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In Mel Brooks’ 1974 comedy Blazing Saddles, a welcoming committee for a new sheriff turns into a lynch mob when it discovers the man is black. He points his gun at his own temple and says, ”One step closer and the [N-word] gets it!” The townspeople back off, rather like the American government every time it catches Pakistan supporting the Taliban or other enemies of the United States. Pakistan menaces the United States with the prospect of its own failure.
Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum summed up the Washington consensus at last week’s national security debate, ”Pakistan must be our friend” because it has nuclear weapons. America can’t do without Pakistan, that is, because if Pakistan breaks up, nuclear weapons might reach the hands of terrorists. The flaw in this argument is that Pakistan itself is governed by terrorists. That is why it has been so successful. It scares its neighbors. American policy, instead, should force the burden of uncertainty onto Pakistan.
Last week’s North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) air strike on Pakistani frontier outposts prompted Islamabad to stop resupply of NATO forces in Afghanistan, leaving Washington to apologize for the ”unintended tragic” deaths of 24 Pakistani soldiers. Rather than calling Pakistan to account for the attack on the American embassy in Kabul by the al-Haqqani network, which outgoing Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Admiral Michael Mullen September 22 called ”a veritable arm” of Pakistan’s ISI, America finds itself on the defensive. If the Pakistanis fired on NATO forces before the latter called in an air strike, as the Afghan government claims, we should infer that Pakistan provoked the incident in order to wrong-foot the United States.
Considering that the United States wants Pakistan to pursue military operations against a largely Pashtun insurgency in Afghanistan, while Pashtuns comprise a fifth of the Pakistan’s people, friendship seems an odd choice of words. American policy threatens to tear Pakistan apart, and Islamabad’s double-dealing is understandable under the circumstances. The only way to make Pakistan behave is to convince Islamabad that it will be torn apart if it does not accommodate American demands. Absent the threat of encirclement and dismemberment, Pakistan will do everything to avoid exacerbating what already amounts to a low-level civil war. America’s strategic objective in the region – eradicating Islamist terrorists – poses an existential threat to the Pakistani state. The only way to force Pakistan to accommodate itself to American objectives is to pose an even worse existential threat.
Pakistan’s pursuit of ”strategic depth” – projecting its influence through support for Islamist groups in Afghanistan, and Kashmir, as well as terror attacks inside India – stems from weakness. As Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi writes in the Winter 2012 issue of Middle East Quarterly, ”Pakistan itself is an artificial state composed of diverse ethnic groups that are united solely by religious affiliation. Hence, fear of Pashtun and Baloch (Pakistan’s largest provinces geographically) desires for autonomy or independence, together with concern about India’s influence, also provides a basis for pursuing Pakistani strategic depth. For example, to suppress Baloch nationalism, the Pakistani military and intelligence have engaged in human rights abuses including the arrest and disappearance of some 8,000 Baloch activists in secret prisons.”
After three years of American strategic disengagement under the Obama administration, that has become a difficult proposition. Involving the Indian military in Afghanistan with a limited by open-ended mandate would have served notice to Islamabad that America was serious. Two years ago, Pakistani websites fluttered with rumors that India would deploy 120,000 soldiers in Afghanistan, staking a claim as America’s strategic partner. It is doubtful that any such offer was on the table, but India at the time was prepared for a smaller deployment. Under present circumstances, New Delhi wants no part of an adventure that the Americans are preparing to abandon.
India simply does not trust the Obama administration to stand up for American interests in the region. China has moved into the vacuum left by American policy in Pakistan, deploying 11,000 soldiers in the Gilgat-Baltistan region of southern Kashmir. Ostensibly the Chinese are there to secure high-speed road rail links between the Chinese-built ports on Pakistan’s coast and Western China, but their presence also reinforces Pakistan’s control over a rebellious region. The small Chinese force, moreover, raises the stakes in any potential confrontation over Kashmir between India and Pakistan; if Chinese troops were to get in the middle of a fight, China might be drawn in on Pakistan’s side. Pakistan now has two air force squadrons flying China’s JF-17 ”Thunder” jet and shortly will add a third.
After the September 13 attack on the American embassy in Kabul, the United States made belated and tentative gestures to India, including the first formal offer to sell India the new F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. As M K Bhadrakumar argued in this space (see Hindu art of double hedging against China, Asia Times Online, November 10), New Delhi must weigh the advantages of its strategic alignment with the United States against the fact of American strategic disengagement under the Obama administration. Whether India takes up the American offer for the F-35’s depends on a number of factors, including the disappointing pace of progress in its joint development of a Fifth Generation fighter in cooperation with Russia. The F-35’s though, will not change the perception that Washington is guarding its rear as it withdraws from the region.
