Express Tribune | By Arshad Zaman | 1 July 2010
The expression “Af-Pak” that has gained currency despite belated efforts by the U.S. government to suppress it, has not been received well in Pakistan. This reflects probably a perceived slight in being de-linked from India (not that “Indo-Pak” was much liked), and linked to a “backward” Afghanistan (see Musharraf’s June 2009 interview to Der Spiegel). A more dispassionate consideration of what underlies the coining of this neologism, however, may persuade Pakistanis even if reluctantly to embrace rather than reject it.
Although the terms must have been in use for some time, the New York Times first reported Richard Holbrooke using the term in February 2008: “There is a theater of war, that I would call AfPak, with two fronts — an eastern front and a western front,… I believe that we will look back ten years from now and say that AfPak was even more important to our national security than Iraq.” A year later he elaborated: “First of all, we often call the problem AfPak, as in Afghanistan Pakistan. This is not just an effort to save eight syllables. It is an attempt to indicate and imprint in our DNA the fact that there is one theatre of war, straddling an ill-defined border, the Durand Line, and that on the western side of that border, NATO and other forces are able to operate. On the eastern side, it’s the sovereign territory of Pakistan. But it is on the eastern side of this ill-defined border that the international terrorist movement is located.” (See Holbrooke’s 8 Feb 2009 speech.) 1
Listen to Speech by Richard C. Holbrooke
This remarkable statement merits closer look, not for the claims it makes but for the presumptions it reveals. Before we do so, however, let us recall that over the last two hundred years, as Russia and Britain expanded toward each other in this region, peace was attained by agreeing to treat Afghanistan as a buffer state, with mutually accepted boundaries. In the south, under a one-page non-interference agreement signed in 1893 by H. M. Durand and Amir Abdul Rahman Khan, this boundary (Holbrooke’s “ill-defined” Durand Line) was demarcated in the 1890s, and constitutes the current internationally recognised border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. These arrangements led to almost a century of peace, that was shattered first by the Soviet, and then by the American, invasion and occupation of Afghanistan.
Where the Durand Line demarcated the boundary between British and Russian spheres of influence, the United States being a successor to both after securing Pakistan and occupying Afghanistan finds it superfluous. It constrains American schemes to “secure” the region, to serve as a base for the U.S. to confront Iran; to extend its influence north, toward the mineral and energy resources of central Asia (hedging in Russia and China); and south, toward the Arabian Sea, to secure its supply lines, to control the coastline overlooking the sea lanes out of the Gulf, and to dominate the Indian Ocean (restraining India).
This is a tectonic shift in the West Asian geostrategic landscape which merits attention from all countries in the region, including Pakistan. It has provided India with a supportive narrative for its long-standing support to Baloch separatism—as the “unfinished agenda of partition” as former intelligence official B. Raman put it in his July 2009 open letter to Indira Gandhi. It has also provided sympathetic Afghans with a powerful potential ally to their until now rejected claim over “Pakhtunistan”. In Pakistan, however, there has been little discussion of this newly imprinted fact in the American DNA that the Durand Line is “an ill-defined border” that the Americans, de facto, not longer recognise.
The United States is the sole hyper-power in the modern world and what it holds to be true—whether morally, intellectually, or empirically justifiable or not—must be dealt with pragmatically. A complex mix of American fears and desires has coalesced in the conviction that there is an essential instability in the present geopolitical map of the region that threatens the American homeland. To mitigate the contingent risks created by this conviction, the Establishment in Pakistan needs to craft ‘win-win’ solutions that enhance mutual security. Rather than rejecting “Af-Pak” thinking, it is time to examine however reluctantly whether a unified rather than a balkanised “Afpakistan” may not be more in the joint interest of all concerned? From the U.S. perspective, a unified “Af-Pak” military led by Pakistan may offer the only chance of a quick, secure exit with dignity from Afghanistan. The main challenge would be in crafting a mutually acceptable constitutional framework that guarantees local autonomy, without eroding the central authority needed to eradicate terrorism, quell insurgencies, and maintain order.
In Pakistan, however, the suggestion initially will be met negatively as a revival of the discredited idea of “strategic depth”—against an attack from the east. This is understandable for at the time this was proposed the risks attendant on seeking “strategic depth” were far higher than those in maintaining the status quo. Today, however, the contingent risks of inactive passivity may exceed those of pro-active efforts toward meeting these risks. The danger now is not of being denied strategic depth, but of averting an existential threat emanating from our Western boundaries.
To put it plainly, our utmost priority must be to protect our existing boundaries, but—let us pray this never happens—but if forced to choose between a Pakistan mainly on the left bank of the Indus river, or a unified Afpakistan extending way beyond the Durand Line, would we all not be better served by the latter option?
An abbreviated version of this article is appeared in the Express Tribune, on 1 July 2010.
- The current Wikipedia entry, based on World Wide Words is inaccurate; Ambassador Holbrooke made his remarks during the 45th Munich Security Conference on 8 Feb 2009 (not 2008). His speech was reprinted (by permission of the conference) in Hampton Roads International Security Quarterly, issue 2/2009 (not 3/2008). Both Wikipedia and World Wide Words have been notified, and may correct their entry. ↩
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