The Afghan endgame is nigh, but India and Pakistan, instead of calming the region, are playing cat and mouse. As America cuts and runs from Afghanistan, Pakistan exults, having defeated a superpower for the second time in a quarter century.
In 1989, it had, through the mujahideen, humiliated the Red Army. Emboldened, it redirected the mujahideen to Kashmir to unclasp it from India's grip.
India clung on, barely, but deployed half its million-man army there. The struggle between India's strong-arm tactics, and Pakistani infiltration, continues.
Post-9/11, the Americans forced a reluctant Islamabad to concentrate on its western front, away from India. In return, America poured billions into Pakistan, which, whenever it wanted more, would cough up a jihadi or two. Pakistan stridently denied knowing the whereabouts of bin Laden, Mullah Omar, and other Al Qaeda-Taliban leadership.
Bin Laden's discovery put paid to any pretense. What Washington's elite had concealed was laid bare for all, that almost all of the Al Qaeda-Taliban A-list had crossed over to Pakistan. Beyond succor, a grand prize beckoned them: the takeover of a country awash with nukes. They found elements of Pakistan's security establishment sympathetic to their cause. NATO's fury in Afghanistan, and parts of Pakistan, made ample the supply of jihadi recruits.
Pakistan had developed nukes primarily to thwart India. They had served their purpose well, balking India whenever the countries came close to clashing. Pakistan added sophisticated delivery, planes and missiles, to its arsenal. F-16s obtained from America would now deter America itself.
Islamabad believes that Washington, whose drone strikes are confined to outposts, would have targeted the whole country, but for the nukes. American officials had for long postured that Pakistan's nukes were safe, but have kept mum latterly. All along, Pakistan's army, which runs the nuclear program, has been scornful of outside interference.
But the army itself has become infected with jihadi elements. Bin Laden's killing made army chief, General Kayani, scurry from pillar to post to explain away the incursion. Kayani survived, barely, but only after warning the Americans that any repetition could result in a jihadi coup.
With 2014 approaching, the Americans have become desperate to make peace with the Taliban. But the Taliban are proving recalcitrant, and why not? They have faced a mighty gale for 10 years, without keeling over. Kabul is now in sight. Left with little option, Obama has been forced to turn to their collaborators, Pakistan.
India is aghast. Post-9/11 it had proffered military cooperation to America, but had been spurned because of Pakistan's about-turn toward NATO. In the intervening years, America had allowed India to build Afghani infrastructure, while, in deference to Pakistan, keeping it at arm's length from the new Afghani army. America's latest wooing of Pakistan puts in jeopardy all that India has invested in Afghanistan.
But the Americans, enervated, just want to cut the cord as quickly and painlessly as possible. Left isolated, can India cope? The main difference between 1989 and now is Pakistan's current fragility. Islamabad bets that once NATO leaves, and the Taliban returns to Kabul, its own chaos will end. But it could be wrong. Frankenstein, having been let loose, might be satiated only by devouring both Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Pakistan, while overwhelmingly Muslim, has distinct ethnicities residing in different states. Balochistan has been fermenting for decades. Khyber Pakhtunkhwa borders Afghanistan, and shares more affinity with Pashtuns there than with Pakistan. Sindh rebels against the mighty Punjab.
Despite its internal mess, Pakistan clamors for Kashmir. But India considers Kashmir a basinet, a buffer against China, Pakistan, even Russia. If it compromises there, it fears that Pakistan will further incite India's Muslims. Once Kashmir unravels, the rest of India might.
Pakistan has the upper hand now. To play peacemaker in Afghanistan, it wants America to resolve Kashmir. India believes that Pakistan is getting rewarded for its double game in Afghanistan. The Americans concur in private, but put their interests above all.
Stranded, India can only hope that Pakistan remains in flames. Pakistan has long alleged that India is abetting the insurgency in Balochistan. India firmly denies the charge, but being left with no option but covert action against Pakistan, it would be naïve not to do so.
Energy shortages are crippling Pakistan. India has ditched the gas pipeline from Iran, which runs through Pakistan, ostensibly to curry favor with the Americans, but also to deny the Pakistanis attractive prices.
Once America leaves the region, it is likely to batten down its own hatches. It would also like to dump Pakistan, as it did in 1989, but realizes that to forestall a jihadi takeover, continued engagement is more prudent. India, for the same reason, would not like to rock Pakistan's boat too hard. But both America and India are walking a tightrope. As Tolstoy reiterates in War and Peace, events follow a logic of their own. Pakistan may emerge calmer and stronger than before (bad for India), unstable like now (good for India), or jihadi (terrible for India and America). How it turns out will significantly impact the world.
Pakistan has always aspired to making a grand statement on the world stage. Well, the moment is upon us, and the world watches with baited breath.