No clear path
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.