done away with their willingness to contest one another: it has simply turned the political military clock back to pre-nuclear days. It also places the hardest core of the Taliban-related factions in a pivotal position as a guerrilla reserve in any potential Northwest Territory border conflict with India. It's ISI's job to keep alive that relationship, and India is well aware of that fact.

The bigger question posed by this complex situation is whether the United States can afford to sacrifice its longtime close relationship with Pakistan in exchange for a dubiously secure arrangement between the government of Hamid Karzai and the "more moderate" elements of the Taliban without ISI participation. At least that is the question that has been implied by the Pakistani military leadership.

Gen. David Petraeus as CENTCOM chief was in a better position to deal with this deadly puzzle than he is now as simply ISAF commander. The Obama NSC team, of which General McChrystal complained, has been unable to negotiate the mountainous political terrain of Pakistan/Afghan affairs. Specific responsibility conveniently has been placed on military and civilian desks dealing with South Asia. The trouble is that no one on the working level of State, CIA, and the Pentagon has had the ability during this seemingly perpetual political season to get the attention of anyone who could comprehend and do something about the issues involved.

The odd thing is that the Pakistani brain trust thinks they have been quite clear in the signals they have sent. It shouldn't have taken dozens of burning petrol tankers or rehashed old stories of ISI's close associations with the Taliban to get Washington's attention. The bottom line in this equation can be stated quite briefly: India is now and always will be the first priority in Pakistan security matters. The most radical Taliban elements, such as the Haqqani network, are now and will continue to be most important to ISI.

Finally, until Hamid Karzai is willing to bow in the direction of Islamabad, Pakistan's military leadership and its civilian political followers will withhold their support for the Afghan president's initiatives for peace -- unless they can tilt them to their control.

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About the Author
George H. Wittman writes a weekly column on international affairs for The American Spectator online. He was the founding chairman of the National Institute for Public Policy.