Recycling Pakistan

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In February 2008, the Brookings Institution of Washington, DC, hosted an exercise in moral abstraction with the title "The US-Pakistan Strategic Relationship". The panel at this event consisted largely of old friends. In this case, two military philosophers, General Anthony Zinni, one-time boss of US CENTCOM, and General Jehangir Karamat, former chief of staff of the Pakistan army and one-time ambassador to Washington. Also present was Richard Armitage, formerly of the State Department, and very popular in some quarters after 9/11 for threatening to bomb General Musharraf and Pakistan back into the Stone Age.

General Karamat, a decent and honorable empire-loyalist, understood what was expected of him on the Brookings platform. The strategic relationship was not about the inevitable strains in a sixty-year-old wrangle, but about the immediate needs of the United States, which have shaped Pakistani policy for decades.

"Ladies and gentlemen," began poor General Karamat, "the sort of questions that are being asked in terms of the US-Pakistan relationship right now are what is really happening in Pakistan’s western border areas, why is it happening, and what is Pakistan doing about it." He tried to explain as best he could that the situation was complex, Pakistan was not to blame for the expanding militancy and that the traditional tribal leaders had been virtually eliminated and replaced by militants. He warned gently against any attempt to erode Pakistan’s sovereignty because it would be counterproductive and concluded by stressing the importance of the "strategic relationship that has a great future".

General Zinni was at his patronising worst. He knew the Pakistan army well, he said. His first direct contact had been with a battalion that fought in Somalia in the early 90s and had performed extremely well in a difficult situation. He might have been General Charles Gordon commending the courage of his Indian sepoys in helping to crush the Taiping rebellion in Nineteenth-Century China. Zinni knew Karamat well and was pleased to inform the audience, "General Karamat is a graduate of Leavenworth, the Leavenworth Hall of Fame as a matter of fact. He takes pride in that, and I know that for a fact."

Zinni went on to back Karamat’s view that Pakistan should not be overpressured on its western border. It had lost a lot of soldiers already. (In fact, though Zinni did not say so, more Pakistanis have died in the cross-border Afghan war than U.S. soldiers or mercenaries. The Pakistani military deliberately underestimates its casualties. The army claims that 1000 troops were killed during the Waziristan campaigns in 2004 through 2006. When in Peshawar in 2007, I was repeatedly told by local journalists that the real figure was over 3000 killed and many thousands wounded.)

The show came to life when Richard Armitage took the microphone. Cutting through diplomatic niceties, Armitage pointed out that Pakistan was in a mess, that it had been so since 1947, and was no longer a country but four countries (a reference to the country’s four provinces) or a bit more if one saw Waziristan as Qaedistan.

He accepted only partial US responsibility for this state of affairs and isolated it to the US mode of intervention during the Soviet-Afghan war: "We knew exactly what we were doing in Pakistan at the time, and we knew exactly what was going to happen in Afghanistan when we walked away. This was not a secret." In other words they knew perfectly well that they had handed the country to religious groups and Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency (ISI). What they were doing was using Pakistan as a "Kleenex" according to one senior official or, more accurately, a "condom" meant to prevent the US getting dirty, as a retired and embittered general once described the "strategic relationship" to me.

US priorities have determined Pakistan’s domestic and foreign policies since 1951. The long period of foreplay culminated in the Afghan climax. So enthralled were the Pakistani military by the experience that they became desperate to repeat it in Kashmir and Kargil against India, forgetting that a condom can’t do it on its own.

Crucially, in his speech at the Brookings event, Armitage, like Zinni and Karamat before him, opposed as counterproductive the pressuring of the Pakistan government to permit U.S. troops to operate on Pakistani soil, a discussion that had been taking place behind closed doors in Washington for well over a year. (At the time U.S. presidential hopeful Senator Barack Obama had made an ill judged intervention, publicly demonstrating his virility in military matters by supporting the hawks and calling for U.S. attacks inside Pakistan.)

Armitage said that he saw the future of Afghanistan related closely to a stable, democratic polity in Pakistan, but not a Venezuelan-style democracy — an odd remark given that there is no immediate possibility of this, though it certainly said a lot about his other preoccupations.

On April 12, 2008, the US President informed ABC News that the most dangerous area in the world now was neither Iraq nor Afghanistan, but Pakistan, because of the presence of al Qaeda, who were preparing attacks on the United States. The point of this announcement was obvious, though not spelled out: to prepare public opinion for possible search-and-destroy missions inside Pakistan. It had turned out that drones by themselves were not sufficient.

The real problem — which neither Armitage nor the retired generals addressed at all — was the war in Afghanistan, along with the problems of governance in Kabul, where a regime fully supported and supervised by the United States is supposedly in charge.

The futures of the the US and Pakistan are certainly interrelated, but as the 2008 elections in Pakistan demonstrated, the nature of this interrelationship is quite different to the one imagined in discussions like the one at the Brookings Institution and among many US policy chiefs.

The religious groups and parties which are seen to be the problem for both countries actually have little mass support, and the armed-struggle jihadi currents enjoy even less. As well, the crisis resulting from Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan is now creating havoc inside Pakistan and affecting morale in its army. The solution to this lies in Kabul and Washington.

