Supping with the devil

It Ain’t Working

US should stop propping up the Pakistani military

Brahma Chellaney Times of India December 18, 2008

US aid to Islamabad is now close to $2 billion a year, putting Pakistan on par with Israel and Egypt as the top recipients of American assistance. And on the eve of the Mumbai terrorist assaults, the US persuaded the IMF to hand a near-bankrupt Pakistan an economic lifeline in the form of a $7.6 billion aid package, with no strings attached. Despite such largesse, Pakistan is host to the world’s most-wanted men and the main Al Qaeda sanctuary. Recent polling shows that Osama bin Laden is more popular in Pakistan than ever, even as America’s negative rating there has soared.

Let’s be clear: US policy on Pakistan isn’t working, and unless Washington fundamentally reverses course, it risks losing the war in Afghanistan and making the West an increasing jihadist target, including the scene of Mumbai-style murderous rampages. After all, as the history of terrorism since the 1980s attests, innovative terrorist strikes carried out against Indian targets have later been replicated in the West. That includes attacks on symbols of state authority, the midair bombing of a commercial jetliner and coordinated strikes on a city transportation system.

The jihadists’ logic in employing soft-state India as their laboratory has been that if they can bleed the world’s largest democracy through novel and recurrent attacks, they perfect techniques for application against the tougher free societies in the West. If the terrorists can bring the developing world’s most-successful democratic experiment under siege, with the intent to unravel its secular and pluralistic character, it is only a matter of time before Western societies get similarly besieged. That the tourism ad’s “incredible India” is, in reality, little more than a miserable India — which presents itself as an easy target by merely craving international sympathy as a constant victim — does not detract from the danger that the Mumbai-attack masterminds have set up a model for use elsewhere.

Yet the US response, however positive in the diplomatic realm, has failed to recognize that the Mumbai attacks mark a potent new threat to free societies and that unless the masterminds are brought to justice, such cold-blooded rampages are likely to be carried out in the West. The alacrity with which the American media returned to the India-Pakistan hyphenation in covering the Mumbai assaults betrayed superficiality and old mindsets — a failing compounded by media organizations calling the attackers not terrorists but “militants” (like the New York Times) or “gunmen” (including the Washington Post). Diplomatically, it has been déjà vu — the US exerting pressure and Islamabad staging yet another anti-terrorist charade to deflect that pressure and pre-empt Indian retaliation.

Given the easy manner outlawed terrorist outfits in Pakistan resurface under new names, the US knows well that a ban on any group or temporary detention of a terrorist figure is of little enduring value. More Mumbai-type attacks can be prevented only if the masterminds are identified and put on trial and their sponsors in the Pakistani military-intelligence establishment are, with the help of Europeans, indicted in The Hague for war crimes. Yet, despite a broken Pakistan policy, the US seems reluctant to fix its approach. The reason for that is not hard to seek: US policy remains wedded to the Pakistani institution that reared the forces of jihad — the military.

Indeed, US policy is still governed by a consideration that dates back to the 1950s — treating the Pakistani military as central to the pursuit of American geopolitical objectives. As American scholars Lloyd and Susanne Rudolph have put it, “For roughly 50 years, the US destabilized the South Asia region by acting as an offshore balancer. Its actions allowed Pakistan to realize its goal of ‘parity’ with its much-bigger neighbour and to try to best that neighbour in several wars”. The more recent “de-hyphenation” of India and Pakistan was not a calculated US policy shift but the product of Pakistan’s descent into shambles and India’s notable rise after 1998. Under Bush, US policy simply went from hyphenation to parallelism. That has involved building strategic partnerships with and selling arms to both. For the first time ever, the US is building parallel intelligence-sharing and defence-cooperation arrangements with both.


The war in Afghanistan and the containment strategy against Iran have only reinforced the US dependence on the Pakistani military, despite mountains of intelligence indicating the latter is playing both sides — bolstering the Taliban and other terror groups while pretending to be a counter-terror ally. Instead of helping empower Pakistan’s civilian government to gain full control over the national-security system, including the nuclear establishment and the ISI, US policy acts as a stumbling block by continuing to prop up the Pakistani military through generous aid and weapon transfers, including bombers and submarines of relevance only against India.

For its own sake, Washington has to stop pampering and building up the military as Pakistan’s pivot. By fattening the Pakistani military, America has, however inadvertently, allowed that institution to maintain cosy ties with terror groups. A break from this policy approach would be for the Obama administration to embrace the idea currently being discussed in Washington — condition further aid to the reconfiguration of the Pakistani military to effectively fight terror and to concrete actions to end institutional support to extremism. If not, the US is bound to lose two wars — the one in Afghanistan and the other on transnational terror — while staying mired in Iraq.


The writer is professor, Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi. 


(c) The Times of India, 2008.

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