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Pakistan rolls the dice, at what price?
   By Nayan Chanda

The long-simmering US-Pakistan tension has now produced a full-blown crisis. With the daring attack on the US embassy in Kabul mounted with Pakistani connivance, if not support, their fundamental discord over the future of Afghanistan is now public. The confrontation has also offered the Pakistani military an opportunity to recover from its humiliation over the bin Laden killing and strengthen its hold over the country riding on anti-American nationalism.

The extraordinary allegations by one of Pakistan's friends, Admiral Mike Mullen, that the recent attacks on the US embassy in Kabul and other top Nato targets were conducted by the Haqqani network, "a virtual arm" of Pakistan's ISI, have met with angry Pakistani condemnation and warnings against any retaliatory US ground assault. The series of attacks followed by the assassination of a key peacemaker, former Afghan President Burhanuddin Rabbani, are not isolated incidents. In the developing endgame, these may be the opening rounds for the final battle for control of Kabul - or at least warning shots across the bow not to cut out Pakistani proxies from the post-war government in Kabul. (Islamabad has publicly complained about US peace talks with Taliban elements without Pakistani involvement.)

Pakistan seems to have concluded that with the American withdrawal approaching, and beleaguered US President Barack Obama seeking re-election in a bitterly divided country, now is the time to play their aces for achieving their dream of 'strategic depth' in Afghanistan. The attacks may well have been planned to further demoralise an isolationist America into hastening its withdrawal. The rise of a friendly Islamist government in Kabul would thwart any Indian attempts to win influence. Its privileged position could also give Islamabad leverage with China as it seeks to exploit Afghanistan's rich mineral and energy resources. If indeed an anti-West Islamist regime takes over in Kabul, nothing could be farther from the goal that President Carter and Zbigniew Brzezinski envisaged when they began providing covert support to the Afghan mujahideen through Pakistan in 1979.

While Pakistan's fortune in Afgha-nistan is rising, it cannot hide the fact that the country has paid an enormous price in terms of human lives, international isolation, economic ruin and political instability. The show of solidarity by Saudi Arabian and Chinese officials in Pakistan is supposed to demonstrate the country's strength in facing down the US. In fact, Pakistani Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani's fawning praise of China and claim of eternal friendship - "Your enemies are our enemies and your security is our security" - merely highlights the country's isolation and abject dependence on a foreign power.

China has indeed been a steadfast friend, from diplomatic backing to supplying Pakistan with blueprints of nuclear weapons, ballistic missiles and fighter jets, and economic aid. But Pakistan ought to know that while China is happy to have a low-cost ally to hobble India's rise, it has its own global agenda. At critical junctures in Pakistan's history - like during the Indo-Pak wars of 1965 and 1971 - China has hidden behind rhetorical support and avoided costly entanglement. In 2008, though sitting on a pile of cash, China refused to offer credit to Pakistan, sending it on to the IMF. For all the flowery language of a "deeper than ocean" relationship, China's economic footprint in Pakis- tan remains tiny compared to the US, the country's largest aid giver. The loss of export earnings and remittances from the US that could result from an open rupture would be devastating for Pakistan.

Pakistan's other foreign backer Saudi Arabia too has provided vital support in bankrolling Pakistan's nuclear programme, paying for purchase of US weapons, and supplied subsidised oil. Saudi ministers' presence in Islamabad for security consultations does demonstrate their concern for the only Sunni country with nuclear weapons. But given the kingdom's own deep security ties and economic links with Washington, it is unlikely to support Pakistan's anti-Americanism beyond a point.

(Courtesy: The Times of India)




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