This month marked the 12th anniversary of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, when a handful of deluded extremists, working out of Afghanistan and Pakistan, transformed the world into a much uglier place.
A dozen years on, Osama bin Laden is a memory and the US military is on its way out of Afghanistan. But there is little evidence to suggest that the political outcome has made the region, much less the wider world, any safer. On the contrary, the political landscape is now scarred by clashing strategic interests that threaten to bring back the bad old days of ground zero.
Already we have seen a month-long flare-up between Indian and Pakistani troops along the disputed border in Kashmir, breaking a decade-long ceasefire that had endured even after the murderous Lashkar-i-Taiba rampage through Mumbai in November 2008.
A meeting two weeks ago between the Indian and Pakistani foreign ministers, in Kyrgyzstan, promised to restore a chilly peace along the so-called Line of Control, and should yield a meeting between the prime ministers, Manmohan Singh and Nawaz Sharif, on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly general debate, beginning tomorrow.
Optimists might argue that a renewed confidence-building process between the nuclear-armed South Asian rivals can now be hoped for, and would be guided by game-changing understandings reached behind closed doors in the summer of 2006.
Those deals were never signed, because of subsequent domestic political events. But now Pakistan is being nudged in that direction by China, its closest ally and India’s major rival, as part of a joint diplomatic project between China and the US. This is happening even though the US has otherwise been courting India as an ally against China in the broader rivalry for influence in Asia.
Such diplomacy serves to highlight the dangers of the emergent Great Game by demonstrating how the competing major powers need to work together, even at the risk of appearing self-contradictory, to manage the fault-lines that their rivalry has exacerbated, not to say created.
It is a flimsy veil. Pakistan is convinced that India is working with the US-backed Afghan government to give Pakistan a hostile western border that, paired with the Indian border on the east, would trap Pakistan in a geostrategic pincer. It is similarly convinced that the spy agencies of the two countries are supporting Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and Baloch nationalists waging insurgencies in areas bordering Afghanistan.
Similarly, India has genuine reason to dread the outcome of the West’s withdrawal from Afghanistan. A widely predicted Taliban return to power would embolden militants to take their fight back to Kashmir and the rest of India.
Pakistan’s spy agencies have been rattling that sabre since last month, with dormant anti-India militant groups, including the Lashkar-i-Taiba, not only returning to public prominence, but also being given the unofficial go-ahead to re-recruit erstwhile members.
Ordinarily, that would have set alarm bells ringing in Washington and elsewhere. But it has not done so, because political expediency has created justification for direct US talks with the Taliban.
So, whereas Pakistan was being lambasted for playing both sides a couple of years ago, now it is being asked to bring the Taliban to the table. Thus Pakistan’s recent release of Taliban leadership figures, detained just a few years ago in response to immense US pressure, is now considered a step towards a negotiated settlement in Afghanistan, rather than as state support for terrorism.
The ugly situation that is emerging became clearer on September 14 when Pakistan’s de facto foreign minister, Sartaj Aziz, said in a television interview aired that day that the Afghan Taliban would be asked to encourage the TTP to end its insurgency.
All of the above is supposed to create a consensus in favour of compromise for the sake of coexistence. If the headlines were to be taken at face value, Afghanistan would be on its way to becoming a country of highly autonomous provinces, with power shared in Kabul. In turn, confidence would grow between India and Pakistan and they would eventually sign a diplomatic agreement to overcome six decades of hostility. Subsequently, the militants threatening all sides would repent, surrender or else simply melt away.
But this cheerful scenario makes huge assumptions about the militants – the biggest one being that they will be prepared to make deals and stick to them. That challenges the clearest single lesson that resounds from previous bouts of the Great Game: in Afghanistan, power players do not assume permanent positions or sides.
The Taliban may very well work with Pakistan to facilitate the safe departure of US-led combat forces from Afghanistan next year, but if so, it will do so only because this will suit its immediate ends. That’s why it has repeatedly declared it has no enmity with the American people and no interest in waging war beyond Afghanistan’s borders. It may even eventually disown Al Qaeda to secure the American military exit.
But what then? Odds on, the Taliban and Kabul would eventually be at each other’s throats with blood-curdling ferocity, with each side covertly supported by rival regional states and any other country with a vested interest in Afghanistan. That is a very long list, indeed.
A renewed Afghan civil war would draw in militants from all over, to gather under the standard of a rebranded Al Qaeda.
That builds the argument for a negotiated peace. Unfortunately, it also demonstrates that only the departing US forces are keeping Afghanistan from once again becoming the world’s terrorist nursery.
Tom Hussain is a freelance journalist based in Islamabad