The NATO Summit held in Chicago on May 20 – 21 under the leadership of US President Obama  to deliberate on the future of Afghanistan may well be the tipping-point for the already strained US-Pakistan relationship. Concurrently  electoral developments in distant Cairo and  the deplorable actions of the Taliban  in Afghanistan  where they poisoned a girls school point to the disturbing potential that lies ahead, as certain inflexible and extremist ideologies ostensibly derived from Islamic tenets gain ground in state and society. The implications of the Egypt elections will be particularly significant for west, central and southern Asia  with its large Islamic demography, given the traditional leadership role that has been accorded to Cairo for the interface between religion and politics.

Chicago is relevant for the manner in which the US and its allies  cum partners – a  total of 50 nations – reiterated their support  to enable the Afghan people in re-building their future. While the US and other ISAF nations are committed to cessation of an operational role for their troops from 2014  (the new French President Mr Hollande  has paid a surprise visit to Kabul and announced the withdrawal of his military  by end 2012 ) – there was a formal pledge of support till 2024 as the Afghan state acquires  appropriate capacity  to manage its own affairs. 

This will be a daunting task given the enormity of the challenges that lie ahead – political, economic, fiscal and security related but   President Obama asserted that this time around, Afghanistan will not be abandoned by the international community.

However the Chicago summit was also marked by the  slightly cold reception given to Pakistani President Zardari . Pakistan has a critical and distinctive roe to play in the future of Afghanistan  and the last time  the global community abandoned that nation,  the Pakistani military in Rawalpindi ensured the Taliban takeover of Kabul. But after the bin Laden led  9/11  attack, Pakistan under General Musharraf became a front-line state (again) in the US led war against terror and even Kabul acknowledges the critical role that Rawalpindi can play – for good or bad – in the future evolution of  Afghanistan.

Pakistan’s  ability to leverage events in Afghanistan is currently on display in the manner in which the US and ISAF troops are vulnerable to the re-opening of the Karachi-Kabul logistic supply routes and Rawalpindi’s  refusal to do so after the drone attacks of November last that accidentally killed Pakistani troops.

Thus it was instructive that President Obama did not specifically mention Pakistan during his remarks at Chicago  and the tension between the Pak military and the US continues. Ever since the Abbotabad operation that eliminated bin Laden in May 2011, the Pak military has lost institutional  credibility both within their country and with  external interlocutors.  The Pak military with its  Musharraf-Kayani refined strategy of hunting with the US hound and running with the ‘jihadi’  hare,   has defied both domestic and global pressure to come clean on this issue. Paradoxically, as if to prove a point and cock-a-snook  at the US,  just a day after the Chicago summit, the Pakistani state  sentenced the doctor who had provided the vital  information about bin Laden’s whereabouts to 33 years of  imprisonment.

Public opinion  within Pakistan is dismayed and as the Daily Times noted in an editorial comment: “Being a coalition partner in the war on terror, it was one of the responsibilities of Pakistan under international law and the UNSC’s mandate to find bin Laden. However, instead of feeling pleased that one of its citizens has helped reach the target, it has been treating Dr Afridi’s effort as treasonous. This is not only appalling but also unjustified. It reinforces the suspicion that OBL’s presence in Abbottabad was not a secret for the Pakistani intelligence agencies.”

This remains the critical conundrum – when and how will the Pak military GHQ in Rawalpindi take the corporate decision to sever its  links to terror groups ?  This is as significant for Kabul,  as it is for Delhi whether it is the Haqqani or the LeT.  Here President Zardari is a mere spectator and it is General Kayani who is in the drivers’s seat about the future orientation of  Kabul.

The post Chicago fall-out  was even more deplorable and daunting for the international community led by the US.  On Wednesday (May 23) more than 120 Afghan girls in a school were exposed to poisonous substances that were sprayed in the Bibi Haji school in the Takhar province of  Afghanistan. Taliban insurgents are deemed to be responsible for this attack on girls as young as 10 years old. As per  Taliban  writ, girls schools are forbidden.

The contestation between the  Taliban ideology that   allows attacks of this nature in the name of religion and the forces of  progress and tolerance as represented by President Karzai will be played out over the next few years – and Pakistan can tilt the scales in a definitive manner. Will the  deep-state in Pakistan  with its nuclear arsenal support the  ideologies and fervor that led to the assassination of Punjab Governor Salman Taseer in January 2011 – and by extension the same elements in Afghanistan  - or  support the more tolerant and inclusive socio-political arrangement that is equitable and sustainable ?

This is where current  developments in  Egypt and the final  political outcome in Cairo  acquire relevance for  the  Muslim  inhabited belt of Asia.  Preliminary results from the historic post  Tahir square  Egyptian election point to a    tense stand-off between Mohammed Mursi of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood  and Ahmed Shafiq,   ousted  President Mubarak's last Prime Minister. Will the Islamic  spectrum of  Egyptian politics be able to realize the socio-economic aspirations of its  citizens  – or will  they revert to a more inflexible Taliban-like orientation if they come to power ?  These are  complex questions but the non-linear linkages from Chicago to Cairo will impact  Karachi and Kabul  over the next  few years as the region  oscillates between  turbulence  and tranquility.