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US-Pakistan relations – Cornerstone to pariah?

Two centuries and some after its birth, the United States still follows the dictums of one of its founding fathers, George Washington, to quote, “it is our policy to stay clear of permanent alliances with any portion of the foreign world”, unquote. The first US President elaborated on this in his farewell address to the American people, admonishing them as a nation, “never make inveterate friends or inveterate foes”, unquote. Unfortunately our unswerving loyalty to the US against the Soviet brand of communism during the period of the cold war has fallen prey to this long-standing Presidential advice, why it rankles is, that even though that is not the US intention, the nouveau friendship of the US with India is seen in Pakistan, rightly or wrongly, to be at the cost of Pakistan. India gave unstinted support to the Soviets during the cold war and on Afghanistan, it was recipient of more defence material than any Warsaw Pact ally during this period but it has not stopped them from becoming darlings of the west. The US post-cold war strategy in the new millennium is primarily economic, yet the present scheme of things is alien to the individual American character that stands up for the underdog against a bully and never forgets a friend. Policy issues may be cut and dried, may be unemotional in content, what makes a nation great is the humanity its leaders inculcate in the policy making. Make no mistake, the US just happens to be the greatest nation on this earth at this time and not by that token alone.

The US President’s agenda will likely be, in order of priority viz (1) nuclear non-proliferation (2) terrorism and (3) drugs, with the Taliban government in Afghanistan figuring prominently in the last two issues as well as separately. Pakistan will present Kashmir and the rapidly failing relationship with India as the core issues requiring US intervention at best and US initiative at worst. No movement at all would lead to disaster of the nuclear-kind. Having described the Kashmir region as the “most dangerous place in the world” the US already has a fair picture of why it makes for a likely “nuclear flashpoint’. More than any other nation in the world, the US can understand why Pakistan, three to four times lesser in numbers in conventional forces than India and without any strategic depth, needs a nuclear deterrent. The overwhelming numerical superiority of Warsaw Pact forces in Europe and the time lag in building up conventional forces by air from mainland US, led NATO to a clearly annunciated policy of the using of tactical nuclear missiles as a balancing mechanism against massed Soviet armour if they broke through the Fulda Gap into the German plains. We live in a very tough neighbourhood complicated by the bigoted nature of India’s octogenarian leaders bent on reversing the course of history even though it may well be at the cost of mass death and destruction of their youth and cities. Our nuclear capability ensures mutually assured destruction (MAD) and acts as a deterrent. The Indians have announced a nuclear doctrine that plans umpteen missiles and nuclear bombs, enough to destroy our cities many times over, even then Pakistan will have enough to do it just once. That would probably be enough. Bill Clinton is one of the foremost exponents of pragmatism and has shown great skill in dealing with the media, he is thus well-equipped to launch an initiative to defuse tensions on a permanent basis i.e. find some solution. Without such an initiative and given the low threshold of tolerance, would the US in all fairness like to handicap Pakistan into signing the CTBT? Or cause us to roll back our nuclear potential and thus give up our credible deterrent? When we are clearly the underdogs in this dangerous scenario, what are the US President’s gut instincts? Will he go the route of cold, dispassionate analytical studies, the type that caused Chamberlain to give in to Hitler at Munich? A policy of appeasement cannot replace a just cause, Churchill said that “an appeaser is one who feeds a crocodile — hoping it will eat him last”. Given the will to remain independent, we cannot afford appeasement.

A short-term initiative could be to help upgrade C3, command, control and communications, in both India and Pakistan so that an unintended accident or even a rogue initiative on either side does not take place. With octogenarians in power in India like Vajpayee, Advani, Thakre, etc (all compatriots of Naturam Godse, the man who shot and killed Mahatma Gandhi for preaching compromise with Pakistan) proposing “limited war” as a possible option, such “accidents” are more likely to happen by design and intention rather than lack of it. The military regime in power is quite unlikely to turn the other cheek. In short, we have a situation tailor-made for nuclear disaster.

Terrorism came to Pakistan as a gift of the Afghan war. Throughout the 80s, Russian KGB in connivance with Afghan KHAD (later WAD) and Indian Research and Analytical Wing (RAW) took active part in terrorist attacks against Pakistan. Bombs exploded in public places in Pakistan, killing and maiming many, sometimes at the rate of more than one a day. Many of Al-Zulfikar camps were openly run in India, for many years the leaders were honoured residents of Soviet occupied Kabul. RAW did not target Pakistan alone, further south LTTE Supremo Prabhaharan was given facilities for training camps in Tamil Nadu run by RAW, the Tamil revolt in Sri Lanka was conceived, run and funded by RAW. Like Bhindranevala, the Sikh who turned against the Indians, Prabhaharan went out of control. Yet without the bat of an eyelash, India tars and feathers Pakistan for perceived ISI operations. Its shortcomings of governance in Assam, Bodoland, Mizoram, Manipur, Nagaland, Tripura, etc have spawned insurgent movements, the Indians blame the ISI, conveniently forgetting that some of these insurgencies date back to before ISI came into existence. Kashmir has an indigenous uprising that has ups and downs for most of 50 years but has gained considerable momentum in the last decade, it is also true that some of those who fought in Afghanistan have shifted to Kashmir but that is the way of all freedom struggles which is distinct from terrorism per se. The CIA actively backed the Afghan Mujahideen during the Afghan war, does that make the CIA the terrorist organisation? All acts against armed Indian occupation forces in Kashmir are legitimate acts of a freedom struggle as much as it was in Afghanistan during Soviet occupation. By the same token, an airline hijack is an act of terrorism and no sane government can ever condone it. Because of US sensitivity to terrorist Osama bin Laden, the Indians are trying to blur the line between his act and that of the freedom fighters in Kashmir.

