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It's time to send Pakistan's army back to the barracks

June 03, 2013 12:36 IST

Pakistan's Prime Minister-elect Nawaz SharifThe US needs to do three things to help the newly elected Nawaz Sharif government in Pakistan, says Stanley A Weiss

It’s final exam season across the United States. In that spirit, let’s take a quick quiz. See if you can identify these countries:

  • Country number one has nuclear weapons. It has terrorised its people and threatened to kill Americans with a nuclear strike. For that behaviour and more, America has imposed economic sanctions on it for decades.
  • Country number two is developing nuclear weapons. It has supported terrorism worldwide while calling for the destruction of the US and Israel. For that behaviour, America has strong-armed its allies into supporting tough sanctions against it.
  • Country number three owns the world’s fastest-growing nuclear arsenal and has supplied nuclear secrets and material to regimes that wish America harm. It helped create the Taliban and provides a safe haven for some of the world’s most dangerous terrorists. It hasn’t just threatened American lives; its army and intelligence agency have taken an active role in killing US soldiers. In fact, the nitrate used in nearly 15,000 roadside bombs in Afghanistan in 2010 came from its fertiliser factories. For that behaviour, America has rewarded it with $40 billion in economic and military aid since 1947, including $26 billion since 9/11. 

Putting aside the obvious answers -- North Korea, Iran and Pakistan -- what’s wrong with this picture? Why does Washington treat Pyongyang and Teheran as hostile powers, while supporting a government in Islamabad that uses money from American taxpayers to take American lives? 

The simple answer, as scholar Stephen Krasner argues, is “to buy Pakistan’s cooperation” in a region central to US security. After 9/11, the strategy seemed to work, as Pakistan provided air and land routes to US troops in Afghanistan, helped topple the Taliban government in Kabul and provided intelligence that led to the capture or deaths of numerous terrorists. But over time, as former US ambassador to Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad says, it is evident that Pakistan has been playing “a double game,” feigning support for US goals while providing “sanctuary and active support to insurgents operating against Afghanistan.” 

As Nawaz Sharif takes over as prime minister for an unprecedented third time -- after his Pakistan Muslim League-N party won a near-majority in last month’s parliamentary elections -- it’s time for America to rethink its relationship with Pakistan. It’s clear that as long as Pakistan’s military and intelligence service is allowed to control the country’s foreign and defence policy, America will be at odds with its so-called “ally from hell.” As it prepares to bring troops home from Afghanistan in 2014, America should employ its own double game in Pakistan: isolating the military while providing support to help the newly-elected government succeed. 

Given Pakistan’s ethnic divisions, it is hardly surprising that its military would play an outsized role, ruling the country for half of its existence. In southwest Pakistan, the only desire of the long-persecuted Baluchi minority is to secede and form an independent Baluchistan. In the southeast, the Sindhi population despises the Punjab majority, which dominates the military, and simply wants to be left alone. Meanwhile, in northern Pakistan, the Pashtun, foot soldiers of the Taliban, have never recognised the artificial line drawn through ancestral Pashtun lands in 1893 by the British -- the current border between Pakistan and Afghanistan -- and dream of reuniting with their Afghan brethren in an independent Pashtunistan. 

Into this toxic mix, the army has succeeded by focusing public attention on what former US diplomat Vali Nasr calls “the one constant in Pakistan… fear and envy of India.” It was that fear that first drew America to Pakistan in the 1950s. While New Delhi claimed Cold War neutrality, it actually sided with the Soviet Union, prompting a tit-for-tat minded Washington to send arms and assistance to Islamabad. 

But America has proven to be a fair-weather friend. US support waned when Pakistan precipitated a war with India in the 1960s. It improved when Washington needed Islamabad’s help to drive the Soviets out of Afghanistan in 1979, together creating the Taliban. It waned again when the Soviets left and Washington threatened to declare Pakistan a State sponsor of terrorism for the very extremists the CIA helped create. It improved again after 9/11, when America needed Pakistan’s help in Afghanistan. It soured a third time after a deadly 2008 terror attack in Mumbai, India, was linked to Pakistan’s intelligence service. It nearly ruptured for good in 2011, when Osama bin Laden was found and killed by US Navy seals in Abbottabad, suspiciously close to Pakistan’s military academy.

But the military’s absence from the recent election, despite attacks that took 150 lives, was telling: the army has to regroup. With Musharraf under house arrest for treason, public anger over home-grown extremism rising, the powerful Army chief of staff, General Ashfaq Kayani, set to retire by the year’s end and a new prime minister with a long memory of the military coup that ousted him in 1999, the situation is ripe for change. Better ties with India could help with the chronic energy shortages and increase bilateral trade.

What should the US do? Three things. 

First, help Sharif send the army back to the barracks by suspending military aid, while making clear: drone strikes will end only when Pakistan stops providing sanctuary to terrorists. For a Pakistani military that believes it has leverage “because a large portion of NATO supplies to Afghanistan transits its territory,” as Khalizad puts it, the US should use some of the savings to bypass Pakistan in favour of more-expensive supply lines that reach into Afghanistan from the North. 

Second, help Sharif’s new government solve Pakistan’s domestic woes -- limiting the influence of Islamist madrassas with new secular schools, ending crippling blackouts and improving a dwindling water supply, while shifting the relationship from aid to trade by offering duty-free, quota-free access for all Pakistan exports to US markets.

Third, make an offer Sharif can’t refuse: US support for a crucially-needed new round of IMF loans but only if Islamabad agrees to regular inspections of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal. 

Last month’s election was the first in Pakistan’s history to see one democratically-elected government hand power to another. Here’s hoping that it’s just the first of many good things to come in Pakistan. 

The author is Founding Chairman of Business Executives for National Security, a nonpartisan organization based in Washington, DC.  The views expressed are personal 

Stanley A Weiss