The Column Everyone Is Reading About Pakistan

The taking of Osama was a defeat for Al Qaeda.  It was a disaster for Pakistan.

The Assassination in Abbottabad was a strategic catastrophe for the military rulers of this slowly and painfully failing state.  On the one hand, it leaves the reputation of Pakistan as an effective partner against fanatical terror groups in ruins.  The debate in Washington and around the world now is whether the Pakistani state is in league with Al Qaeda or whether it is so weak, divided and incompetent that rogue factions within the state have escaped all control.  The rich intelligence haul the US gathered in Osama’s lair will help the US learn more about Osama’s protectors in Pakistan; in the meantime it is transparently clear that whether incompetence or malfeasance is more to blame, the government of Pakistan cannot safely be trusted — by anyone, on anything.

The argument for a continued US-Pakistani alliance took a body blow.  If Pakistan can’t or won’t help us with the capture of Osama bin Laden, what possible justification does the alliance have?  Arguably, the two people who have done the greatest damage to American interests in the last 20 years have been A. Q. Khan, ringmaster of the nuclear proliferation circus that helped countries like North Korea, Libya, Syria and Iran advance their nuclear ambitions, and Osama bin Laden.  What country produced one and sheltered both?

From the ISI/military point of view, trust is not just a problem when it comes to relations with the US.  The Pakistani military has to have foreign patrons; without foreign aid it cannot pretend even to itself to be a serious competitor to India.  India is too big, and Pakistan is too small, too unstable, too divided by bitter internal fault lines, too poorly developed and too incompetently governed to hold its own without outside help.

As US-Pakistan tensions rise, the Pakistanis have looked to China as an alternative great power backer.  The Pakistani argument to China is that Pakistan offers an offset to India that makes it harder for India to challenge Chinese influence in southeast Asia and elsewhere.  Pakistan can also offer China friendly ports close to the vital oilfields of the Middle East and also a useful land route for trade and power projection.

This is not an unattractive proposition, and China is already in business with Pakistan, providing foreign aid and promoting growth in bilateral trade.  The value of China’s aid to Pakistan is hard to estimate, but trade between the two countries is worth about $8.7 billion.  (US military and economic aid to Pakistan last year totaled almost $4.5 billion and US-Pakistani trade was worth $1.6 billion.)  Additionally, China provides material and financial assistance for Pakistan’s nuclear program; during a visit to Pakistan in December 2010, Wen Jiabao and Pakistani officials finalised plans for the construction of a one gigawatt nuclear reactor in Chashma, making it the third and largest reactor in Pakistan.  China’s agreement to provide nuclear materials to Pakistan despite Pakistan’s nuclear program and poor record on proliferation was seen in Pakistan and elsewhere as a counter to the US-India agreement.

But for the Chinese, who have so far flirted with Pakistan but never come close to giving the Pakistanis the support they desperately crave, there are three very big catches.  First, Pakistan looks as bent on self-destruction to China as it does to everyone else in the world; why put your money on a such a weak horse?

Second, if China becomes the partner of Pakistan’s dreams, it wrecks its relationship with India and drives India into America’s arms.  A closer relationship with Pakistan might be necessary for China in the event that the US and India developed a tight alliance aimed against China, but China’s best strategy now is to prevent the US-India relationship from turning into an anti-China alliance.  Flirting with Pakistan makes sense as a way to keep both Washington and Delhi on their toes, but anything more would be a costly mistake.

And third, there are the same questions of competence and trust that give Washington pause.   Can Pakistan really be trusted on the subject of ‘Islamic’ terror?  The Pakistani defence establishment is totally fixated on maintaining links with terror groups and radical groups to advance its interests in both Afghanistan and India.  China doesn’t like this very much; none of the great powers with interests in Central Asia have much sympathy for Pakistan’s desire to strengthen radical Sunni groups.  But if Pakistan showed that it was willing and able to use this weapon selectively — to tolerate and even promote terror groups aimed at India while cracking down ruthlessly and effectively on any Muslims crazy enough to dream of fighting for their co-religionists in western China — then maybe, just maybe, Pakistan and China could cut a deal.

