The proliferation of punditry on Imran Khan’s emergence in Pakistan is in inverse proportion to any information available to the media on what, if any, appraisals have been made in South Block. In the absence of any hard information, the pundits are flying Basant kites in overcast monsoon conditions. Never, in my decades of journalism, has New Delhi been so short on information. But it is infra dig for pundits to betray a lack of information, knowledge or wisdom. So they pop up on every TV channel, look penetratingly into the camera and blurt out the earth-shaking truth: “We have to watch the Pakistan Army!”
The Pakistan Army, meanwhile, is playing the monkey between two cats — the United States and China. With Donald Trump and his “Deep State” apparently engaged in a savage fight to the finish, the balance of advantage must be seen to be with China. But the Chinese themselves are keeping their fingers crossed on the China-Pakistan economic corridor where India, at US prodding, may play the spoiler. Meanwhile, there are reports that thousands of Pakistan students, who in the past would have been westward bound, have entered Chinese schools of learning. Who knows, this may be the thin end of the wedge.
To block this hemorrhage, President Trump’s minions have rushed in to block any IMF relief to Pakistan and, to multiply the effect, raised India to “almost” Nato-level partner. In his first press conference, Imran Khan painted China in glowing colours as a role model.
Those who know Imran are quite firm that the new Prime Minister will be pragmatic. He will not seek to impose a moral code on his armed forces. But he will draw some very firm red lines and these red lines will stretch from Pakhtunkhwa right through Afghanistan, the arena of his political baptism and purgatory. That is where he cannot be seen to be striking deals. His political turf will turn to ash if he does.
The Punjabis among the peaceniks and the media are experiencing a reversal — they have lost all their contacts across the border. This is a pity because he should not be seen with the traditional Pathan-Punjabi prism. The brunt of the blowback from the Afghan war was borne by the Pathan region, true, but it was a national catastrophe. The crest that Imran rode was precisely this — all Pakistan’s anger at the Army fighting America’s war against the people it had trained as jihadis to expel the Soviet Union from Afghanistan. Over 40,000 Pakistanis were killed by the Pakistan Army and American drone attacks in these operations.
Let me fast forward to the latest American debacle in Syria and its possible impact on the AfPak region. Ever since the Russians landed in Syria to fight terrorism, the US-Israel-Saudi bluff has been called. They armed and financed Jabhat al Nusra, Al Qaeda and worse, but their town criers amplified these rogue elements as the Free Syrian Army. When almost all the mercenary Islamists had been caught with their trousers down, the existential question arose: what to do with trained terrorists?
When animal lovers in Britain forced an end to the traditional fox hunt, the impulse reached India’s southern hill station of Ootacamund too. The same question arose: what to do with hundreds of pedigree hounds? Good sense dawned, and the canines were kept in a deluxe kennel, then distributed among dog lovers. But what do the trainers do with terrorists, trained and tested in action, who have not only tasted blood but have begun to love it? Trained terrorists can only have one use — as assets against any Muslim society which the “trainer” wishes to destabilise — Afghanistan, Xinxiang, the Caucasus and so on.
I can quote at least two recent US Presidents to prove my point. In an interview to Thomas L. Friedman of the New York Times in August 2014, President Barack Obama made a startling admission. Asked why he had not ordered air attacks against the Islamic State, when it first reared its head, Mr Obama said: “That would have taken the pressure off Nouri al Maliki”, Iraq’s stubbornly anti-American Shia PM. In other words, the ISIS advance from Mosul to Baghdad was facilitated to oust Nouri al Maliki, an outcome the US was excitedly waiting for.
Mr Maliki had to be punished for the affront of not signing the “status of forces agreement” with the US. Eventually Mr Maliki was shown the door.
After having been briefed by the intelligence agencies, candidate Donald Trump told Jake Tapper of CNN: “Where do you think have billions of dollars worth of arms — and cash — gone in the course of our involvement in Syria? To the extremists, of course, I believe so.” He has not budged from this position.
What should worry Imran Khan is the next stage — the transfer of trained terrorists from Syria to northern Afghanistan. Iran’s Supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei told a Friday congregation in Tehran on January 30. “The US transfer of ISIS terrorists to Afghanistan is aimed at creating a justification for its (US) continued presence in the region.” More recently, Russia’s deputy foreign minister Morgulov Igor Vladimirovich told a high-powered gathering at the Raisina Dialogue in New Delhi: “ISIS fighters were being flown to northern Afghanistan”. The Afghan airspace is under the control of the US and the government in Kabul. “So who is responsible?” Mr Vladimirovich asked.
Islamabad, Beijing, Moscow are all persuaded that the Taliban will have to be part of the solution in Afghanistan. Will Washington, for that reason, pit itself on the opposite side? This will enflame anti-Americanism in the AfPak region. Remember, Recep Tayyip Erdogan rode a wave of popularity when he blocked US troops marching to Iraq in 2003 through Turkish territory. Israel attacked Mavi Marmara, a Turkish flotilla, on May 31, 2010 which aimed to provide relief to Gaza. Mr Erdogan’s tough anti-Israel stand further boosted his popularity sky high. This was the beginning of the powerful Turkish Army losing power to the civilian authority. Imran Khan considers Mr Erdogan as his role model. Do you get me?