On Sunday, a congregation of Sunni Muslim religious scholars in Lahore issued a fatwa making it obligatory for all Muslims to wage jihad against the US if the ongoing war of words between the US and Pakistan spills over into an armed attack on Pakistan.
The fatwa also declared it haram (forbidden) for the US to be referred to as a “superpower” since, in the scholars’ estimation, only Allah qualified for that honorific.
The maulvis were evidently perturbed by the recent escalation in US rhetoric against Pakistan, blaming the ISI for instigating attacks on US interests in Afghanistan, and for continuing Pakistani military patronage of the Haqqani network of the Taliban.
Not a day passes by without US sabre-rattling and military leaks to media groups recalling past instances of Pakistani double-crossing while appearing to cooperate with the US in combating terror. For instance, The New York Times reported overnight of a brazen attack in May 2007 by Pakistani forces on US military officers and Afghan officials following a dispute mediation effort in which Pakistanis were themselves participants.
Frothing at the mouth, a succession of media outpourings have now come to brand Pakistan “the Enemy” and “our deceitful friends”, pointing to Islamabad’s evident provision of a safehouse for Osama bin Laden as another telling sign of Pakistan’s perfidy.
Drawing a line in the sand, US officials, who had long played down Indian concerns about the ISI’s providing the terrorism infrastructure for jihadi groups operating against India, now say they will go after the Haqqani network unilaterally if Pakistan will not take assist.
Yet, even in the face of a near-certain US attack, Pakistan has refused to buckle down – and openly states that it will not go after the Haqqani network. It has even managed to procure a “certificate of franchise ownership” from the Taliban, claiming that it was the Taliban (and not Pakistan) that controlled the Haqqani network.
What accounts for Pakistan’s open show of bravado in the face of US arm-twisting?
The China card
Some analysts reason that Pakistan has been emboldened by the fact that it can play the ‘China card’ against the US and that a deepening and extension of the China-Pakistan strategic alliance into Afghanistan has ominous consequences for India.
Geostrategist and columnist C Raja Mohan, for instance, notes that:
“Since the mid 1950s, one of India’s biggest national security challenges has been the US alliance with Pakistan. It now appears that the breakdown of that alliance might have even bigger consequences for India.
“One is the prospect that China might replace the US as Pakistan’s principal ally. Rawalpindi’s current defiance of Washington can only be understood in terms of a rapid deepening of the China-Pakistan strategic partnership and a power shift away from the US towards China at the global and regional level.”
It is true, of course, that Pakistan has been desperately trying to play the China card against the US for a while now. Soon after the killing of Osama bin Laden, Pakistan protested the US violation of its territory, and secured a show of support from China, which said that:
Pakistan’s territorial integrity should be protected and that an attack on Pakistan would constitute an attack on China.
In recent times, in fact, Pakistani officials have been lobbying China for a defence pact, the better to thumb their nose at the US in times of tension such as this.
It is also true that China’s geostrategic interests are congruent with Pakistan in some areas. For sure, China uses Pakistan, its “all-weather ally” as a strategic hedge to contain India; it also needs Pakistan to secure access to the Arabian Gulf and to Central Asia.
But it is just as true that China is reluctant to step in as Pakistan’s overlord and paymaster, and would rather prefer to see that Pakistan bleed the US dry with all the military and civilian aid it receives.
For a start, although China resents the presence of US bases so close to its western frontier, it would also like to see jihadi elements in Afghanistan-Pakistan decimated, since they have organic links with the Uighur separatist movement in the Xinjiang region in China’s northwest.
And so long as the US is doing the dirty job and paying the price – in terms of money and soldiers’ lives – China is happy to use the US security cover to get on with mineral extraction projects in Afghanistan.
If the US withdraws fully, and Afghanistan once again becomes a hotbed of hostilities between the warring factions of the Taliban and the Northern Alliance, it could interfere with China’s resource interests in Afghanistan – and increase the risk of terror networks influencing the separatist movement in Xinjiang.
Which explains why China has thus far been a “reluctant superpower” – and declined to accept US President Barack Obama’s invitation, made during his 2009 visit to China, to contribute to Afghan security and nation-building.
To that extent, Pakistan’s efforts to play the China card against the US are fated to fail. Thus far, China has been aloof to the Pakistani request for a defence pact, and even former ISI chief Hamid Gul reckons it’s unlikely to come through.
In fact, it’s rather more likely that while offering public show of support for Pakistan, Chinese leaders will be privately counselling it to work alongside the US. Even US officials, after the initial bluster, are now dialling back their rhetoric. The Pakistani newspaper Dawn quoted US State Department officials as saying overnight that the US was now working “constructively” with Pakistan to resolve the dispute over the Haqqani network – and that “reconciliatory meetings” had been held in both Washington DC and Islamabad.
In a larger sense, however, the US can never hope to leave Afghanistan without wiping out the terror networks within Pakistan, at least some of which it had spawned in the war against the Soviet Union. That’s the jihadi trap it has fallen into.
That’s because even if the US withdraws from Afghanistan, global jihadi groups, who have already been sufficiently inflamed by US military actions in the Af-Pak region, will bring the war back to the US – as they did spectacularly in 2001.
As the Lahore meeting of the maulvis shows, the latent anti-Americanism in Pakistani civil society, including jihad groups, isn’t easily put out. Leaving Afghanistan altogether would gift jihadists another platform from which to target the harami superpower.
Which is why despite all the denials from US officials that they do not seek a permanent base in Afghanistan, the US will maintain a sufficiently high-profile presence in Afghanistan for long.
As Firstpost noted earlier, even a scaling down of the US presence in Afghanistan enhances the risks to which India is exposed in that country.
India’s interest in Afghanistan is centred around ensuring that Afghan territory isn’t used as a breeding ground for Pakistan-backed terrorists who would target India, as happened in 1999. That enterprise will, of course, be rendered more challenging in the event of a US troop withdrawal, and India will increasingly find itself drawn into expanding its security footprint in Afghanistan.
But the recent – and delayed – realisation on the part of the US that the Pakistani military and intelligence are hand-in-glove with terrorist groups inimical to both the US and India provides both countries a chance to coordinate their actions. If the US can deliver on its resolve to go after terror groups in Pakistan, it will have accomplished its unfinished business in Pakistan.