Tail wags the dog

More than ever, Pakistan stands out as a military with a country, rather than a country with a military. In handling Pakistan, the U.S. must remember the old adage: “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.”

Brahma Chellaney, Nikkei Asian Review

Having mastered the art of pretending to be an ally of the U.S. while working to undercut its interests, including aiding its battlefield foes, Pakistan has merrily been playing a double game. Yet, the U.S. continues to arm it with sophisticated weapons and provide multibillion-dollar aid to prop it up.

U.S. President Barack Obama meets Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif at the White House in Washington on Oct. 22. © Reuters

President Barack Obama’s decision to sell an additional eight nuclear-capable F-16 fighter jets to Pakistan is just the latest example of the U.S. persistently rewarding a country that refuses to cut its ties with violent jihadists or observe other international norms. Indeed, by showering a financially struggling Pakistan with generous aid, the U.S. has made the country one of the largest recipients of U.S. assistance.

Through its financial and political support, the U.S. unwittingly enables Pakistan’s export of terrorism. As two American scholars, C. Christine Fair and Sumit Ganguly, suggested in the journal Foreign Affairs, “If Washington cannot end Pakistan’s noxious behaviors, it should at least stop sponsoring them.”

The Pakistani military’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency continues to aid the Afghan Taliban, which has killed hundreds of U.S. troops in Afghanistan, while nurturing other terrorists for cross-border operations in India and Afghanistan.

Yet, over the past 13 years, the U.S. has given Pakistan more than $18 billion in economic and military aid and $13 billion from the Coalition Support Funds. U.S. policy has made it easy for Pakistan to free ride, turning Uncle Sam into Uncle Sucker.

Since President George W. Bush upgraded U.S. relations with Pakistan by designating it a Major Non-NATO Ally, a lot of U.S. weapon systems have flowed to the country, which has encouraged it to ratchet up hostility with India.

The weapon supplies include eight P-3C Orion maritime aircraft, 18 new and 14 used F-16s, one Perry-class missile frigate, six C-130E Hercules transport aircraft, 100 Harpoon anti-ship missiles, 2,007 TOW anti-armor missiles, 500 AMRAAM air-to-air missiles, 500 Sidewinder air-to-air missiles, 1,450 2,000-pound bombs, six AN/TPS-77 surveillance radars, 115 M-109 self-propelled howitzers, 20 AH-1F Cobra attack helicopters, and 15 Scan Eagle unmanned aerial vehicles.

The Obama administration, in a nearly $1 billion deal with Pakistan, recently agreed to supply 15 AH-1Z Viper attack helicopters, 1,000 Hellfire II missiles, and targeting and positioning systems. However, its move a year ago to equip the Pakistani navy with eight GRC43M cutter vessels for medium to long endurance coverage of the northern Arabian Sea has run into congressional opposition.

The U.S. justification for arming Pakistan with such lethal weapons has been that they are needed for counterterrorism, as if the “bad” terrorists that Pakistan seeks to fight (while taking care of the “good” ones) have acquired sophisticated naval, air and ground-force capabilities. In reality, the U.S., despite emerging as India’s largest arms supplier, has sought to equip Pakistan with specific systems to offset some of India’s military advantages, even though Pakistan refuses to accept the territorial status quo on the subcontinent and continues to train and export terrorists.

While emboldening Pakistan’s antagonism and intransigence, U.S. policy, paradoxically, pushes for an India-Pakistan “peace” dialogue.

Consider another issue. Despite Pakistan’s duplicity in the fight against terrorism, Washington, largely because of its interests in Afghanistan and other regional considerations, has shied away from imposing any costs on the Pakistani military for nurturing jihadist forces. Instead, it continues to extend carrots to Pakistani military leaders in hopes of convincing them to sever ties with all terrorist groups and to bring the Taliban to the Afghan peace talks.

Short-term factors have led the U.S. to forge even closer institutional ties with the Pakistani army and the ISI, the main wielders of power in Pakistan. The F-16 decision followed Obama’s U-turn on U.S. troop withdrawal from Afghanistan.