The Obama administration has painted itself in to a corner. It cannot cajole or threaten Pakistan. On the contrary, Pakistan is threatening Washington. China’s growing presence in Pakistan reduces America’s capacity to punish Pakistan, for example, by withdrawing support for American-built fighter aircraft. India remains understandably cautious. And the Afghan war, as Mr. Al-Tamimi wrote in the Middle East quarterly, ”will prove at best a massive drain on US resources and lives, possibly reaching a cost of up to $100 billion a year, all for killing a few dozen al-Qaeda militants in a country whose annual gross domestic product is a mere $13 billion.”
To persuade India to align itself decisively with American interests, and China to lower its profile, the United States would have to execute a 180-degree turn. It would have to repudiate Obama’s disengagement and declare its intent to remain the world’s unchallenged superpower, and make this credible by investing in strategic superiority. That would require major investments in aircraft carriers, fighter aircraft, drone technology, and theater missile defense.
That is expensive, but there are other ways to economize. At the same time, America should renounce nation-building in Afghanistan and settle instead for a prolonged, if not perpetual, war of attrition against its enemies. By historical analogy, Washington should handle Afghanistan the way that Cardinal Richelieu dealt with the German Empire during the Thirty Years’ War. Rather than fund a corrupt and ineffective Afghan army dominated by Tajiks, the United States should acquire Pashtun capabilities of its own; perhaps it should quietly support Pashtun and Balochi separatists operating inside Pakistan. Among other things, this is cheaper than maintaining an army of occupation. Cutting off aid to the corrupt Karzai government, moreover, will drastically reduce the cost of hiring local armies.
America’s misguided attempt to stabilize Afghanistan allows Islamabad to blackmail the United States by threatening to promote instability. If the United States accepts Afghan instability as a permanent condition and uses its in-country capability to wear down its enemies in a standing civil war, it can turn the tables by threatening to export the instability to Pakistan. Pakistan has been truncated before, when it lost Bangladesh. It could happen again. The object is not to dismember Pakistan, but rather to persuade Islamabad to behave. If this seems harsh, it is worth recalling that Washington has done this sort of thing before. The Reagan administration did its best to prolong the Iran-Iraq war.
China has a general interest in limiting American power, but it also has a specific interest in forcing Pakistan to crack down on Islamist terrorism. The 100 million Muslim Uyghurs in Xinjiang constitute the greatest threat of a breakaway province within China’s borders, and Beijing has complained that Pakistan’s intelligence services are training Uyghur terrorists for infiltration into China. Islamabad, once again, is not in control over radical Islamists in its own military.
If America puts a figurative gun to the head of the Pakistani government and orders it to extirpate the radical Islamists in the military, two outcomes are possible. One is that Islamabad will succeed. The second is that it will fail, and the country will degenerate into chaos. That is the scenario the American policy is supposed to avoid at all costs, but it is hard to see why America would be worse off. If the elements of Pakistani intelligence that foster terrorism cannot be suppressed, it is clear that they are using resources of the central government to support terrorism. In the worst case, they will continue to foster terrorism, but without the resources of the central government. From America’s vantage point, a disorderly collapse of Pakistan into a failed state is a better outcome than a strong central government that sponsors terrorism. At worst, a prolonged civil conflict between American-backed elements of the Pakistani military and Islamist radicals would leave the radicals weaker than they are now.
The simplest solution to the problem of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal is to frighten the Pakistani army into eliminating the prospective terrorists who might use them. The second-best solution is to send the American army into Pakistan and take the nuclear weapons away. I believe Jeffrey Goldberg’s and Marc Ambinder’s report in The Atlantic Monthly that if the United States were to deploy troops in Pakistan to secure the country’s nuclear weapons, China would raise no objections. If Islamist terrorists were to get hold of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons, China would be at the top of their list of prospective targets.
Much as China might enjoy America’s discomfiture in the region, American and Chinese interests converge around terrorism (and especially nuclear terrorism). Given America’s present weakness, it may take some effort to iterate towards convergence with China. Threats to China’s territorial integrity, though, have Beijing’s undivided attention, and if America makes clear that draining the Pakistani swamp reflects support for China’s efforts to preserve territorial integrity, rational self-interest will assert itself.