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Review: Pakistan’s Enduring Challenges

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In view of perennial volatility and momentum witnessed in the Afghanistan Pakistan theatre, any significant addition to the ongoing discourse on the region is meted with equal interest and anticipation. Pakistan’s Enduring Challenges, an edited volume put together by acclaimed area experts, Christine Fair and Sarah Watson is an important work that exhaustively debates the daunting, complex challenges Pakistan is expected to face in future, especially post-NATO withdrawal from Afghanistan. As the international forces wind up their mission, a largely inconclusive war, the book presents a detailed projection of Pakistan’s possible future trajectory. The contributors to the volume almost unanimously acknowledge that incessant collusion with militant outfits and blatant encouragement to sanctuaries on its soil has backlashed on Pakistan’s internal security situation.

The edited volume is divided into three parts – part I deals with the security risks for Pakistan, part II ascertains the evolving domestic realities – their relative impact on the country’s security dilemmas, and part III focusses on Pakistan’s external engagements, both in the near region and beyond, including its premier ally for decades, the United States. The predominant interplay of US–Pakistan ties have been key to war in Afghanistan. Therefore, the central arguments in the book are pegged on the US announced withdrawal from Afghanistan and how it would impact Pakistan’s fate. The current span of US engagement in Afghanistan has been a roller coaster – intense policy contemplation fluctuating between whether to maintain residual presence in the country and the much debated troop surge (that was later agreed upon before the international forces prepare for the final exit towards the end of 2014).

All this while, Pakistan has been the centre of gravity in the US mission in Afghanistan – an indispensable player in the war on terror. While optically Pakistan allied with the international forces to obliterate the Taliban-led fundamentalist forces from Afghanistan, concurrently it evolved as the axis of terror and militancy by strengthening its ties with similar groups active on its soil. In due course, the US-led international forces became exasperated with the vicious cycled war effort. In sheer desperation to exit Afghanistan, drone strategy employed in the Afghanistan–Pakistan region also backfired and, hence, proved yet another strategic folly. Meanwhile in May 2011, Osama bin Laden being traced and killed in Pakistan’s cantonment town Abbottabad was perceived as a watershed moment as Pakistan stood completely exposed on its intention towards dreaded transnational militant groups. However still, Pakistan presently stands at the security crossroads with myriad social, political and complex security challenges. Domestic quagmire including a shaky economic landscape, energy woes constitute the state of contemporary Pakistan.

Pakistan’s perennial hobnobbing with religion oriented, fundamentalist militant proxies is directed towards securing a dominant strategic niche in Afghanistan and unleash a relentless war against India in order to settle the Kashmir score. In this regard, the book delves into specifics by drawing categories of militants operating inside Pakistan: majority of such groups find their origin in the Deobandi sect while other belonging to the Ahl-e-Hadith like the Lashkar-e-Taiba are collectively referred to as the Punjabi groups even as there existed between them several strands of divergence (p. 29). Other differentiae can be based on three loci of the groups’ respective geographical area of strategy and operation, ideological orientation, for instance, India, Afghanistan or religiosity and sect driven agendas of militant groups  (pp. 30-7). Joshua White posits that that the US withdrawal is likely to be welcomed across the militant spectrum in Pakistan. However, the ensuing vacuum will also present its set of challenges. Post US withdrawal, devoid of a ‘compelling shared narrative for Jihad’, the militant groups will face imminent challenge to redemarcate their core objectives and yet again redefine/distinguish distinct identities and future strategy course (p. 55).

Simultaneously, the book makes a detailed commentary on the prospects of Pakistan’s relations with the United States once it exits Afghanistan. As noted above, most of the articles in the edited volume juxtapose the depressing scene inside Pakistan against the US withdrawal from its western neighbourhood to assemble a future scenario for Pakistan where the US involvement will be considerably scaled down. Alluding to instances in history, the narrative attempts to evaluate whether the US drawdown will bring about a significant shift at the bilateral level. There is a thinking reflected whether ties between the two countries may withdraw/revert to the conventional pure politico-diplomatic model as against military engagement/cooperation towards rooting out the threat of militancy. Over the years since 9/11, US influence on Pakistan seems to have diminished. However, there is a surge in anti-US sentiment within Pakistan which rides high on perceiving the United States not only as the enemy of Islam but as ‘infidel occupiers’ in Muslim states (p. 245). Contrary to a generic conclusion that the resultant anarchy in Afghanistan after the United States steps back would create an opportunity for Pakistan’s reversion to old strategy of seeking a niche in the unstable region, Paul Staniland argues that disengagement from a costly war would rather afford the United States a ‘strategic breathing place’ (p. 218) without impacting much its ties with Pakistan.

The collection of essays in the volume by formidable area experts is useful addition both in terms of content and analysis. It arrives opportunely when international withdrawal process in underway whilst animated debate gauging the optimal level of engagement in Afghanistan, one that could safeguard international security interests and prevent the ill-fated country from falling yet again in the trap of fundamentalist forces. The essays moot essentially on the premise that there is an indelible link between the level of US presence in neighbouring Afghanistan and its likely impact on Pakistan’s trajectory. Barack Obama, during his presidential campaign, had used the reductionist binary – a wrong war in Iraq and the right war in Afghanistan. Nonetheless, much of his focus in later years was trained to devise a graceful exit from Afghanistan. The security situation in Pakistan and Afghanistan are inextricably linked. For the United States, the challenge lies in preserving and balancing its strategic ties with Pakistan and at the same time to be able to coerce it to uproot militant outfits. Militant proxies in Pakistan have counter-produced multiple challenges for US goals in Afghanistan. Similarly, engaging terror networks, the so-called strategic assets, instead of serving Pakistan’s vital security interests, has rather pushed the country further into the abyss of uncertainty and turmoil. Such repercussions have been internally realised within Pakistan, spurred mostly by a small but credible civil society constituency. However, no near solution claiming to stem the proliferating militant network is yet in view – one that could conclusively eradicate/neutralise active militant breeding grounds. More importantly, there is bigger dilemma on whether total disengagement with militancy is indeed a viable option for Pakistan.

Prefaced by the harsh reality that Pakistan has nurtured militant proxies for decades, most sections in the book emit a bleak sense of future affairs. However, towards concluding pages, the volume sifts a note of optimism regarding Pakistan by mentioning the first ever, rather peaceful transition from one civilian government to another back in May 2013 general elections.

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