“Director Leon Panetta (informed ISI chief Gen Shuja Pasha) that he has a duty to prevent attacks on the United States…..and he will not halt operations that support that objective,” said an official of the CIA. The fact that the message was given to Gen Pasha within hours of his arrival in Washington last week says it all. The row which was simmering has boiled over. The Wall Street Journal went one better. It advised Washington to confront Pakistan with the same choice as Bush had done in 2001: “Are you with us or against us?”
The Americans have, in a manner of speaking, thrown down the gauntlet, and now it is up to Pakistan to either pick it up and accept the challenge or walk away. Although both sides are playing it down for their own reasons, it was in many ways a seminal moment. And, in retrospect, it may mark the beginning of the end of a relationship that has always vacillated between attraction and repulsion, with both sides realising that a bitter parting would be fraught with dangerous consequences, initially more for Pakistan but eventually also for the US and the region.
The Americans have probably calculated that Pakistan will whinge and whine at first but eventually fall in line, because it is in dire straits financially, lacking resources, facing an economic meltdown; and it is also a fractured society, hobbled by a weak government and an overstretched army. The prospect of lucre conveyed through such schemes as proffered by Kerry-Lugar may well have encouraged the impression in the administration that Pakistan can be had for a price.
Our ambassador in Washington encouraged such a view when he told his American interlocutors, in a fit of unbecoming candour, that Pakistanis are by nature “rug merchants” who may initially ask for a steep price but will settle for a trifling amount if properly bargained with. And, indeed, such seems the hunger for dollars here that both may be right. Except that the stakes now are not quantifiable only in dollars. Our differences are stark. In fact, they are distinct, diverse, sheer opposite, antipodes. Worse, while we want to pour balm upon the battleground we feel that the US vexes us.
How, then, will this government react to the American ultimatum? To the astonishment of many, Mr Gilani said he plans to enlist the help of SAARC members to persuade Washington not to have recourse to drones. Goaded by him, tiny Maldives will presumably be making a demarche to the US on this score. Mr Zardari has said nothing, because his First Commandment is not to defy America.
As for the opposition, Shahbaz Sharif asked the nation to forego Kerry-Lugar handouts, as if that will force the Americans to change their mind. The opposition’s advantage is that, while they have little power, they have absolutely no responsibility – “the prerogative of the harlot through the ages,” in the words of Stanley Baldwin.
The military’s usual reaction to such predicaments is to hide behind the government while maintaining a loud silence. But it’s no secret who runs the war effort or who signs off on policy. The Americans, like the rest of us, see it in practice every day and know better than to blame the powerless civilians. When dismissing Gen Pasha’s request out of hand, the Americans obviously felt they had the measure of our military and there was virtually nothing to fear. The military now risks earning public ridicule if they refuse to pick up the gauntlet.
Many had hoped that the undeserved strictures in the US biannual report that the military had not performed well would provide the incentive the army needed to finally consider disentangling Pakistan from the suffocating American embrace. However, others claiming they know better, predict nothing of the sort would happen. “Whatever their misgivings and suspicions about America’s motives, the Pakistani military will remain fixated on the American alliance just as it is obsessed about India,” said one military pundit. Perhaps that’s why the military has never developed an alternative strategy that will enable Pakistan to carry on without their American lifeline.
One reason why we have never embarked on such an exercise is the dysfunctional relationship that exists between civilian governments and the armed forces. The former are ever wary of the military and the latter barely able to conceal their contempt for the “bloody civilians.” So unless there is a mutual awakening the sea change in attitudes required to draw up a plan slipping the American chokehold is unlikely.
Even if such cooperation is possible, there are some hard issues and challenges ahead in the grim circumstances we face today. Despite the inestimable value of our long-term strategic ties with China, there isn’t much that Beijing can do to alleviate our problems with our neighbours – Afghanistan and India. China can, of course, help us rebuild our economy by engaging in mega projects and other business investments but that cannot happen on a significant scale and on a sustained basis unless our internal security improves significantly and we can demonstrate dominance over armed outfits with extremist agendas.
With India our problems have grown into bizarre proportions and the popular view that India is out to get us makes the problem of reining in our hostility to India that much more difficult. Unless, therefore, confidence-building measures with India make substantial gains, there is little hope that we will be able to reconsider our anti India stance and, of course, there is little hope that India will do likewise.
India is a sizeable economic power and a fast emerging rival of China. As such, its growing preoccupation with China means that Pakistan’s importance will decline in relative terms and the potential threat it can pose to India militarily will become a lot less. Hence, India has lesser reasons than in the past to worry about Pakistan, except as a source of terrorism (Mumbai-style), or if extremists seize power and lay their hands on our nuclear arsenal. While we believe this can never happen, outsiders looking in take a different view of our deteriorating situation.
With regard to Afghanistan an understanding with Kabul on ways of accommodating the Taliban will be a major breakthrough, as it would help us concentrate on tackling the TTP. But that won’t be easy. Kabul is suspicious of our game, believing that it has not changed much since the 1990s. Perhaps Gilani’s recent visit and the setting up of a joint high-powered body including the army chiefs will dampen Afghan suspicions.
To further complicate the situation, there is some doubt about how much influence we have over the Afghan Taliban, who are fiercely independent and unpredictable. They did little to settle the Durand Line with us when they were ensconced in power with our assistance and support. Unless, therefore, they return as a part of a peace deal, old rivalries will revive, the civil war resume and proxy wars ensue, enabling outside powers to establish a foothold in Afghanistan.
Internally too we face a difficult situation. Extremist groups initially nurtured by us as instruments of an overly ambitious foreign policy have become so entrenched that they have cowed down and marginalised moderate groups as well as the silent majority. Either due to inertia or contagion, our strategic thinking does not seem to have evolved since the 1990s. What started off as a solution to our external challenges has evolved into our most implacable problem.
Survival of the fittest is a well known phrase but one that can be easily misunderstood leading to blunders. “Fitness” is not physical strength alone or power to dominate others but, most importantly, the ability to adapt to changing circumstances and to handle them skilfully. This Darwinian principle applies to strategic policy with equal force. Our policies, therefore, must evolve in the light of far-reaching developments because clinging to the old paradigms, as we (and India) are at the moment, is folly.
*The writer is a former ambassador.
NOTE:This is a cross post from The News.