Significantly, Washington’s Pakistan policy has failed to deliver on other fronts as well, including curbing Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program and promoting a genuine democratic transition there. While the development of a robust civil society remains stunted, jihadist culture is now deeply woven into Pakistan’s national fabric. Despite an elected government in office, the military rules the roost in Pakistan.

The most powerful person is not Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, but Army chief General Raheel Sharif. Gen. Sharif, who is not related to the prime minister, calls the shots on key issues. Without staging an overt military coup, Gen. Sharif has encroached on the authority of the elected civilian leadership.

In fact, the prime minister has been compelled to let the military take charge of foreign policy and national security, including all aspects of internal security. So the government’s main responsibility is limited to the economy, yet it cannot touch the financial prerogatives of the military, which consumes 26% of all tax receipts, according to some estimates.

With the military, intelligence and nuclear establishments not answerable to an elected government, Pakistan has been expanding its nuclear arsenal, building even low-yield tactical nukes for battlefield use against India. The arsenal provides the generals the nuclear shield to harbor terrorists without inviting military retaliation from India.

More than ever, Pakistan stands out as a military with a country, rather than a country with a military.

If Pakistan is to become a moderate, stable country, the military’s viselike grip on power must be broken and the ISI made accountable. However, far from seeking to address Pakistan’s skewed civil-military relations, the U.S. has been mollycoddling Gen. Sharif, awarding him the U.S. Legion of Merit for his contributions to “peace and security.” Washington will soon host the general on another high-profile visit.

This behavior has also encouraged U.S. allies to pamper Gen. Sharif. British Prime Minister David Cameron held talks with Gen. Sharif earlier this year at Downing Street, while new Afghan President Ashraf Ghani started his Pakistan visit by meeting the general first.

More ominously, the U.S. has explored the idea of cutting a nuclear deal with Pakistan. Dangling the offer of “nuclear mainstreaming” Pakistan, as advocates of the exploratory talks call it, carries a double risk: Incentivizing breach of norms by a state sponsor of terrorism, and legitimizing a nuclear program built through the theft of technology, deception, and clandestine transfers from China. A deal would also whitewash the biggest nuclear proliferation scandal in history, known as the A.Q. Khan affair after the Pakistani nuclear scientist who supplied nuclear know-how to rogue states such as Libya and North Korea.

The irony is that those in Washington who worry about a rogue commander in Pakistan seizing control of a nuclear bomb seem oblivious to the fact that the Pakistani military has already been radicalized and the ISI has turned rogue, with its jihadist rampages spawning more dangerous Islamists.

As long as Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program remains outside government control, any U.S. attempt to limit it will remain a false hope.

The real problem with U.S. policy is that it refuses to learn from past mistakes. For example, the U.S. failure or unwillingness to bring the ISI to heel parallels its ineffectual air war against Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, which bears an acronymic affinity with the ISI. ISI and ISIS became powerful, respectively, because of misguided U.S. policies of arming jihadists in Afghanistan in the 1980s and in Syria in recent years.

Washington’s Pakistan strategy, despite a long record of failure, remains focused too much on carrots and too little on sticks. Obama has spurned congressional advice earlier this year to suspend some aid to Pakistan and impose travel restrictions and other sanctions on Pakistani officials known to have ties to terrorists. Even those that harbored Osama bin Laden in a Pakistani military garrison town have gone scot-free.

Worse still, Obama’s recent move to keep U.S. troops in Afghanistan indefinitely, leaving any withdrawal decision to his successor, means that the U.S. will continue to fight the war on the wrong side of the Afghan-Pakistani border while rewarding the Taliban’s backer, Pakistan.

It is time for the U.S. to stop being duped and instead fix its broken Pakistan policy. It must begin by bridging the gap between policy and practice, including employing some sticks. Sustained U.S. pressure is vital to encourage a reformed Pakistan.

In handling Pakistan, U.S. policymakers must remember the old adage: “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.”

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and the author of nine books, including the award-winning “Water: Asia’s New Battleground.”

© Nikkei Asian Review, 2015.