Features | Politics | South Asia

Time to Get Real About Pakistan

The United States and Pakistan were in an alliance of mutual convenience for much of the Cold War (although at odds for part of it) and have since been in a relationship of almost complete expediency.

The latest statement by US Defence Secretary Robert Gates exhorting India, Pakistan and Afghanistan to come together to defeat the menace of Islamist terror in South Asia, has again underscored the fundamental delusion held by the United States about the interests and goals of the Pakistani state and its dominant component, the military apparatus.

During the Cold War, Pakistan’s military leaders paid lip service to the cause of anti-Communism. They had drawn the United States into the strategic ambit of South Asia simply to balance Indian military power. Of course, the United States, which lavished military and economic assistance upon Pakistan, benefited significantly from this relationship as it enabled it to use Pakistani territory to engage in electronic eavesdropping and to overfly Soviet territory on high-altitude spying missions. Yet, despite the Pakistani military’s professions of being a loyal US ally, the relationship was strictly instrumental.

Perhaps the only period when both sides recognized this was during the Afghan war years under General Zia-ul-Haq. When entering into a new relationship of strategic cooperation with the United States, he referred to the renewed set of ties as ‘a handshake, not an embrace.’ Zia used this time to fecklessly pursue a clandestine nuclear weapons program under an indulgent Reagan administration and also bolstered Pakistan’s conventional military capabilities through US military assistance. The United States paid scant attention to the scrofulous features of his regime because it provided the grounds for military support to the Afghan mujahedeen.

Even here, there was an element of US strategic delusion, with US intelligence agencies seemingly clueless about who were the major clients of their principal counterpart, the Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate (ISI-D). It was only in the closing days of the Afghan war that they came to the belated realization that the ISI-D had actually favoured the most religiously obscurantist elements of the mujahedeen, ones not especially well-disposed toward the United States.

But the US capacity for self-delusion probably reached it apogee during the George W. Bush administration. None other than the president himself dubbed President Pervez Musharraf as America’s most ‘valued ally’ in the war on terror. Musharraf was granted this strange imprimatur despite ample evidence of his continuing dalliance with the Taliban and his staunch unwillingness to abandon various anti-Indian terrorist organizations, most notably the Lashkar-e-Taiba (now the Jammat-ud-Dawa). Again, it was only in the waning days of his second term that Vice President Dick Cheney came to the striking revelation that the Pakistani military establishment was running with the hares and hunting with the hounds. Fortunately for Musharraf, thanks to a series of his own missteps, he was already on his way out of office.

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The restoration of a democratic civilian regime in Pakistan under President Asif Ali Zardari in 2007 raised grand hopes of a real convergence of interests. Surely, a democratic Pakistan would be more prone to working closely with the United States to eviscerate al-Qaeda and to terminate the Taliban? Sadly, such hopes have died yet again.

The military apparatus under the aegis of General Pervez Ashfaq Kiyani has quickly asserted itself. For example, in late 2009, the military stripped Zardari of his power to control Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal. More recently, Kiyani has indicated he has little interest in going after the Haqqani faction of the Taliban which is wreaking havoc on US forces in Afghanistan using Pakistan’s western borderlands as sanctuaries. Indeed during Gates’ visit to Pakistan last week, he was even told that the Pakistani military had no plans to continue its military campaign beyond current operations in Swat and Waziristan. Such unwillingness to expand the scope of military operations could well undercut the significance of the augmented US military forces in Afghanistan. Worse still, now the Pakistani military is offering to serve as an honest broker with the Taliban in return for US pressure on India to reduce its footprint in Afghanistan.

The continuing solicitousness toward the Pakistani military even in the face of growing evidence of divergent interests and contrary actions stems almost entirely from a pervasive and flawed belief in the Pentagon: namely, that the United States simply has no alternative means other than the use of Pakistani territory to supply the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan. This assumption is only notionally correct. Pakistan, which extracts substantial rents for each truck that passes through its territory, could ill-afford to lose those funds. Yet the Pentagon simply cannot bring itself to call Pakistan’s bluff.

Sadly, the unwillingness of key entities within the US government to re-examine the basic premises of its relationship with Pakistan has only fitfully advanced US interests in the region. The propensity to overlook and rationalize the myriad shortcomings of the military establishment has cost the United States much treasure and some blood in the region. As such, it is time US policymakers accept the country’s security and Pakistani military interests are not in alignment, unlikely to miraculously converge. In the absence of this fundamental re-appraisal of interests, the United States will continue to pay a high price for its involvement in the region and find its strategic goals remain elusive.