Feb 19, 2009

Flash forward: America - Problem or solution?

RELATIONS between Pakistan and the US have enjoyed a chequered history. The fundamental problem with the relationship has been that there was a ‘contrived’ rather than genuine commonality of interests. The US sought to contain the Soviet Union while Pakistan sought security from Indian attack. Pakistan had no vital interest in opposing the Soviet Union until the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and the US had no vital interest in the Indo-Pak confrontation.
The US did, however, regard the survival of Pakistan as a viable South Asian entity as an important – if not vital – interest. American pressure prevented Indira Gandhi from approving plans to destroy the Pakistan Army before agreeing to a ceasefire in the 1971 war that brought Bangladesh into being. This was not out of love for Pakistan or even gratitude for Pakistan’s role in bridging the US-China divide. Rather, it was because in South Asia, as in other parts of the world, the US as a superpower with global interests did not wish to see one power becoming overwhelmingly dominant.

In 1979, there was a genuine commonality of interest in seeking to reverse the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. Both feared that the move into Afghanistan was the first step towards reaching the warm waters of the Arabian Sea. US-Pak cooperation – assisted by other US allies – in the Afghan jihad succeeded beyond everyone’s wildest dreams leading to the disintegration of the Soviet Union.

A host of tools were employed to gain this success: making Pakistan the base for Islamic extremists from all parts of the Islamic world, setting up seminaries under the auspices of religious parties, allowing free movement of five million Afghan refugees in Pakistan, winking at the induction of Afghan destined weapons into Pakistan, conniving at the forced ‘Islamisation’ of Pakistan’s polity. These policies ensured that while the US emerged from this decade-long effort as an unrivalled hyperpower, Pakistan emerged as the detritus — striven by internal religious and political strife, saddled with a huge refugee population, confronted with a deteriorating law and order situation, and habituated to profligate spending by the dollops of external assistance both overt and covert.

Importantly and tragically, we were also left harbouring unrealistic ambitions about the further utility of jihad. It achieved nothing in Afghanistan or elsewhere, but strengthened the extremists in Pakistan’s body politic.

With the disappearance of the Soviet Union, the raison d’etre for the US relationship with the ‘frontline state’ also disappeared. America walked away from both Afghanistan and Pakistan while the latter’s nuclear programme led to the cessation of all aid. Pakistan’s virtual global ostracisation for its support of the Taliban, the Kargil disaster, and the military coup served to further heighten the differences between the two erstwhile allies.

But September 11, 2001, effected a dramatic change. Pakistan once again became the frontline state in the global ‘war against terror’. Many believe that America was looking not only for Pakistan’s assistance in the war in Afghanistan, but also to prevent the Talibanisation of Pakistan of which distressing signs had become apparent much before 9/11.

The US wanted to prevent the use of Pakistani territory for terrorist attacks against the background of intelligence estimates that every terrorist attack in the West was tracked back to Pakistan, specifically Peshawar. Only rarely did the tracks go further back into Taliban Afghanistan. Before 9/11, Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage had talked about preventing the Talibanisation of Pakistan and building a relationship with the people of Pakistan rather than one based on being against something (the Soviet Union in America’s case and India in Pakistan’s).

Between 1947 and the sanctions of 1990, the US provided the wherewithal for building the armed forces and the economic infrastructure – about US $13-14 billion, which in current terms amounts to about US$80 billion. Since 2002, it has provided US$ 6 billion from coalition support funds to finance the Pakistan military’s campaign against terrorism.

This amounts to about a quarter of the defence budget for that period. Substantial military equipment declared excess to the American requirement has been provided free of cost. Some supplies – 40 Cobra helicopters, for example – have been put to use immediately, while other items such as two F-16s, P-C3 Orion Surveillance aircraft, and C-130 aircraft have been or are being refurbished at Pakistan’s expense.

In addition, since 2005, the US has provided US $600 million annually, divided equally between military and economic assistance. It has done so because it wanted Pakistan’s cooperation in the war on terror and also because it believed Pakistan’s economic development and consequent stability were in its interest. The ultimate American nightmare, our learned commentators notwithstanding, is that Pakistan comes under the control of extremists or disintegrates and allows the extremists greater freedom of action.

The Americans have made many mistakes in Pakistan and, even more importantly, in Afghanistan. This has compounded our problems. The Pakistan establishment has never properly explained to the people that even while certain American actions in the region and around the world have exacerbated the situation, American assistance has been valuable in fighting what was our own war against the elements that we helped to create with US help.

While our government took credit for the action against Al Qaeda, it did not highlight to its own people what the existence of so many operatives meant for Pakistan and how important it was for Pakistan’s own well being that those who remained, along with their Pakistani henchmen, needed to be apprehended. It did not do so perhaps because our own ambitions were different – our operational policies did not jive with our declared policies.

That brings us to the present day. Perhaps at no time in the history of US-Pak relations has American popularity in Pakistan been lower than it is today. And yet, this is the time when, if our government’s declared policy is to be believed, we have a genuine common interest: the elimination of extremism and terrorism from Pakistan. For Pakistan, it is a matter of survival as a moderate, tolerant, democratic state; for the US, it is the elimination of a potent threat of attacks by non-state actors against the US or its allies.

Let us also be clear that, from the American perspective, the destruction of safe havens for non-state actors in Pakistan is more important than in Afghanistan. Unlike the Afghan-centric Taliban, foreign and local non-state actors in Pakistan entertain ambitions that go beyond this country.

As a result, the US is prepared to do much to serve this common interest. It will provide the much-touted US$ 1.5 billion annually, in economic assistance, for 10 years and perhaps longer. It will strengthen the counter-insurgency capabilities of our armed forces. It will help to ensure that the Friends of Pakistan prove to be generous, despite the current economic mess, in offering long-term assistance even while insisting on strict monitoring to ensure that the money is well spent on infrastructure and social sector development. It will help to keep India from ‘adventurism’ prompted by the Mumbai tragedy and work behind the scenes to secure a resumption of the Indo-Pak dialogue.

The relationship will be durable if only because the problem will take time to be resolved. It could become strategic if Pakistan’s internal stabilisation brings it to a point where it can be a partner in ensuring stability in the Gulf-an area of vital interest to both countries.

30 years of running with the hares and hunting with the hounds has unravelled the fabric of our society. Time and perseverance will be needed to repair the damage. American assistance despite its accompanying demands is not, if properly viewed, a part of our problem. But it is also not the solution. That can only come if we have clarity of purpose and a united effort by all power centres in Pakistan.

By Najmuddin Shaikh who has served as Pakistan’s ambassador to West Germany, Canada, the United States, and Iran. He was also the country’s foreign minister from 1994 to 1997. His foreign service career spans 38 years.

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