A working transaction

Published October 18, 2015
The writer is a member of staff.
The writer is a member of staff.

THE ally from hell. The desi mother-in-law. They’re our enemy. No, we’re their enemy. It’s that time again — Pak-US is in the news.

Trouble is, the relationship is so old, the lines so rehearsed that it’s easy to forget what’s really going on.

The standard line is that both sides are lying to each other, and at least one side is lying to itself. But they’re not.

The real problem is on the Pakistani side. Because it is a security relationship and it is a relationship with the world’s greatest power, there are domestic consequences.

Hawks in America argue we — the army, really — are duplicitous and experts at milking naive American politicians.

As of Sept 30, the US has transferred $31.3 billion in all types of aid, military and civilian, to Pakistan since 2002. That’s a little more than $2bn a year.

It is supposedly a great con. Dumb Americans gett­ing their pockets picked by a crafty Third World junta.

But what, really, has the US paid Pakistan for? Basically, since 9/11 and the US-led war in Afghanistan that began in Oct 2001, the Americans have engaged with us for three reasons.

One, to help them wage war in Afghanistan. Two, to help wage war on Al Qaeda in the Af-Pak arena. Three, to keep terrorists away from our nuclear weapons.

On all three counts, we have apparently screwed the Americans. The Taliban are our allies. OBL was our guest. And we’ve gone and built so many nukes, big and small, that it’s a bigger headache than ever.

Ergo, Pakistan is the ally from hell.

But what the hawks in America won’t tell you is that the Americans have pretty much been getting what they’ve been paying for. And it’s been bought on the cheap.

Here’s how. One, it bought them a chance to wage war against the Taliban and see if they could win. That’s it — a shot at winning and no more.

Think of it this way — the Taliban are Pakistan’s greatest ally in a messed-up country on our border and we helped the Americans wage war on them.

That war has cost the Americans roughly a trillion dollars. The residual force that is to stay on will cost them about $20bn a year.

But for $2bn a year, we gave them a shot at creating an alternative future for Afghanistan. An alternative future with uncertain consequences for how the military here defines our national security priorities.

Frankly, it’s our boys who cut a bad deal for themselves.

Two, we cleared the way for the Americans to go after Al Qaeda here. And have they. They’ve droned the heck out of Fata and killed more Al Qaeda No 3s than anyone can remember.

The CIA probably hasn’t even counted the number of AQ rank and filers taken out over here since 9/11, unilaterally and in concert.

Ah, but there’s that business of Osama, you’re thinking. Sure, we had him. But once they found him, we also watched them walk in, take him out and walk out again — and soon enough went back to doing business with them.

Osama remains Obama’s greatest foreign policy/national security success. It helped ease him to re-election.

Meanwhile, our best insurance policy against getting invaded if another 9/11 happened was gone. When they found him, we moved on.

Two billion a year is chump change — not money from chumps.

Three, the boys love their nukes more than life itself. It is their one ticket to permanent relevance. It is also a genuinely scary story — it’s just not a good idea to hug both nukes and militants close.

That alone merits a two-billion-dollar-a-year transactional relationship between the US and Pakistan — the Americans need access to Pakistan if they’re to prevent their worst nightmare from coming true.

And do they get access. Maybe not to the nukes themselves, but definitely to the programme’s managers — and to the military at large.

Those intimate conversations help shape a sophisticated American understanding of our nuclear prog­ra­mme and, possibly, how to shape its future direction.

Put all of that together and America gets what it pays Pakistan for — no more and no less.

The real problem is on the Pakistani side. Because it is a security relationship and it is a relationship with the world’s greatest power, there are domestic consequences.

How much of the American eagerness to work with Pakistan and the boys’ alacrity for working with the Americans affects the trajectory of democracy in Pakistan?

Just asking the question puts you in the camp of loons and ideologues. But it is real enough.

The way the US has defined its interests means what it basically needs from Pakistan are security things. And that shapes who is relevant here and who is not.

Since 9/11, there’s nothing the US has asked of Pakistan that makes civilians relevant. When you’re incidental to the biggest foreign policy and national security demands from the biggest player in the world, that distorts what happens at home.

Which is a pity. No mainstream civilian wants to dominate Afghanistan. None consider militants to be a tool of statecraft or a fundamental ally. None advocate more and more nukes.

Whether it’s Afghanistan, militancy or nuclear weapons, most civilians do not have the same approach as the army’s. That’s why the army needs to dominate them.

And the US has judged that it needs the army.

The dirty little secret of the Pak-US relationship is that it works — for the US and the boys, anyway.

The writer is a member of staff.


Twitter: @cyalm

Published in Dawn, October 18th, 2015

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