The Merchants of Rawalpindi

I thought this was an interesting piece by TOI; I don’t have strong opinions on it either way.

January 2, 2018 Sunil Sharan

Wow, the new year began with the ruler of the world’s sole superpower castigating only one of 190+ nations in the world. What is it about Pakistan that makes Trump see so much red? And when Trump gets mad at the Pakistanis, why do so many policymakers in India do a high five?

Trump is mad at the merchants of Rawalpindi because they won’t let him extricate himself out of Afghanistan in one piece. But they didn’t put him in Afghanistan in the first place. You could argue 9/11 did, but someone amongst America’s best and brightest should have realized that her country should not get dragged into Afghanistan.

But America then was not being ruled by its best and brightest. And the same ruler, Bush Jr., for reasons of his own, decided to take his eye off the ball in Afghanistan and focus it on Iraq. Empires that have previously entered Afghanistan have remained completely focused on it, but have barely made it out alive. Actually, only the Brits did. The Soviets left it with rigor mortis.

What chance then was there for the Americans to win on both fronts? Instead, they got roasted in Iraq, and the roasting was slower but as sure in Afghanistan. The truth is the Americans made multiple mistakes in Afghanistan: (a) Enter it in the first place, (b) Count on the merchants of Rawalpindi for support, (c) Have no senior US general resign in protest when Bush Jr. entered Iraq so as to turn American public opinion against that war, and (d) Have substandard leadership in Afghanistan, including and especially the rockstar general who was sharing classified information with his “mistress”.

The American powers that be–the civilian as well as the military leadership–completely failed them in Afghanistan. And then there is a crucial difference between Vietnam and Afghanistan. No Vietnamese came after the US after the Americans ravaged Vietnam. In Afghanistan, the story has only just begun.

That story is what the Americans most terrified of. They could easily up and leave. But they just can’t leave Afghanistan without guaranteeing that people will not come after them. Which is where the merchants of Rawalpindi come in.

The merchants of Rawalpindi have played a shrewd, shrewd hand. They put their country on the line to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan to gain strategic depth there. They got the strategic depth that they wanted. Post 9/11, when the Americans approached them, they adopted a more wait and watch policy than they did against the Soviets.

They would shelter the Taliban. They would shelter al-Qaida. The widespread use of drones made them realize that the Americans did not want to suffer any more casualties in combat. Bin Laden’s capture and its aftermath resulted in a lot of American huff and bluster but otherwise had very few negative consequences for them. They knew now that they could get away with pretty much anything.

Trump’s belligerent ranting and Pence’s fawning-in-support ranting and Mattis’s matter-of-fact ranting might scare some civilians in Islamabad, but to the merchants of Rawalpindi, this is all empty thunder. The merchants care about protecting both Hafiz Saeed and the Haqqanis. The Americans couldn’t care less about Saeed. Didn’t the US Congress distinguish between the two so very recently to give hundreds of millions of dollars to the merchants.

The last time the merchants did the Americans a big favour in Afghanistan, the Americans cast them aside. This time the merchants are determined to get their pound of flesh. Start with India. Start with Kashmir. Get the Americans to support their claim over Kashmir. And support doesn’t mean just empty support. You want us to stop the Taliban coming after you; you guarantee that Kashmir will come to us.

The Americans have purportedly asked the Indians for ground support in Afghanistan. But India is firm: no boots on ground there. India is willing to tackle the fallout from Afghanistan–the Afghan jihadis, the Pakistanis, the Chechens, the Uighurs–on its own territory but will not take them on in a foreign land. Without boots on ground in Afghanistan, India has hardly any say in the Afghani end-game.

The merchants of Rawalpindi are smart. More often than not, they have put their institution, the Pakistani army, above themselves and played a consistent hand. The more Trump screams, the more they know that they have a winning hand. So new year’s was not an angry tweet from Trump to the merchants; it seemed like more a joyous happy new year greeting.

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