But the Abbottabad imbroglio calls Pakistan’s good faith and its ability into question.  Will Islamabad really suppress, murder and betray Uighur Muslims who want to bring jihad to their homeland, or will Pakistani weakness, incompetence, religious fanaticism and/or corruption mean that Pakistan will provide sanctuary and perhaps more to China’s deadly enemies even as it takes China’s cash?  On the evidence of Abbottabad, few Chinese foreign policy analysts will propose trusting Pakistan.  Nice words, candy and flowers on its birthday, but little else.

The attack on Abbottabad was not just a blow to Al Qaeda; it was a direct blow to the heart of Pakistani self confidence.  Pakistan puts a lot of faith in its nuclear bombs.  ISI types in Pakistan believe that US mistrust of Pakistan is so deep that the US is looking for an opportunity to take control of the Pakistani nuclear arsenal.

Abdul Qadeer Khan
Abdul Qadeer Khan, a founder of Pakistan’s nuclear program.

[credit provider=”Wikimedia Commons”]

The strong likelihood that somebody powerful in Pakistan was helping Osama makes the (far fetched) scenario of an American nuclear snatch more frightening to Pakistan.  If the US concludes that Pakistan is a state sponsor of terror with close links to Al Qaeda with nuclear weapons and a long record of bad behaviour on proliferation issues, the desire to separate those weapons from unworthy hands could become very strong. The Abbottabad raid demonstrates two things that have shocked the Pakistani security establishment to the core: that the US in pursuit of supreme national interests is willing to send military forces into the heart of Pakistan’s territory and security zone — and that we have the capacity to do so at will.  A. Q. Khan may be sleeping a little less soundly and may well have moved all his thumb drives to a more secure location.

India, of course watched the raid closely.  India, a victim in the past of Pakistan-supported terrorist violence, has the same concerns about Pakistani nukes and terror groups that Washington does.  After observing the mysteriously powerful Stuxnet computer worm in neighbouring Iran, and now shocked by American ability to move forces at will, the Pakistani security establishment is now coming to terms with some profoundly unsettling realities. Already, Pakistani Foreign Secretary Salman Bashir has warned India off an Abbottabad-style raid aimed at the accused perpetrators of the 2008 Mumbai attacks.

The US is tightening the screws on this unsatisfactory ally.  So far as it goes, that is good.  Senators Bob Corker and Ben Cardin have been calling for the US to go farther — to stop aid to Pakistan.

But even that doesn’t get to the heart of the matter.  The US and Pakistan have had a long relationship, but the love has long since gone out of this bromance.  Our interests are likely to diverge much more radically than at present as the US exit from Afghanistan draws closer.

Many of the most important details of the US-Pakistani relationship are only known by a handful of officials.  That is inevitable when sensitive matters like counter-terrorism and nuclear weapons come into play.  This means that outsiders are not going to get many of the vital nuances of one of the most delicate and difficult dances in the diplomatic world.  But it does seem clear that the US now needs to muster all of its energy, resources and will for a strategic battle to determine the future parameters of our relations with Pakistan.

We are going to have to get tough.  The Pakistani security establishment lives to a very large degree in what, to American eyes, looks like a dangerous and delusional imaginary world.  As I’ve written before, Americans (and virtually everyone else in the world who looks at this question) sees Pakistan locked into a profoundly dysfunctional combination of misguided security ideas and comprehensive domestic failure.  Pakistani strategists embrace these seemingly destructive policies out of some very deeply-held beliefs and in response to what they see as existential questions of national identity and cohesion.  They will not be lightly diverted from this long-established and cherished course, however suicidal, and as is often the case with people whose goals are unrealistic, they are accustomed to very high risk strategies and brinkmanship.  Defeat after defeat by India, progressive deterioration of the domestic security climate and the utter collapse of political morality in what passes for the governing class in Pakistan have not forced a reevaluation.  Charm and appeals to sweet reason by American officials and emissaries won’t do it either.  Neither will humanitarian aid: the suffering of ordinary Pakistanis has little impact on the elite, and in the short to medium term public opinion in Pakistan is so anti-American and so politically marginal that we could die of old age waiting for spending however generous to change our image in Pakistan enough to change the politics of the relationship.

