A surprise awaited at the summit. President Obama refused to meet the Pakistan president ‘one-to-one’ unless Pakistan agreed to the immediate release of all the ‘held up’ cargo at the Karachi port. To his credit, President Zardari did not yield to this crass conditionality. This public insult was inflicted not only on the person of the president but the entire Pakistani nation.
How can this insulting and dismissive American posture be explained?
A major reason for this dismissive US attitude is, of course, the visible differences between the civilians, military, judiciary and political parties. Insulting the president may not have been the smartest move by the Americans. Second, after Abbottabad and Salala, the US has apparently concluded that the Pakistan armed forces are unable or unwilling to retaliate against US intrusions and attacks. The US thus refuses to accept any restrictions on future operations within Pakistani territory. Third, US officials are well aware of Pakistan’s financial constraints. Since, at present, the US administration cannot offer financial incentives to Pakistan, further reducing or blocking payments due or promised to Pakistan is viewed as a ready instrument to squeeze concessions from Islamabad.
Fourth, it seems that the politico-military strategy in Afghanistan has shifted again. Reconciliation and talks with the Taliban do not appear to be a priority any longer. The US commander in Afghanistan declared at the Chicago summit that US-Nato forces will continue a combat role as needed after the 2013 handover to the Afghan army. Even after the planned 2014 withdrawal, special forces will remain to prevent a Taliban takeover. Thus, the war in Afghanistan will continue between the US-supported Northern Alliance and the Pakhtun insurgents. Ambassador Blackwill, the former US ambassador to India, and, more recently, CNN host Fareed Zakaria, have both articulated this approach. It fits in with America’s strategic alliance with India.
Fifth, this more hostile approach to Pakistan also converges with Obama’s re-election requirements. Despite killing Osama bin Laden, and other hawkish exploits, President Obama remains vulnerable to Republican assertions of foreign policy weakness. Another major military success could revive Obama’s flagging poll numbers. Until recently, most analysts thought a US-Israeli attack against Iran’s nuclear facilities may serve this purpose. But the Iranians will react strongly, directly and asymmetrically to such an attack. After the events of 2011, American strategists may see Pakistan as a far ‘softer’ target.
It is uncertain if either the US or Pakistan has fully thought through the potential consequences of their possible military confrontation. Whatever its weaknesses, Pakistan will be compelled by national sentiment to respond to another US attack or intervention across its borders. A limited ‘engagement’ could escalate rapidly into wide-ranging hostilities. If, during such a crisis, Pakistan’s strategic command believes that the US military strike is aimed to capture or destroy its nuclear and delivery capabilities, it may feel compelled to use rather than lose these capabilities.
To avoid such a miscalculation, Pakistan’s new nuclear deterrence doctrine, aimed to deter aggression from not only India but also from other sources, needs to be clearly and publicly spelt out. The apocalyptic danger of a military conflict between two (albeit unequal) nuclear powers should be addressed urgently by the international community. The US-Nato should accept the measures Pakistan has proposed to avoid another shooting exchange. The US cannot continue to claim the right to strike at will within Pakistan’s territory without Pakistan’s concurrence.
On the other hand, Pakistan should help to speed up the total withdrawal of US-Nato forces from Afghanistan. The transit routes should be opened primarily to enable them to withdraw peacefully. Given the changed nature of the relationship, including cuts in moneys owed to Pakistan, it is not unreasonable for Pakistan to demand ‘market rates’ for this service. Pakistan cannot and has no obligation to ‘deliver’ the Taliban to a non-existent negotiating table. If and when the negotiating process is revived, Pakistan should do what it can to help in evolving arrangements for a political peace in Afghanistan. Pakistan should hold back the Taliban from cross-border attacks on the US and Nato forces and expect that they will reciprocate by preventing attacks by the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan on Pakistani civilians and soldiers from their ‘safe havens’ in Afghanistan.
Finally, Islamabad must prepare for the post-American Afghanistan. The Kabul regime, which the US Special Forces will continue to support, may last as long as Najibullah; but sooner rather than later, ethnic and power divisions within the Afghan National Army, and dwindling western largess, will trigger its collapse and fragmentation into ethnic and regional militias and escalate the Afghan civil war and spread its contagion to Pakistan. Pakistan should take the lead to construct an alternate and more peaceful scenario for Afghanistan and the region. It could promote a forum, perhaps under the rubric of the Islamic Conference, to commence an informal dialogue between all the major Afghan parties. Simultaneously, it should generate support for an Afghan national unity government from Afghanistan’s neighbours, including Iran, China, the Central Asian states and Russia.
Needless to say, Pakistan can play this positive and unifying role in Afghanistan only if it is itself united on its policies. The adoption of the parliamentary guidelines was a good step in this direction. American insults and injuries should convince all power centres in Pakistan that our salvation can be found at home, not in Washington. We should not sell ourselves for scraps of aid or transit fees, nor be intimidated by superior power. Strength lies in national unity and pride. We must continue to demand an American apology to revive engagement. The preceding analysis may be overblown. But responsible Pakistani policymakers cannot afford to dismiss the possibility that this analysis is close to the truth. They must anticipate the consequences of US policy and postures on the basis of its current actions and postures.