Linked with Afghanistan and Taliban is the US perception of unchecked drugs proliferation even though Pakistan has virtually eradicated poppy cultivation and brought drugs smuggling to a trickle from the torrent flow it once was. The Army-led Narcotics Control Authority must take the credit, for the past decade they have been on the cutting edge of a successfully waged anti-drugs war. The US has a valid point about poppy cultivation within Afghanistan and the collection of taxes on it by the Taliban government but in the absence of a concerted western funded crop-substitution campaign how does one expect the poor Afghan farmers to subsist? Instead of isolating the Taliban because of Osama bin Laden, the western powers would do well to engage them in dialogue, this constructive engagement will be far more effective than the present policy of isolation. The US has formed a wrong perception that the former republics of the USSR are really “independent” of Russia. All of them without exception have former KGB and communist cadres in their leadership positions, very much like former KGB operative Vladimr Putin in Russia itself. The fears of an Islamic resurgence out of Afghanistan is more self-serving for their continued despotic rule rather than any great vision for their own country’s security and integrity. As regards Iran animosity towards the Taliban, the clash is between different sects where the majority prevails, the Shia community in Iran, the Sunnis in Afghanistan. The Afghans can only be brought into the comity of nations by convincing the Taliban that Islam is responsive to change, that the help of the west is necessary for reforms to get the country out of the 6th century and into the 21st.

A road map for a return to democratic rule must be on top of the agenda, however pragmatic caveats must apply. Given the level of nepotism and corruption, the rapid economic downslide and the political and social polarisation in moving away from the rule of law, what happened on October 12 could have happened in a far bloodier manner a few months later without the Army as a solid institution to hold the edifice together. Pervez Musharraf and his colleagues have a unique chance to correct the anomalies that had disfigured the system. Earlier marital laws had failed because in the end the major players had joined the system rather than reforming it. While there are some decisions which evoke the fear of a return to such a situation, for the most part military rule has been a satisfactory governing process so far. The outstanding factor of this military rule has been the allowing of a free press to function, thus allowing natural accountability to take in place. The ban of political rallies and strikes was a surprise as much as it was unnecessary, it could have been enforced without being annunciated, it gives a negative slant to the perception of benign rule. However in most areas there is a method to the “madness” and institutional reforms are being attempted with sincerity of intent and with the community good at heart, not motivated out of individual and/or special interest group. We are no worse off than the Indians in many areas, they simply hide their dirty linen far better than we do. At the basic electoral level their democracy is a greater sham than ours, the advantage the Indians have is repeated elections have adjusted aberrations rather than correcting them. By a quirk of fate, we have a unique chance to rectify some of the distortions, military rule is a necessary evil. One can spell out a road map for democracy, the Chief Executive (CE) is hardly in a position to lay out the timetable, a fair guess is three to four years. The accountability process will ensure clean, honest politicians into the electoral process in a far more potent democratic environment.

There are rumours that economic issues are not on Bill Clinton’s agenda in Pakistan, this cannot be true. More than other US Presidents for the past few decades Bill Clinton understands how economic prosperity satisfies people. Terrorism, drugs smuggling, breakdown of law, etc and order mostly happens in a bad economic environment. By shoring up Pakistan economically, in particular forgiving Pakistan’s debt very much like Egypt, the US would help Pakistan in no uncertain manner. Only by economic means the people of Pakistan will be brought to prosperity, that prosperity will be the greatest guarantor of peace. People with full bellies, shelter and security do not want to change the status quo, only economic emancipation of the masses can help prevent conflict both within and without the country.

By coming to Pakistan, Bill Clinton has shown that Americans do not ever forget an ally even though events may have overtaken that alliance. Let us build positively on the relationship that once was rather than let it be drowned by the negative vibes that emanate from being judgemental on both sides based on wrong perceptions rather than on facts.


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I did not expect such a self delusional (about India’s RAW being the devil and the ISI being an angel) article from an experienced columnist like Mr. Sehgal who I perceived as a level headed person when it comes to issues related to India & Pakistan.

Why am I not surprised at these comments from an Indian. This is the vicious cycle we are in. Indians just want Pakistan to take all the blame, I ask you to simply list all the things you think that India should have done differently, if you dare to go down that path. e.g. Why does India need to be nuclear? Why are Kashmiris not on the same page as the rest of delusional India?

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