Some sticks yet more carrots for Pakistan

A fundamental shift in the failed U.S. policy approach that has inadvertently turned Pakistan into Ground Zero for global terrorism seems unlikely despite the bin Laden affair.

Brahma Chellaney
The Hindu, May 6, 2011

For the United States, Pakistan poses a particularly difficult challenge. Despite providing more than $20 billion to Pakistan in counterterrorism and other aid since 9/11, the U.S. has received grudging assistance, at best, and duplicitous cooperation, at worst. Today, amid a rising tide of anti-Americanism, U.S. policy on Pakistan is rapidly crumbling. Yet Pakistan, with one of the world’s lowest tax-to-GDP ratios, has become more dependent on U.S. aid than ever.

While Americans rejoice over the daring helicopter assault that killed Osama bin Laden in his hideout in Abbottabad — the cradle of the Pakistan army — U.S. policy must recognize how its failed approach on Pakistan has inadvertently made that country Ground Zero for global terrorism. Rather than helping to build robust civilian institutions there, the U.S. has invested heavily in the jihadist-penetrated Pakistani military establishment. After dictator Pervez Musharraf was driven out of office, the new Pakistani civilian government ordered the ISI — the only spy agency in the world charged with sponsoring international terrorism — to report to the interior ministry, but received no support from the U.S. for this effort to assert civilian control, allowing the army to quickly frustrate the move.

No sooner had U.S. President Barack Obama assumed office than he implemented a military surge in Afghanistan. In Pakistan, however, he implemented an aid surge, turning it into the largest recipient of American aid. This only deepened U.S. involvement in the wrong war and emboldened Pakistan to fatten the Afghan Taliban, even as sustained U.S. drone and other attacks in Waziristan continued to severely weaken the already-fragmented Al Qaeda.

Make no mistake: the scourge of Pakistani terrorism emanates more from the country’s Scotch whisky-sipping generals than from the bead-rubbing mullahs. It is the self-styled secular generals who have reared the forces of jihad. Yet, by passing the blame for their ongoing terrorist-proxy policy to their mullah puppets, the generals made many in the U.S. believe that the key was to contain the religious fringe, not the puppeteers. In fact, Pakistan’s descent into a jihadist dungeon occurred not under civilian rule, but under two military dictators — Zia ul-Haq who nurtured and let loose jihadist forces, and Musharraf who took his country to the very edge of the precipice.

The bin Laden affair spotlights a fundamental reality — the fight against international terrorism cannot be won without demilitarizing and de-radicalizing Pakistan, including rebalancing civil-military relations there. Without reform of the Pakistani army and the ISI, there can be no end to transnational terrorism — and no genuine nation-building in Pakistan. How can Pakistan be a “normal” state if its army and intelligence agency remain outside civilian oversight and decisive power remains with military generals?

According to classified U.S. diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks, Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari told U.S. Vice President Joe Biden of his fear that the Pakistani military might “take me out.” And the United Arab Emirates’ foreign minister told U.S. special envoy Richard C. Holbrooke in early 2010 that Zardari had asked “that his family be allowed to live in the UAE in the event of his death.” In such a deviant setting, the risks that jihadists within the military could gain control of Pakistan’s arsenal of nuclear and biological weapons are real.

History attests that decisive opportunities rarely repeat themselves. The U.S. let go of one historic opportunity to help bring the ISI under civilian oversight in July 2008 when, in the aftermath of a dictator’s ouster by people’s power, it did not back the new government’s decision. Now, with the military establishment’s complicity in sheltering bin Laden laid bare, the U.S. has a chance to force reforms on the defensive Pakistani generals by holding out the threat of punitive sanctions and stepped-up drone strikes.

Yet it is very likely the U.S. will miss this opportunity too. After all, what is logical may not be practical at the altar of political expediency.

