Disenchanted Allies

By the time this column appears Admiral Michael Mullen, US Navy and Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff, would have retired after a 43- year career. But, in his farewell testimony last fortnight before the Senate Armed Services Committee, he said something that has created virtually a storm all over Pakistan. It has forced the country’s feuding political parties to put aside their differences and stand solidly behind the armed forces. The religious organisations, whose clouts have been on a steady rise over recent years, are praying “Allah” to teach the Americans a fitting lesson. The Sunni Ittehad Council, an organisation representing the country’s Barelvi sect, has issued a statement saying, “the Pakistani government and the armed forces should start preparing to counter any possible American attack as Islamic law suggests ‘keeping the horses ready’ to counter any sort of foreign aggression.” Even the Pakistan government feels now so insecure that it is desperately impressing on China and Saudi Arabia to come to the country’s rescue.

What did Admiral Mullen say? Why is Pakistan so anguished? After all, Admiral Mullen has been widely perceived to be a great supporter of Pakistan and its causes. Let us see his statement, which, it should be noted, was essentially a brief on the happenings in Afghanistan from where President Obama has said to withdraw the American troops by the end of the next summer. While pointing out the gains that the Americans, along with their NATO colleagues, have made in southern and western Afghanistan of late and how they are marching ahead to take control of the areas in east, Admiral Mullen, however, admitted: “Other critical problems remain, problems that will undermine hard-won gains if they are not addressed. The fact remains that the Quetta Shura and the Haqqani Network operate from Pakistan with impunity. Extremist organizations serving as proxies of the government of Pakistan are attacking Afghan troops and civilians as well as US soldiers. For example, we believe the Haqqani Network—which has long enjoyed the support and protection of the Pakistani government and is, in many ways, a strategic arm of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence Agency (ISI)—is responsible for the September 13th attacks against the US Embassy in Kabul.

“There is ample evidence confirming that the Haqqanis were behind the June 28th attack against the Inter-Continental Hotel in Kabul and the September 10th truck bomb attack that killed five Afghans and injured another 96 individuals, 77 of whom were US soldiers. History teaches us that it is difficult to defeat an insurgency when fighters enjoy a sanctuary outside national boundaries, and we are seeing this again today. The Quetta Shura and the Haqqani Network are hampering efforts to improve security in Afghanistan, spoiling possibilities for broader reconciliation, and frustrating US-Pakistan relations.

“The actions by the Pakistani government to support them—actively and passively—represent a growing problem that is undermining US interests and may violate international norms, potentially warranting sanction. In supporting these groups, the government of Pakistan, particularly the Pakistani Army, continues to jeopardize Pakistan’s opportunity to be a respected and prosperous nation with genuine regional and international influence”.

What all this meant was that despite getting billions of dollars every year from the US and other NATO countries (estimated to be more than 30 billion US dollars over the last eight years), Pakistan was playing a double-game. Coming as it did on the heels of the disclosure about the official hospitality afforded to Osama bin Laden, this exposed the Pakistani military-intelligence elite as the most adroit double-dealing profiteer from terrorism in the entire region. It showed American prestige and resources being used, not to diminish the power of “rogue” elements in the Pakistani system, but to enhance and empower them. Naturally, the Americans are upset. Pressure is mounting on the Obama Administration to take Pakistan to task. Influential American law-makers and security experts have called for suspending all assistance programmes to Pakistan, including civilian aid; recalling the American ambassador to the US for consultations on future policies toward Pakistan; readjusting the US force structure in Afghanistan; immediately listing the Haqqani network as a “Foreign Terrorist Organization” ; stepping up drone strikes on Haqqani targets in Pakistan’s tribal areas; and reversing US withdrawal plans from Afghanistan.

However, if past is any indication, the US cannot abandon Pakistan all that easily. Throughout its history, which, in any case is not very old, Pakistan has always abused American help and assistance. It has always diverted developmental assistance towards the militarisation, including the nuclearisation, of the country. It is with the American money, given during the war against the then Soviet Union in Afghanistan, that Pakistan developed its nuclear weapons and missiles and paid enormously the Chinese in the process for designs, material and technology. And all this was justified by the Pakistani military elites on the pretext of fighting or preparing to fight India. The process continues even today. Americans were tolerating all this before, but now they are talking openly just because they are becoming the direct targets of the Pakistani duplicity in Afghanistan.   But still they have little choice. The Americans need access and on the ground intelligence to be able to go after Al Qaeda and Taliban forces on on either side of the Afghan-Pakistan border. They also need Pakistani routes to deliver military supplies to Afghanistan, as the alternative routes through Iran is not possible, given the present US–Iran relations, and those through Russia and Central Asian Republics such as Tajikistan are not attractive propositions, even though that may have to be looked at more seriously now. Importantly, if the Americans simply walk away by abandoning Pakistan, that could make the nuclear-armed government even more unstable — a terrifying prospect.

No wonder Admiral Mullen told the Senate Committee, “Despite deep personal disappointments in the decisions of the Pakistani military and government, I still believe that we must stay engaged. This is because while Pakistan is part of the problem in the region, it must also be part of the solution. A flawed and strained engagement with Pakistan is better than disengagement.”

The above reasoning is quite understandable. The problem, however, remains with whom, or which section of the Pakistanis, should America remain engaged. So far, it has been the Army, which is eating into nearly three-fourth of the American aid and assistance. And it is the Army, which is controlling Pakistan’s foreign policy and nuclear policy. It is the Pakistani Army which has made terrorism an instrument of the country’s foreign policy. And it is the Army, which has unmistakably dictated Pakistan’s policy towards Afghanistan, a policy that is least concerned about the democratisation of and peace and stability in Afghanistan but obsessed with reaping from there “India-targeted “ advantages.

Pakistan’s Afghan- policy has essentially three features. First, the Army wants Afghanistan as a vassal state of Pakistan (incidentally, the most hated country among the Afghans, as found out by a BBC opinion poll last year) so as to provide what it says strategic-depth against India. Secondly, it wants India (the most popular country among the Afghans, evident from the same poll) to eliminate all its presence that is in Afghanistan through the myriad developmental and socio-economic projects. Thirdly, the Pakistan Army wants the governmental power in Afghanistan exclusively used by the Pasthuns, who are easily vulnerable to Islamic fundamentalism and susceptible to the use of terror as a foreign policy, by totally keeping out 40 per cent of Afghans who are from Tajik , Uzbek and Hazara backgrounds.

Viewed thus, the real challenge before the Obama Administration is to convince by hook or by crook the Pakistani Army to   give up its needless India- phobia. Side by side, it must ensure that the US aid and assistance are utilised in promoting good governance and strengthening the civilian regime. At the moment, the government in Islamabad is subservient to the military in terms of power, clout, and authority, and it often seems that the civilian regime is doing the military’s bidding either voluntarily or through coercion. This must stop.

Can the Obama regime do this? I think it is the best time to cut the Pakistan Army to size. Without American assistance, Pakistan economy will collapse. Neither China nor Saudi Arabia is in a position to annoy the Americans at the moment and become Pakistan’s saviour, something the Pakistan Army is desperately working for. If Washington fails to utilise the present opportunity, it means that the US and Pakistan were, are and will always remain “disenchanted allies”, to quote former American diplomat Dennis Kux.

By Prakash Nanda

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