Growing isolation

Published December 15, 2011

NOW that we’ve taught the Americans a lesson and they know we mean business, a question: what next?

Our security mavens think they know the answer: to engineer a face-saving exit from Afghanistan the US needs Pakistan, and while the US is still loath to accept that reality, domestic political and fiscal imperatives in the US will force that realisation sooner than later.

It’s like Tom Cruise in that silly movie Knight and Day using hand gestures to explain to a blonde Cameron Diaz her chances of survival. With us, the chances of a face-saving exit from Afghanistan for the US are shoulder-high; without us, they are knee-high.

The Pakistani security apparatus’s calculation could well be right. But it could also be wrong. The US isn’t exactly known for doing what others think it will do or want it to do.

The problem for Pakistan is that the national-security folks have bet the house that they are right. Conditioning its support for the US project in Afghanistan on an acceptance of Pakistan’s view of what needs to be done in Afghanistan is a high-stakes bet:

what if the US chooses otherwise?

Imagine an alternative scenario in which the US decides to do things its own way in Afghanistan and determines that Pakistan is the problem, not just in Afghanistan but generally when it comes to dealing with the terrorism threat regionally and globally.

You don’t even have to try very hard to imagine this alternative scenario: tune in to the commentary on Pakistan emanating from the US and you’d think we’ve already been declared the enemy.

Bill Keller’s piece in The New York Times this week is extraordinary precisely because his relatively sympathetic view of Pakistan is so unusual; patience and tolerance for Pakistan in world capitals is otherwise perilously low.

Scarier than the increasing international isolation of Pakistan, though, is the nonchalance and dismissiveness with which it is being treated out here.

Policymakers here appear so sure the US doesn’t have any choice but to work with Pakistan that they have been blinded to signs that various power centres in the US are increasingly opposed to working with Pakistan.

Maybe some American generals get that they need to work with Pakistan but many influential senators and congressmen do not. And maybe many in the State Department and the White House understand the indispensability of Pakistan but there are powerful voices which believe otherwise.

More often that not, what emerges as policy from the US is a compromise between its various power centres. When, according to the national-security folks here, the US hasn’t done the right thing in 10 years, why are we so sure the same US policymaking apparatus will now converge on the outcome that we desire?

And it’s not just the US which is tiring of us. The whispers from Europe too are increasingly worrying. Before we could rely on the Europeans privately acknowledging that the US had made many mistakes in Afghanistan and that Pakistan was protecting some legitimate national interests.But patience with Pakistan in Europe is increasingly thin. It’s not just a recalcitrant army that is the problem: the perception that Pakistan is being run on the civilian side by a ‘ruinous kleptocracy’, to use Bill Keller’s phrase, that doesn’t have the capacity or interest to govern a state teetering on the edge has exasperated anyone who does want to help Pakistan.

Even Canada — Canada! — is tiring of us. This from a Dec 1 op-ed titled ‘Why is CIDA sending aid to a de facto enemy?’ in the National Post, a conservative newspaper:

“This week, in response to a deadly border incident that involved Nato troops, Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani declared that there will be no more ‘business as usual’ with the United States. Canada should make precisely the same declaration in regard to its own bilateral relationship with Pakistan….

“Every dollar that we spend on civil projects in Pakistan is another dollar that the country’s security establishment has available to it for providing material support to the Taliban and the Haqqani network in the Afghan-Pakistan borderlands. In replacing Pakistan on its country-of-focus list, [the Canadian International Development Agency] can pick from plenty of other poor countries that aren’t supporting the terrorists who are planting the roadside bombs that kill our troops.”

Pakistan may fulminate against the outside world’s unfair attitude towards and betrayal of us but the outside world is just as tired of Pakistan. Right or wrong as the outside world’s thinking may be can Pakistan afford to ignore it?

A state on the verge of bankruptcy, blamed by the world’s military superpower for nudging it towards defeat in its longest war, viewed by the world at large as a hub of terrorism, and critically dependent on exports to and remittances from the very countries that are tiring of it — what about that configuration suggests Pakistan is on a path to anywhere good internationally?

And yet policymakers here are clutching at straws. Hope is seen in the Arab Spring, the situation with Iran and fresh US-Russia tensions.

The thinking is that the Arab Spring has deprived the US of a major ally in Egypt while relations with Turkey are complicated.

Meanwhile, with the West and Iran on a collision course, a second massive crisis in the region will be avoided. And with Putin coming back to power and US-Russia relations slipping backwards, Pakistan’s position on Afghanistan may be listened to more sympathetically.

Because of these other international exigencies, Pakistan will not face serious international punishment, the thinking here goes.

Of such fallacies are great defeats made.

The writer is a member of staff.

cyril.a@gmail.com

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