The U.S. has long been aware of Pakistan’s Janus-faced approach to fighting terrorism, and the discovery of bin Laden’s years-long residence in the shadow of Pakistan’s premier military academy has given Washington fresh evidence of Pakistani duplicity and aroused its anger but without affecting the fundamentals of U.S. policy. That the U.S. has little trust in the Pakistani army and ISI became evident when it deployed a number of CIA operatives, Special Operations forces and contractors deep inside Pakistan without the knowledge of Pakistani authorities — a deployment that triggered the showdown over Raymond Davis but helped open the trail to bin Laden. Indeed, in a damning statement, the CIA director said the Pakistanis were given no advance knowledge of the raid because they might have tipped bin Laden off.

Washington has enough evidence of the terrorist infrastructure in Pakistan and the cosy relationship between state and non-state actors there. The problem is that U.S. policy continues to be driven by short-term regional interests, in which Pakistan remains central to facilitating a U.S. military exit from Afghanistan, shaping the post-2014 Afghan political landscape, and aiding U.S. squeeze of Iran. In fact, Obama’s narrowing of the Afghan war goals has made the U.S. only more dependent on Pakistan.

By moving away from the Bush-era counterinsurgency strategy toward limited objectives centred on political reconciliation with the Afghan Taliban and ending all combat operations by 2014, Obama now needs the Pakistani generals to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table. After all, these generals provide a haven to the top Afghan Taliban leadership, besides allowing Taliban fighters to use Pakistan as a sanctuary from which to launch cross-border attacks. A face-saving U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan is simply inconceivable without Pakistani cooperation.

After bin Laden’s elimination, pressure is already growing on the U.S. and its NATO allies for a quicker withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan, making the Pakistani generals an even more critical factor in facilitating America’s reconciling with the Taliban. Although the Taliban was ISI procreation, its birth in the early 1990s was midwifed by the CIA. This is the reason why Washington fervently believes reconciliation with an estranged ex-ally is possible. And this is also the reason why — despite its main foe on the Afghan battlefield being the Taliban, not Al Qaeda — the U.S. military never attempted to wipe out the Quetta shura, eschewing any drone or commando strikes to decapitate the Afghan Taliban.

Significantly, just two-and-a-half months ago, the U.S. publicly eased its terms for reconciliation with the Taliban shura, dropping three key preconditions — renounce violence, embrace the Afghan Constitution, and snap links with al-Qaeda. What were preconditions were turned into “necessary outcomes of any negotiation.” The U.S. National Security Council then formally endorsed the new reconciliation strategy, which offers the Taliban power sharing in Afghanistan. No less significant is that America’s new Af-Pak envoy, Marc Grossman — despite the U.S. outrage over the bin Laden affair — travelled to Islamabad this week and reached agreement to set up a U.S.-Pakistani-Afghan “core group for promoting and facilitating the process of reconciliation and peace in Afghanistan.”

Obama actually believes that bin Laden’s killing serves as a potential catalyst to soften the Pakistani generals and the Taliban shura so as to clinch a peace deal, besides providing an opportunity to quickly conclude a post-2014 Permanent U.S. Bases Agreement with Afghan President Hamid Karzai. Obama indeed is set to announce a substantial reduction in U.S. forces starting this summer.

In this light, far from unravelling the remaining threads in the strained U.S.-Pakistan relationship, the bin Laden affair is likely to prove a temporary setback, even if a serious one. Some heads in the Pakistani military establishment may roll to placate Washington, with the blame being conveniently put (as in the past) on rogue elements within what itself is a rogue agency — the ISI. Washington may brandish new sticks, but carrots would still weigh more, with U.S. policy doling out further multibillion-dollar awards to Islamabad. British Prime Minister David Cameron has candidly said that it is “in our national interest” not to have “a flaming great row with Pakistan over this” but rather to “engage with Pakistan.” And Obama’s chief counterterrorism adviser has pledged that Pakistan will remain a critical partner in the U.S. counterterrorism strategy.

Narrow geopolitical interests thus are likely to trump the imperative for externally supported Pakistani reforms to help cut the ISI down to size, loosen the military’s vice-like grip on power, rein in militant Islamist groups, and build a moderate, stable Pakistan.

Brahma Chellaney is the author of Asian Juggernaut (Harper Paperbacks, New York) and Water: Asia’s New Battlefield (Georgetown University Press, forthcoming).

(c) The Hindu, 2011