No clear path

The Pak Banker - - 4editorial - Huma Yusuf

THERE'S one thing the world is learn­ing about Pak­istan: this is a nation that likes bi­na­ries. Civil and mil­i­tary; Is­lam and sec­u­lar­ism; dic­ta­tor­ships and democ­ra­cies; China and the US; Sufi and Salafi. Whether it's an ide­ol­ogy, a pol­icy, or an al­liance, if it's dou­ble-edged, twopronged, or Janus-faced, chances are we will have an affin­ity for it.

It thus comes as no sur­prise that the­o­ries about why Pak­istan is re­luc­tant to pur­sue mil­i­tant groups that en­joy safe havens within its border fea­ture two cul­prits: In­dia and Afghanistan.

Wik­iLeaks added a fresh spin to the In­dia the­ory this week by re­veal­ing In­dian per­cep­tions of the Pak­istan Army as "hyp­not­i­cally ob­sessed" with its ri­val mil­i­tary. In­deed, the 'strate­gic as­sets' ar­gu­ment about Pak­istan's pa­tience for mil­i­tant sanc­tu­ar­ies per­sists in many cir­cles, de­spite the fact that mil­i­tant groups have tar­geted about 300 ISI per­son­nel and at­tacked sev­eral agency of­fices in the past two years. When US of­fi­cials con­cede that the Pak­istan Army is, to bor­row a phrase from GHQ, stretched too thin, they are obliquely re­fer­ring to this the­ory. Read be­tween the lines: the army is stretched thin, de­spite hav­ing boosted its north­west­ern ranks to 140,000 troops, be­cause the re­main­der of the ac­tive force con­tin­ues to man the east­ern border. This the­ory, how­ever, is less in vogue these days. Thanks to the find­ings of the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion's De­cem­ber re­view of the long war, there is more in­ter­est in the Afghanistan the­ory of Pak­istani ob­sti­nacy re­gard­ing mil­i­tant sanc­tu­ar­ies.

On this mat­ter, the reign­ing wis­dom in Washington is that Pak­istan is re­luc­tant to stir the hornet's nest that is North Waziris­tan be­cause it is count­ing on mil­i­tant groups based there to serve its na­tional in­ter­ests dur­ing the tu­mult that will en­sue from the grad­ual with­drawal of in­ter­na­tional troops from Afghanistan be­tween 2011 and 2014.

Time and again, Pak­istan has com­plained about the pre­vi­ous con­se­quences of the US de­ci­sion to aban­don the re­gion. Is­lam­abad has cun­ningly re­minded Washington of its cul­pa­bil­ity in the fall­out from the anti-Soviet 'ji­had', and evoked the trauma and sense of be­trayal re­sult­ing from the Pressler Amend­ment. The logic of Pak­istan need­ing a back-up plan in the face of Amer­i­can in­con­sis­tency and un­re­li­a­bil­ity has clearly res­onated - that's why the US has promised us a five-year, $7.5bn civil­ian aid pack­age un­der the Ker­ryLu­gar-Berman Act, as well as a five-year $2bn se­cu­rity as­sis­tance pack­age. Re­peated re­as­sur­ances from both the State Depart­ment and Pen­tagon about the US's long-term com­mit­ment to the re­gion have also been forth­com­ing.

But as on most other mat­ters, Pak­istan is dou­ble-minded on this point too. Our fear that the US will leave the re­gion abruptly is matched only by our fear that it will stay here in­def­i­nitely. This lat­ter con­cern has man­i­fest in com­plaints about US med­dling in Pak­istani pol­i­tics as well as cri­tiques of Amer­ica's ob­ses­sion with Pak­istan's nu­clear pro­gramme. More fre­quently, and more vo­cif­er­ously, such fears have been ar­tic­u­lated as para­noia about fortress-like, pro­lif­er­at­ing US em­bassies; ar­rivals by the planeload of Black­wa­ter agents; US mil­i­tary con­trol of the PAF Shahbaz Base at Ja­cob­a­bad dur­ing this sum­mer's floods, and more.

It is sur­pris­ing that this ex­am­ple of Pak­istani schizophre­nia and con­tra­dic­tory think­ing is not high­lighted more of­ten. Is the gen­uine fear that the US will make a rapid, back­door exit from the re­gion, leav­ing us to pick up the pieces? Or that it is here to stay for the fore­see­able fu­ture? The an­swer to that ques­tion is vi­tal in un­der­stand­ing the broader Pak­istani ap­proach to­wards mil­i­tant groups. It is also one that gets at the heart of the co­nun­drum that is Pak­istan, and re­veals more about our polity than it does about US for­eign pol­icy or in­ter­na­tional re­la­tions.

In his writ­ings, Rai Shakil Akhtar draws a use­ful dis­tinc­tion be­tween two Pak­istani world­views, which adds nu­ance to the usual civil-mil­i­tary du­al­ity. By Akhtar's con­struc­tion, these are ex­em­pli­fied by the 'sta­tus quo group' and the 'agents of change'. The for­mer com­prises the tra­di­tional feu­dal elite sup­ported by re­li­gious and con­ser­va­tive forces; the lat­ter in­cludes the busi­ness elite, aca­demics, and many sec­tions of the me­dia. Al­though Akhtar does not clar­ify where the mil­i­tary lies in his cat­e­gori­sa­tion, I would ven­ture that in the con­text of this dis­cus­sion, it leans to­wards the lat­ter group.

By con­sid­er­ing our es­tab­lish­ment through the lens of these two groups (again, the dou­bling), Pak­istan's in­con­sis­tent ap­proach to­wards the pa­ram­e­ters of US re­gional in­volve­ment be­comes clear. The sta­tus quo group wants the US to leave - they do not want to vie for con­trol against an ex­ter­nal source that could dis­rupt the power and prof­its they en­joy as a re­sult of un­chal­lenged (and largely un­taxed) land own­er­ship.The agents of change, on the other hand, are cog­nisant of the ben­e­fits that can be wrought from a sus­tained in­volve­ment with the US: devel­op­ment projects, lu­cra­tive tar­iffs and trade deals, mil­i­tary mod­erni­sa­tion, and, with Washington's sup­port, stand­ing as a global player on the world stage with the power to in­flu­ence mul­ti­lat­eral de­ci­sion-mak­ing.

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