Britain’s most self-important viceroy to India, Lord Curzon, famously remarked that "no patchwork scheme will settle the Waziristan problem…Not until the military steam-roller has passed over the country from end to end, will there be peace. But I do not want to be the person to start that machine." To expect the Pakistan army to do so, and as a result kill thousands of its own people in regions where it recruits soldiers, is to push it in a suicidal direction. Even the toughest command structure might find it difficult to maintain unity in these conditions.

Were this attempted directly by the United States, the Pakistan army would split, and hordes of junior officers would likely decamp to the mountains and resist. The military high command, regularly receiving reports of substantial numbers of soldiers surrendering to much smaller contingents of guerrillas, is well aware that the war in the Frontier Province is extremely unpopular among its troops. The soldiers surrender because they don’t want to fight "America’s war" or kill coreligionists. Junior officers have been taking early retirement to avoid a second tour of duty on the Afghan border. This being the case today, it is not difficult to imagine the result of a direct US intervention inside Pakistan.

At the time of this writing, the Iraq war has cost $US3 trillion. An all-out war inside Pakistan would require a great deal more. Were the Pakistan army to accept money and weaponry to become the steamroller referred to by Lord Curzon, the "jihadi finger on the nuclear trigger" so frequently cited by the West might well become a self-fulfilling prophecy. The regional solution is the only serious way out of this crisis.

Armitage accepted that religious extremism had little support in Pakistan, but stressed the crisis of leadership and governance, pointing out the lack of an obvious replacement for President Musharraf: "Unfortunately,the late Benazir Bhutto had a chance as a democratically elected leader, and I think it not for nothing that she found herself in Dubai for a number of years, and Mr. Nawaz Sharif also has had his difficulties. I am not being particularly nasty, I am just pointing out the fact that one of the things that we have to deal with now is that we do not have a ready candidate for soldier of the month."

This view is not much different from my own, with the following proviso. The search for a military pinup to salvage a crisis should come to a permanent halt. The latest incumbent, like his predecessors, has been an abject failure.

Most US analysts underestimate the way that continuous Washington-backed military interventions have wrecked the organic evolution of politics in Pakistan, leaving it in the hands of mediocre and mottled politicians who have, till now, shown few signs of learning from past mistakes and whose only skill is in the relentless pursuit of personal wealth.

It is indisputable that the joint victors of the February 2008 general elections — Bhutto’s husband, Asif Zardari, and the Sharif brothers — are tried-and-tested failures. An atmosphere of stifling pusillanimity and conformity prevails inside their political parties where compromises and deals are the prerogative of the leader alone. They were elected primarily because, as is increasingly the case in the West, when policy differences in a globalised world are minimal, electors tend to vote against the incumbent. Musharraf had outlasted his welcome. His cronies were unpopular. With large-scale manipulation having been vetoed by the new army chief of staff, the elections were cautiously rigged to deny any single party an overall majority, in accordance with the US-brokered deal worked out earlier with Benazir to make her Musharraf’s junior partner post-elections.

A recycling of the country and its modernisation is perfectly possible, but it requires large-scale structural reforms. To focus on Pakistan’s problems as religious extremism and dual power in Waziristan, or the possession of nuclear weapons, is to miss the point.

These issues are not unimportant, but the problems relating to them are a direct result of doing Washington’s bidding in previous decades.

The imbalance between the military discussion on the one hand and the social conditions it inhabits on the other is glaring. In 2001, when US interest in the country resumed, debt and defense amounted to two thirds of public spending. In a country with one of the worst public education systems in Asia — 70 per cent of women and 41 per cent of men are officially classified as illiterate — and with health care virtually nonexistent for over half the population, a mere fraction of this was left for overall development.

Throughout the 90s, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) had scolded civilian governments for failing to keep their restructuring promises. Musharraf ‘s regime, by contrast, won admiring praise from 1999 onward for sticking to IMF guidelines "despite the hardships imposed on the public by austerity measures." Impoverishment and desperation in the burgeoning city slums and the countryside — still home to 67.5 per cent of the population — were exacerbated further.

Some 56 million Pakistanis, nearly 30 per cent of the population, now live below the poverty line; the number has increased by 15 million since Musharraf seized power. Of Pakistan’s four provinces, the Punjab, with around 60 per cent of the population, has continued to dominate economically and politically, with Punjabis filling the upper echelons of the army and bureaucracy and channeling what development there is to local projects.
Sind, with 23 per cent of the population, and Baluchistan, with 5 perc ent, remain starved of funds, water, and power supplies, while the North-West Frontier’s fortunes have increasingly been tied to the Afghan war and heroin economy. On top of this, it was only through a Saudi commitment to provide oil on long-term credit in May 2008 that Pakistan was able to temporarily resolve a cash-flow crisis.

In the face of such poverty and stagnation, the policy focus on a military solution to Pakistan’s problems grows increasingly absurd.

This is an edited extract from Tariq Ali’s new book, The Duel: Pakistan on the flight path of American power, published by Simon and Schuster Australia.

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