I favour generous and long term assistance to Pakistan as part of a long term relationship — assuming that the country is willing to stop running toward the abyss and to start moving, however slowly, in a more promising direction.  But we should not deceive ourselves that civilian aid buys much goodwill with what is, under a thin and increasingly unconvincing veneer of civilian rule, a military government on all security matters.

When it comes to changing Pakistani policy, aid however generous for schools and hospitals Pakistan’s rulers don’t care much about matters less than a credible threat that Pakistan could face an active US-led alliance from which it is excluded and which might even actively seek to frustrate its interests on key issues.

To get our relationship with Pakistan on the right track, the Obama administration is going to have to assemble and develop some serious threats.  Sending the Seals to Abbottabad is a nice shot across the bow, but more will be needed.  The administration is going to have to look at a broad range of options that stretch from adding some new dimensions to US-India relations and engaging more directly with more neighbours about the future of Afghanistan to additional operations like the Abbottabad raid where intelligence suggests appropriately important targets can be found.  On the other hand, the administration needs to develop a crystal clear and specific vision for what we want from Pakistan and what we will do if and only if we can secure it.

This matters.  The administration’s ability to put its relationship with Pakistan on a clear path will go far to determine both the speed at which we are able to leave Afghanistan and the nature of the post-US situation there.  More, what is at stake in both Afghanistan and Pakistan is still America’s security at home.  President Obama clearly understands that defending Americans from 9/11 style attacks remains the most important item on his job description.  Getting Pakistan right is a must.

In this negotiation the Americans will do better if we have coordinated our approach with the Saudis — they, next to China, represent Pakistan’s best hope of a replacement partner should the US alliance cool even further.  The Saudis are widely believed to have helped support Pakistan’s quest for what some call the ‘Sunni bomb’; Pakistanis are ready and, if suitably paid, willing to support embattled Sunni Arab sheikhs against restive Shi’a subjects.  From the Saudi point of view, Pakistan’s 169 million people and nuclear arsenal look like reliable allies against Iran if US support should prove unreliable and one suspects that Pakistani contingency planning for a crisis with the US includes some assumptions about Saudi help.

The US needs to address this.  The Obama administration can’t make geography go away; the Saudis can and should have a relationship with Pakistan based on mutual interests and strategic need.  But the Pakistan card goes up in value as the US card falls: the Obama administration needs to improve its relationship with the Saudis and clear up any misunderstandings about where we stand on the question of Saudi security.  The Saudis may be religiously radical by some standards, but as long as they believe in the strength of the US umbrella they are conservative geopolitically.  There are all kinds of reasons (including the restraining influence that Saudi money can have on radical clerics) to make sure the Saudis understand the depth of the American commitment to their survival.

We have another card to play, I suspect.  Some of the information the Seals acquired in Abbottabad is likely to show that under Pakistani protection Bin Laden continued to plot and scheme against the Saudis.  Pakistan has betrayed everyone, including the Saudis.  Nobody likes this kind of behaviour; Pakistan has burned more than one bridge. 

The much feared and long delayed moment of truth in US-Pakistan relations is almost upon us.  Nobody outside the government can really know all the important factors here, but the Obama administration is unlikely to develop a satisfactory relationship with Pakistan unless it is ready, willing and able to face a complete rupture.  As long as Pakistan perceives that Washington is desperate to keep the relationship alive, it will play games.

Perhaps we truly have no choice; in that case the US must continue mushing on as best we may.  But Pakistan is a weak and vulnerable state, wracked by internal dissension, ethnic rivalries and the guerrilla secessionist movement in Baluchistan.  It is high time that the US began looking carefully at the alternatives to its alliance with Pakistan and taking some of the initial steps to ease what may be a necessary and inevitable transition to a new alignment in the region.

One hopes those steps would bring some badly needed sobriety to the strategic culture of Islamabad.  This may well be our only hope now of changing Pakistan’s behaviour.  In any case, basing our policy on comforting lies that we tell ourselves because we are too afraid to face bitter truths is not a good move.

The promise to focus on Pakistan was one of the hallmarks of President Obama’s 2008 campaign.  The raid on Abbottabad shows he is still on the case.  Every American should wish him and his team well as they prepare for even tougher choices ahead.

This post originally appeared at The American Interest.