December Issue 2007

By | Opinion | Viewpoint | Published 17 years ago

A couple of months ago, American Senator Barack Obama’s statement about the necessity of directly deploying US forces in Pakistan’s tribal areas generated a lot of furore in Pakistan. Analysts, government officials and the general public were disappointed and shocked to hear Obama’s outburst. How could the US, which claims to be an ally of Pakistan, even contemplate a move that would destabilise the country? The senator’s statement, however, illustrates the nature of Pakistan-US relations and the complexity of American military and economic aid.

Obama, like many other Americans, naturally feels that there should be greater results in the war on terror, especially in Pakistan’s tribal areas. This expectation is linked with the bilateral relationship which, in turn, is based on transfer of resources. Since the alignment began after 9/11, Washington has given Pakistan assistance worth US$10 billion. This includes the monthly payment of US$100 million in direct support of Pakistan army operations in the tribal belt. Other components of the aid package include military hardware and training. The money is being paid to carry out certain tasks. An unfinished task will naturally draw reaction from the one who controls the purse strings.

The frustration often expressed in the US is part of the larger politics of aid. Financial and military assistance is meant to turn the recipient into a client, which is expected to fulfill the strategic objectives of the patron. It always helps if there is a convergence of views between the patron and client states, but a complete convergence of objectives is not expected nor is it possible. Military assistance is usually a more effective tool for the functioning of a patron-client relationship. The client state, which is in need of military technology, is more obliged to comply with the desires of the patron after it receives military technology.

From this perspective, Pakistan-US relations are not exceptional. Washington has traditionally given economic, military and political assistance to different Pakistani regimes, especially military governments, so that the latter fulfill certain goals. The linkage dates back to the 1950s when Pakistan joined the two American-sponsored security alignments, South East Asian Treaty Organisation (SEATO) and Central Treaty Organisation (CENTO). Islamabad received second-hand and refurbished but quality equipment from the US in return for joining hands with Washington to counter Communism. Why, the Pakistani army GHQ even found a convenient excuse for the convergence of views on Communism. Those were the days soon after the attempted coup in the army in which some progressive thinkers such as Faiz Ahmed Faiz were also involved. The army’s top brass presented the coup attempt as a sign of the threat Pakistan’s military establishment faced from Communism. Even in those days, the military was ostensibly the only strong and credible institution that had to be saved from the scourge of Communist influence. It was the only thing that stood between the evil Soviet empire and the free world represented by the US.

An alignment to fight Communism was pieced together again after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979. The American CIA, the Reagan administration and the Pakistani ISI were keen to project the invasion as Moscow’s pursuit of reaching the warm waters through Balochistan. The invasion of Afghanistan was the first step, which would be followed by the next one in the form of the invasion of Pakistan. American President Ronald Reagan and his Republican party were extremely sensitive to the hype of the Soviet threat inside the US, especially in a right wing region called the ‘bible-belt,’ and were close enough to right wing interests such as that of the defense industry not to seize the opportunity to fight this battle against the former USSR.

However, the issue was of the extent of direct American involvement. There had been a change in American policy after the Vietnam War and Washington was wary of committing its own forces. The best option was to help Pakistan and its jihadis fight the battle against the Soviet troops. The proliferation of the narcotics industry and the rise of the jihadi phenomenon is all part of the Afghan war of the 1980s in which the US government did not commit more than a few hundred CIA operatives and about US$10 billion. This money was in addition to the two aid packages given to Pakistan totaling approximately US$7.6 billion.

During the 1980s, Pakistan signed two aid packages with Washington. The first one of US$3.2 billion was signed during the 1980s, consisting of an equal amount of economic and military aid. This money was used to procure 40 F-16s, some refurbished M1A1 Abrams tanks and some naval equipment. Later in 1986, another aid package was signed for US$4.2 billion which would pay for 72 F-16s, three naval reconnaissance and anti-submarine warfare capable P-3C Orion aircraft. Sadly, the aid package was terminated in the middle after imposition of the Pressler Amendment in October 1990.

The bilateral relations pretty much collapsed after imposition of the arms embargo during the 1990s which proved very costly for Pakistan. The US$658 million, which Islamabad had paid to Washington for the purchase of the F-16s, were wasted. The money was returned partly as cash and the rest in the form of grain. The lesson that Pakistan learnt was that the continuation of aid from the US depends on the American perception of threat and Pakistan’s ability to present itself as part of the solution, for as long as it is possible to do so.

The third re-engagement between the two countries appears to be based on relatively longer-term objectives than the previous encounters. The two critical objectives of the US are, firstly, to fight the war on terror and, secondly, to ensure that Pakistan conforms to the nuclear non-proliferation objectives.

On the first issue, the flow of economic and military aid has ensured that the military is cleansed of Islamists and Islamabad undertakes all measures to strengthen its capacity to fight the war. Pakistan’s domestic political issues fall within the purview of the war on terror. There can be minor differences of opinion between the patron and the client, as one witnessed recently after the imposition of emergency in Pakistan. However, ultimately there did not seem to be a huge divergence of policy options which would harm the strategic objective. Musharraf is allowed to make some domestic policy adjustments to help his own cause without threatening the military’s capacity to fight militancy. Washington seems satisfied with the army’s performance in fighting the war on terror. In fact, the army is considered the only credible institution to counter the threat of religious militancy in and around Pakistan.

Similarly, there is convergence on the nuclear issue as well. But some would argue that this does not appear to be the case. Pakistan resists handing over Dr Abdul Qadeer Khan to the US or the IAEA and signing the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). The nuclear issue is an existential issue for Pakistan, which means that a regime’s political survival depends on the position it takes on this issue. Pakistan has managed to convince the US of the significance of its nuclear programme.

This understanding goes hand in hand with cooperating with the US on beefing up the security of the nuclear assets and curbing further nuclear proliferation. The objective of securing nuclear weapons can be attained without handing over Dr Qadeer Khan to any external authority. Why would it want an individual if their objective is achieved in other and more convenient ways? The international opprobrium over the Dr Khan affair has cautioned his other probable accomplices from further proliferation and the government in enhancing the security of the nuclear assets. Since the Khan scandal broke out, Pakistan has worked more closely with the US government in securing its nuclear assets. Recent reports indicate that there is a close collaboration between the two countries on this issue. It is a fact that men from the Strategic Plans Division, which is the secretariat of the National Command Authority, are regular visitors to some American think tanks and get trained in concepts related with the security of nuclear assets, nuclear deterrence and other related issues.

This reminds me of what an American think tanker, who has access to the corridors of power in Pakistan, told me a couple of years ago after he had met with the most powerful man in Pakistan. He said that he was privy to information provided Pakistan’s top boss which if he were to tell me, a Pakistani, would jeopardise Pakistan’s security. So, if Pakistani VIPs can normally confide in the US military, government officials and think tankers, why does Washington really need Abdul Qadeer Khan? The objective has already been achieved.

This is certainly a new phase in Pakistan-US relations, and it is likely to continue for a longer period than the previous two phases during the 1960s and the 1980s. Ostensibly the issues at hand require a much longer engagement between the two countries. It is not just a matter of fighting the terrorists but disciplining a nuclear Pakistan through a longer-term relationship. The economic and military aid, of course, will be used to tweak the Pakistani establishment whenever the need arises.

The writer is an independent social scientist and author of Military Inc. She tweets @iamthedrifter