America’s unending Pakistan predicament
The US must resolve realism-idealism conundrum and decide where its long-term priorities rest — with the military or civil forces, explains Dr Ashutosh Misra
As political developments in Pakistan gather steam following Nawaz Sharif’s dismissal and the unfolding military’s schema for “mainstreaming” the Jihadi and sectarian groups, the US-Pakistan ties are heading towards an uncertain future. Although Pakistan has displayed a discernible clarity of strategic thought in aligning with China, for the US, how to control Pakistan’s behaviour is proving to be an unending predicament. Even worse, the Pakistani military also understands the US predicament well, being fully convinced that as long as the US and NATO troops remain stationed in Afghanistan, the US has little option but to keep the General Headquarters in Rawalpindi in good humour.
The US has so far employed mixed strategies — from warning grunts to suspending military/economic aid and launching unilateral military strikes against Pakistan-based jihadis and jihadi groups, to mitigate threats emanating from Pakistan. However, in spite of eliminating around 2,000 Taliban and Al-Qaeda cadres in drones strikes since 2004, the US has failed to dismantle the military-jihadi industrial complex in Pakistan. So, how can the US ensure Pakistan’s compliance, if President Donald Trump’s South Asia policy has to deliver the stated outcome? For this, the US needs to understand the dynamics of civil-military relations in Pakistan and how they shape the country’s behaviour.
The military-jihadi industrial complex has evolved after decades of close collaboration in Afghanistan and Kashmir, where the military employs the virulent jihadi groups as strategic assets. While the Jamaat-ud Dawa, Jaish-e-Muhammad, and United Jihad Council provide operational support in Kashmir, the Haqqani network provides Pakistan the much needed game-changing leverage in Afghanistan. Domestically, the JuD is now also promoting the Milli Muslim League as a political alternative to the Al-Qaeda and ISIS ideologies, much with the military’s blessings, heralding a new chapter in the complex’s domestic operations.
For the men on the horseback, it has been a long time out of power, and with billions in investments pouring into the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, it is time to retain power, and there could be no better allies than the Islamists to expand national and regional influence.
The dismissal of Sharif by the Supreme Court was a clear sign that the military is hungry, and the Generals are itching to regain control over policy-making. Upset with the public humiliation of Pervez Musharraf, Sharif’s peace overtures towards India and increased monitoring of the GHQ and ISI by Sharif, the military has had enough. The siege of Islamabad by Islamists against a proposed ‘blasphemous’ legislation in Parliament — the military snapped and declined to intervene, saying, “they were its own people”, and a Major-General was even seen distributing money to the protesters — signified the rise of the complex in Pakistan.
In addition to the civil-military contestations in Pakistan, the US’ ability to control Pakistan has also been constrained by the latter’s strategic drift towards its all-weather ally China, following India’s drift towards the US since the US-India nuclear deal in 2006. With over $46 billion resting on the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, China has no intention of undermining the complex, and has supported Pakistan in the UN by blocking the proscription of JeM leader Maulana Masood Azhar and UJC Chief Syed Salahuddin, by India, the US, Britain, and France.
In the rapidly transforming regional alliances, the window of seeking Pakistani compliance seems to be shutting fast on the US, for which, it also must share some blame. While Trump went ballistic over Pakistan’s non-compliance over winding up the jihadi groups, he refrained from flagging the issue in his meeting with Xi Jinping a few months ago. The list of 75 militants, handed over to Pakistan by the US, also did not include Hafiz Saeed’s name, a man with $10 million over his head in the US. These are symptoms of the US’ Pakistan policy paralysis, which haven’t gone unnoticed in GHQ.
Pakistan seems to have treaded too far down the win-win road to Beijing to heed to Trump’s warning grunts, and considering the contradictions in Trump’s Pakistan engagements, his South Asia policy is foredoomed to failure. Having met the Prime Minister, Foreign Minister, and the Army and Inter Services Intelligence chiefs, the US Secretary Rex Tillerson informed the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that the US administration had struck an information-sharing and action-based understanding with the Pakistani counterparts, hoping “they (Pakistani military) will act if the US provided information”.
For any US-Pakistan watcher, this policy lacks any appreciation of history. It is no secret that from George W Bush to Barack Obama, all US administrations have failed to secure the trust of the Pakistani military, and Trump seems to have ignored this key lesson of history. General John Nicholson, head of the US and NATO troops in Afghanistan, also sees no visible change in Pakistani behaviour since the new South Asia policy was articulated. Former Chairman of the Jt Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, had also stated that the Haqqani network is controlled by the ISI, and the release of the Boyle-Coleman family from Haqqani captivity after five years testifies that claim.
So, how can the US secure Pakistani compliance? There are three broad options at this point. First, the US must resolve the realism-idealism conundrum and take a call on where do its long-term priorities rest — with the military or civil forces? If history is any guide, the military cannot be trusted. Feeding into the military’s inflated ego will only accentuate its defiance. As the power-hungry military gains ascendancy, the US warnings would go unheeded, with Pakistan sinking deeper into the dragon’s spell. The US must, therefore, diligently try to establish the supremacy of Parliament and civilian authorities, rallying the Commonwealth members alongside, to remind Pakistan that any move to topple democracy would mean suspension of its membership. To prevent another military ‘double game’ in Afghanistan, the US must uphold Parliament’s supremacy and cold-shoulder GHQ.
Second, the US should continue the freeze on all pending military reimbursements and future military and economic aid, if the military undermines democracy and nurtures the complex further.
Third, US President Trump must also push Beijing to put pressure on Pakistan to purge the jihadi safe havens, scoring its advantages also for the CPEC’s success. Failing which, the US should galvanise India’s presence in Afghanistan and all potential impediments along the CPEC and BRI stretch. Beijing must be reminded that both CPEC and BRI are its assets as well as soft underbelly.
To control Pakistan’s behaviour, the US needs a more nuanced understanding of the civil-military contestations in Pakistan, how it is shaped by external factors, and also how its shapes its security and foreign policies. If Pakistan, and more so Rawalpindi, draws its strengths from Beijing, then it will also be controlled from there. In other words, both Islamabad and Beijing must be told that CPEC and BRI will have to pass through Washington!
The writer is India Programme Coordinator, Griffith Asia Institute
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