Page 1 of 2 Triangulating an Asian conflict
By Chan Akya
One of the more predictable turns during any US presidential election year is
the sheer speed with which issues of longer-term strategic importance are
quietly subsumed by a global media fed a steady diet of soap-operatic drama on
the candidates, their spouses, born and unborn children and so on. By no means
am I throwing stones while sitting in a glass house though; this is more of an
introspective comment on the realities of the supply and demand for newsworthy
In 2000, it was all about the drama about the election battle between George W
Bush and Al Gore, not to mention the post-election vote-capturing behavior of
the US Supreme Court. Never mind that the US economy had slipped into a
recession following the bursting of the dot.com bubble or that al-Qaeda was
expanding its control of the Taliban even as the latter itself was engaged in a
final push against the Northern Alliance and its charismatic commander, Ahmad
Shah Massoud. The costs of ignoring those developments are still being felt
around the world.
The 2004 election perhaps went against that trend - and readers can disabuse
that notion by pointing out the big emerging stories that were not given
serious importance in that election, such as the debacle in the conduct of the
Iraq occupation - but this time around certainly looks like a replay of 2000.
This observation is based on my read of major global online newspapers for the
past few weeks; and pertains especially to the apparent indifference with which
three major trends in Asia are being treated.
Even as the media feverishly debates the paternity of the Republican
vice-presidential candidate's granddaughter and the difficulties associated
with sitting through an Obama speech without either dancing or dozing off,
these important Asian stories are being relegated to the back pages. The first
of these stories gets some coverage, but perhaps without any comprehensive
analysis of its longer-term ramifications; the second and third are virtually
missing from all media.
These stories are: firstly, the encirclement of Pakistan; secondly the
resurgence of Han nationalism and thirdly the trend towards Hindu fanaticism.
Readers will argue that the Pakistan story has been given sufficient importance
in global media, and especially in American newspapers. A cursory examination
of the coverage though shows a morbid fascination with character analysis (or
assassination) of the major players, namely ex-president Musharraf, putative
president-elect Zardari and PM-in-waiting Nawaz Sharif.
As the reasonably quick exit of Musharraf showed, none of these players
actually matter in the current situation. Increased lawlessness on the border
with Afghanistan, which prompted a US cross-border raid this week, is the story
with greater significance over the near term.
Some analysts have speculated that al-Qaeda is now firmly on the path of
securing nuclear weapons in Pakistan. The trifurcation of Pakistani politics on
the lines of the above three players still leaves out two important interest
groups, namely the army and Islamic fundamentalists. While the last two parties
tended to be part of the same continuum - as shown in the war against India in
1999 and even the terrorist attacks that followed - events since 2001 have
sundered the alliance. With parts of the army turning on its own al-Qaeda
sympathizers, there is no more trust between the two groups.
The abortive attempt on the life of the current Pakistani prime minister this
week was an indication of how close to the corridors of power the Islamic
fundamentalists are. It is even possible that this attempt was a warning shot
intended to present a fait accompli to Pakistani politicians: deal with
us or die.
Pakistan debt this week climbed to become the most risky credit across all
global sovereigns, a motley crowd of risky governments around the world that
includes Argentina (which seeks to refuse payment to external creditors) among
others. This dubious distinction signals the complete shutdown of external
funding for Pakistan, at a critical juncture when a slowing economy and foreign
portfolio outflows combine to make matters hard enough.
The Pakistani rupee has continued to fall dramatically even as the stock market
remains in limbo. The mounting problems on the market front highlight the firm
belief among external investors that be it the US or Saudi Arabia, there is no
likelihood of imminent assistance for Pakistan to address its mountain of
maturing debt obligations. Now more than ever, the temptation for rogue
government and military officials to threaten a violation of safeguards on the
country's nuclear weapons must rank very high.
Meanwhile in Afghanistan, areas outside Kabul that are under the control of the
Taliban will likely expand in winter months. The paucity of any new armed
commitment to that country by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO),
which now needs to make contingency plans to contain the Russian bear in its
own neighborhood, and the US (which thinks it has bigger problems in Iraq or
Iran depending on who you ask) means that by the time a new US president takes
office, the Taliban conceivably will be back in control of Afghanistan.
Bleeding on its western flanks and ever-watchful of its eastern border with
India, the Pakistani military has limited options. Cooperating with the US or
NATO is unlikely in the current political climate, which ensures that
increasing resources are misspent on the lost war pursuing al-Qaeda. Quelling
an internal rebellion - no military man actually wants to die in combat,
contrary to their popular image - would take an assumption of political power
once again in the country, with all the baggage this brings.
Taken to a logical extreme, the slippage of the Pakistani establishment to a
quasi-vassal relationship with al-Qaeda ideologues appears all the more likely.
Politicians will strike deals with extremist Islamic groups and seek to appease
their grievances; these range from the heavy handedness of Pakistani police
against the militant groups to the regrouping of madrassas across the
Meanwhile, the army is also likely to secure its own peace with the terrorist
groups by calling off intensive operations and allowing for a return of an
expanded Taliban state within Pakistani borders that calls the shots in
Afghanistan. I don't believe it will take more than year for the current Afghan
government to fall and make way for the Taliban when this happens.
The resulting theocratic state will be run essentially by today's al-Qaeda
reservists, with the added advantage of possessing nuclear weapons. As epitaphs
go, George W Bush could not wish for anything worse, but sadly this does seem
to his most likely legacy.
The increased attention that the world will give Pakistan from the beginning of
next year though brings a new host of challenges. The most reasonable
expectation would be for increased military intervention in the region to push
back the Taliban and along with it, the al-Qaeda sympathizers in the Afghan and
Geographically this would present serious obstacles, not the least because Iran
is likely to remain fiercely antagonistic to any strikes against military
targets in Afghanistan and Pakistan by Western powers. That leaves the northern
approach, where a resurgent Russia will complicate matters to no trivial
Simplistically put, the West will have to depend on the munificence of China
and India to control the pest that will be unleashed on their borders over the
near term. While China has less to fear initially as compared with India about
the expansionist aims of Islamic fundamentalists, it does have a sensitive
border problem in Xinjiang, which could present the Achilles' heel of its
non-interventionist policy with respect to Muslim issues.