Something has changed

Published May 15, 2011

TWO weeks after Abbottabad, the jury’s still out on Pakistan. Who knew? Who didn’t? And does anyone at all feel bad about the whole thing?

While international journalists and US lawmakers continue to ask these questions, Pakistan observers are at pains to point out that the answers matter little given that nothing has changed — the status quo has been maintained.

Their cynical stance alludes to the civil-military power dynamic in Pakistan; the oscillating nature of the US-Pakistan relationship; military strategy in Afghanistan; and the overall shape of global terrorism. On this point, however, the observers are wrong. Something has changed. Thanks to the unilateral raid of Osama bin Laden’s house, Pakistanis have glimpsed a potential future when the world’s policies towards their country shift from engagement to containment. Not surprisingly, they do not like what they see.

Recently, a prominent local talk show host caused an international stir by pointing out the historic, gargantuan flaws in Pakistan’s national security strategy and demanding change. His harangue did not reverberate in isolation. Across the country, the slow grumble of accountability is finding voice. Pakistanis want to know exactly what is going on, why their country is the biggest haven for terrorists, and how it’s going to work out in the end.

Bin Laden’s killing is not in itself a game-changer. But the circumstances of his death crystallise the challenges Pakistan will face when it finally reckons with military thinking that sees militant groups as ‘strategic assets’ that can be deployed as proxies against enemies. If one considers how Pakistan might begin to evolve beyond this strategic posture, it quickly becomes apparent that there are no good options.

Let’s start with the no-change-in-strategy option. In the short-term, particularly as the US plans a valid endgame in Afghanistan, international patience with militant safe havens will wane. Under increasing domestic pressure to reduce defence expenditure and facilitate troop withdrawal, it is possible that the US government may opt to take military action against Pakistan-based militant groups.

Such interventions would no doubt cause a breakdown in the bilateral relationship, and spell equal trouble for both parties.

The US would certainly find its task in Afghanistan more challenging. But the consequences for Pakistan would be far more devastating, as cessation of foreign assistance could precipitate an economic collapse.

In a more dramatic scenario, a terrorist attack against foreign targets, perhaps in the US or India, might be traced back to Pakistan. Depending on the nature and scale of the attack, the affected country would be compelled to take retaliatory military action. Even if the reaction were restrained, it would necessitate a belligerent Pakistani response and thus spur Islamabad’s diplomatic isolation. More troublingly, in the event of a more severe or widespread response, Pakistan could find itself embroiled in a contained conflict, or, in a worst-case scenario, war.

Taking a longer view, if Pakistan allows militant groups to proliferate and seek sanctuary within its borders, it will lose whatever credibility it has left and find itself banished to the margins where rogue states languish. Trade treaties and diplomatic relations will be less forthcoming, as nations will hesitate to establish ties with a state that is seen to sponsor terrorism. Unilateral strikes against militant havens would also probably become more frequent.

In all these eventualities, Pakistan would find its sovereignty violated, its armed forces cornered or compromised, and its diplomatic relations degraded from engagement to containment, causing this already fragile state to edge ever closer to failure. On the other hand, the Pakistan Army cannot neatly solve the ‘strategic asset’ dilemma by reversing its decades-old policies and taking military action against formerly state-supported militant groups. Action against militant leadership would no doubt result in a severe backlash leading to devastating civilian casualties. Attacks such as the horrifying suicide bombing at a paramilitary training centre in Charsadda on Friday would become commonplace. (Granted, that attack was probably not a direct retaliation to the killing of Bin Laden, but the fact that the Pakistani Taliban has claimed it as such indicates what direction the group’s future activities will take).

The fact that Pakistanis die and Pakistan suffers no matter what course of action our establishment adopts with regard to homegrown militant groups is sobering.

It also explains why the leadership’s responses to the Abbottabad fiasco have involved so much navel-gazing. Army chief Gen Kayani has been visiting garrisons, hell-bent on asserting his authority; the PPP-led coalition government has been issuing pro-US and pro-army statements by turns in an effort to ensure its longevity; and the PML-N has taken this opportunity to curry further favour with the judiciary, while hitting out against the government. This petty politicking hardly counts as crisis management, but it begins to make sense once one realises that a more profound discussion only brings bad news for Pakistan.

In this context, parliament’s decision on Friday to revisit national security strategies is disappointing because of its focus on foreign relations (particularly the bilateral relationship with the US). What will it take for Pakistan to contend with the reality that its greatest threats are internal rather than external?

The time has never been riper for a parliamentary review of security policies to tackle head on the challenges outlined above. But it seems unlikely that the establishment will be forthright about where the trouble really lies. Pakistanis can therefore anticipate more unanswered questions and nothing but bad choices.

The writer is the Pakistan Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Centre in Washington.

huma.yusuf@gmail.com

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