US priorities for 21st century

Published January 9, 2012

THE US unveiled its priorities for 21st-century defence on Jan 5, 2012 in a brief document titled Sustaining US Global Leadership: Priorities for 21st-Century Defence.

The document comes out at a time when Pakistan-US relations are going through one of its periodic lows. It coincides with US combat forces out of Iraq and the Pentagon overseeing the drawdown in its Afghanistan mission.

The document, as stated by President Barack Obama, identifies US “strategic interests” and guides “defence priorities and spending over the coming decade”.

Pakistan’s security policymakers and security analysts need to read and understand this document carefully, and the policymakers should keep it in mind as they recalibrate the nature and direction of bilateral ties with the US.

There are three main interconnected areas identified at the core of US national security interests. The US will seek its own national security along with those of its allies and partners. It will work towards “an open and free international economic system”. Thirdly, it seeks “a just and sustainable international order where the rights and responsibilities of nations and peoples are upheld, especially the fundamental rights of every human being”.

The military will be but one of the means to achieve these national security goals. The promised new military would be the one that is “agile, flexible and ready for the full range of contingencies”.

On the face of it there is nothing in the declared US interests per se that should put Pakistan on a collision course with the US. In fact, if Washington pursues these interests in an even-handed manner then Pakistan could be a beneficiary of an international system led by the US.

However, that would require a fair amount of rethinking and reordering on the part of Islamabad in engaging with the world’s foremost military power.

But the devil is always in the detail. Leon Panetta, secretary of defence, elaborating on President Obama’s security vision lists the following missions that will constitute the core of US national security in the following years.

These include “defeating the Al Qaeda and its affiliates and succeeding in current conflicts, deterring and defeating aggression by adversaries, including those seeking to deny our [US] power projection; countering weapons of mass destruction; effectively operating in cyberspace, space, and across all domains; maintaining a safe and effective nuclear deterrent; and protecting the homeland”.

The first three issues are actual and potential points of contention between Pakistan-US bilateral ties. The US believes that Al Qaeda and its affiliates remain active in Pakistan and that Islamabad is either not doing enough, or is incapable of doing enough, in nabbing the Al Qaeda activists.

The US considers South Asia, along with the Middle East, as primary loci of these hostile forces. The US does not rule out the possibility of “directly striking the most dangerous groups and individuals when necessary”.

Because of the centrality of Al Qaeda in the US national security priorities, Pakistan, in all likelihood, will remain one of the chief concerns of the US national security establishment. It is imperative that makers of Pakistan’s national security policy are cognisant of this fact because Washington would remain intricately involved in South Asia even as it reduces the numbers of soldiers deployed in Afghanistan.

Countering the spread of nuclear weapons is another plank of the US national security priority. Pakistan’s name remains sullied because of A.Q. Khan’s suspicious role in the international nuclear arms bazaar. Islamabad has a long way to go before it can rehabilitate its image as a responsible nuclear power in the eyes of US policymakers. Lastly, challenging US power projection is an undefined area but at a perceptual level Pakistan’s role in the region, particularly in Afghanistan, to some degree is viewed in Washington as challenging its power projection.

The US has been working on and has announced its grand strategy for changing times. Can the same be said about Pakistan? We will have to wait and see what the Parliamentary Committee on National Security (PCNC) recommends by way of overhauling the country’s national security strategy and, equally important, how willing the country’s armed forces are to abide by those recommendations.

Hopefully, the members of the PCNC will carefully study the just released US document as they finalise their recommendations for Pakistan’s national security policy.

As it stands, Pakistan appears a house divided, at times different arms of the state conveying the impression of being on divergent and contradictory paths in prioritising and pursuing national security.

The higher echelons of the armed forces effectively declares the country’s ambassador to Washington as someone working to undermine the interests of the country’s army; the former foreign minister accuses the president of compromising national security; the president fiddles with Pakistan’s stated position on nuclear weapons without running it through the concerned agencies. These are all signs of an ill-conceived and badly executed national security policy.

Because of Pakistan’s India-centric security policy, Islamabad has traditionally viewed US-India-Pakistan relations in zero sum ways where India’s gain is perceived as Pakistan’s loss.

The new US strategy has elevated India to be a long-term strategic partner whom it will support “to serve as a regional economic anchor and provider of security in the broader Indian Ocean region”. Pakistan does not need to construe this as the US conferring the status of regional hegemon on India.

The US document names China and Iran as countries that are likely to use asymmetric means to counter US power projection; Pakistan does not get direct negative attention in the report. That is a good sign provided Islamabad does not let anti-American rhetoric within Pakistan dictate its policy towards Washington.

The writer is a Canada-based scholar.



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