THE Pakistan Army chief recently concluded his first official visit to the US. It was déjà vu as far as the trajectory of US relations with Pakistan’s recent army chiefs go. There was a time when Musharraf was considered a darling in Washington: the liberal general who got the importance of supporting the US. Subsequently, he was seen as the master of the ‘double game’, that was costing the US dearly.
Gen Kayani was then cast as the new hope. By the end, he was seen as someone who had exacerbated problems by continuing the same old policy.
Gen Raheel Sharif’s start in Washington has been positive as well. The mutual recognition that military-to-military ties must continue couldn’t have been missed by anyone.
His reception wasn’t one an average army chief would get. The full honour guard, the US Legion of Merit medal, and positive talk about counterterrorism cooperation was a statement alright.
Indeed, the Pakistan Army chief is no longer an unknown commodity in Washington. And he has left a decent impression: of a straight-shooting soldier who seems to mean business on the terrorism front. Déjà vu.
Gen Raheel Sharif’s start in Washington has been positive.
So what of military-military ties now?
It is set to continue. Notwithstanding all the mutual angst over the past decade and views that the US will not take kindly to Pakistan’s military-intelligence combine in the wake of the 2014 drawdown in Afghanistan, US policy seems be operating on a simple calculus: the satisfaction of punishing a bad partner aside, how are US interests served by divorcing a Pakistani military that controls the country’s nuclear weapons and virtually everything on the counterterrorism front.
Yes, technically everything should work through the civilians. But then again, that is not where things get done. And whether you like it or not, policies in statecraft are made to serve interests — short-term more than long-term — not to merely support normative principles. It doesn’t mean Washington is uninterested in democracy. It only suggests that it’s naïve to think that this will ever again imply cutting the Pakistani military off in circumstances where the institution lords over much that matters to the US.
Equally simple on the Pakistani side: for all its bravado about holding its own against the US and its rhetoric about protecting the country’s ‘sovereignty’, the army has thankfully never contemplated being so reckless in reality.
Above all else, the Pakistan military wants the US to continue providing it monetary assistance. This demand was on Gen Sharif’s priority list, and will remain so since Washington is unmatchable in what it can offer — and withhold. Corollary, we can expect the same old: Pakistani demands and US assistance; the levels may vary but the recognition of the import of the relationship will remain intact.
As for what this will mean for Gen Sharif’s standing in Washington, his journey may be different than his predecessors but only because he is operating at a different time in history.
At the end of the day, Pakistani army chiefs do not represent X or Y view as independent actors. They represent a strategic mindset — good or bad, right or wrong — that is embodied by the institution they represent: Pakistan is in a bad neighbourhood; internal terrorism is the most urgent threat; it is partly an outcome of Pakistani policies but more so of US policies in Afghanistan post-9/11; and India is a perennial threat, supporting internal terrorism while seeking to ‘encircle’ Pakistan by creating a two-front situation.
This mindset logically leads the army to a counterterrorism strategy that differentiates between types of militants based on who they are backed by and what sort of threat they pose to Pakistan.
Whether it is because the army is still sleeping with the enemy, or that it truly believes that some of the outfits are not enemies, or because it feels that doing too much too soon would be suicidal given the huge challenge, is a never-ending debate. But the bottom line is that Gen Sharif isn’t about to change this fundamental outlook. It is just not seen as wise within the military and civilian circles that matter most.
Still, Gen Sharif will end up in a different place because Washington’s interest levels in the region will no longer be the same. There won’t be room and need for daily angst and dismay.
During Gen Sharif’s tenure, Pakistan and the US will care most about preventing anything major going wrong on the terrorism or nuclear front. GHQ will do whatever it takes to ensure this. Short of that, Washington will likely ignore the Machiavellian games that shall continue unabated across the Af-Pak-India theatre.
The writer is a foreign policy expert based in Washington, DC. He is editor of Insurgencies and Counterinsurgencies in South Asia: Through a Peacebuilding Lens.
Published in Dawn, December 2nd, 2014