STUBBORN, irrational, emotional, paranoid — the self-appointed custodians of the national interest easily lend themselves to parody, if there’s anything funny, that is, about the stewardship of a declining state chock-full of ill-resourced people, well-resourced terrorists and nuclear weapons.
Wherever there is a conspiracy theory against Pakistan to peddle — no matter how convoluted or deranged — someone in that orbit of influence will peddle it.
Unhappily, sometimes they don’t have to try very hard.
The outside world regards Pakistan’s generals as self-interested, which is fine, but also not very competent — which isn’t so good given the volatile mix of factors that has Pakistan seemingly always teetering on the edge.
And that leads to debates and ideas there that play out very badly over here.
A new book is about to hit Pakistani shores that will elicit howls of anger and we-told-you-sos through gritted teeth in certain quarters.
It’s not so much what has been written but who has written it: David Sanger, The New York Times Washington correspondent more plugged in than most to the US national-security establishment.
Sanger’s words carry more weight because he has both access and insight, and what he has to say about debates within the Obama administration on Pakistan will not go down well here.
Put on your best Pakistan-lovin’, everyone’s-out-to-get-us, the bomb-will-keep-us-safe, we’re-a-fortress-of-Islam hat and sample these words from Sanger’s ‘Confront and Conceal: Obama’s secret wars and surprising use of American power’:
“Of course, [keeping Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal] ‘safe’ meant very different things to the men …. To the Americans, it meant preventing terrorists from getting a hold of nuclear weapons or material from the world’s most vulnerable arsenal. To Kayani, it meant, first and foremost, protecting that arsenal from the Americans, and making sure that, unlike that night in Abbottabad when they snuck in to kill Osama bin Laden, no SEAL team could seize or disable Pakistan’s arsenal. It was hardly paranoia. The Americans had an elaborate, well-rehearsed plan to do exactly that, which had been ramped up and revised when Obama came into office [emphasis added].”
With your uber-nationalist hat on, the only thing you take away is: the Americans are out to get our nukes!
The outside world, of course, will focus more on the ‘world’s most vulnerable arsenal’ and probably nod in agreement.
Or try this on for size:
“This approach [a new way of dealing with Pakistan that the Obama administration is debating] — some call it ‘mitigation’ — has three goals. The first is helping Pakistan keep its arsenal safe — while improving the American ability to find and immobilise the weapons if that effort fails. The second is to keep the Pakistani civilian government from being toppled, by the army or extremists, through various forms of assistance. And the third is to keep up the pressure on insurgents and Al Qaeda operatives, mostly with drone strikes.”
What the paranoid here will read: the Americans want our nukes; they know the army is standing in their way so they’re propping up corrupt civilians who will sell their souls for a fistful of dollars; and American activities inside Pakistan are really about destabilising the country, to make it look weak and speed up the end goal of defanging our nuclear programme.
Here’s some more from Sanger:
“There was another reason to establish an ‘enduring presence’ in Afghanistan after 2014 — a reason the White House did not want to discuss. It was Pakistan. The United States could live with an Afghanistan that was messy, even with some parts of the country under de facto Taliban control once the international forces pulled back. But stability in Pakistan — and the security of the Pakistani nuclear arsenal — was another story. The Amerin forces in Afghanistan had a role as a ‘break the glass’ emergency force if Pakistan, and its arsenal, appeared to be coming apart at the seams.”The hawks’ are likely to read: it was never about Afghanistan; getting Al Qaeda was just a ruse; the US wants to use its base in Afghanistan to project power inside Pakistan — Iran too; it’s all about keeping Muslims down — and remake the configuration of power in Afghanistan to favour India and to harm Pakistan.
Of course, less paranoid, more rational minds will see in the debate in the US a less conspiratorial version of reality.First, as Sanger writes, “for all the Pakistani paranoia, there is no good plan for sweeping up Pakistan’s nuclear weapons, largely because on any given day it is not entirely clear where they all are.”
Second, American national-security circles primarily worry about Pakistan not because we have nukes or because we’re a predominantly Muslim country with nukes — they worry about Pakistan because we have both internal instability and nukes. “Pakistan, as Obama told his staff in 2011, could ‘disintegrate’ and set off a scramble for its weapons. It was his single biggest national security concern, he told them — and the scenario he had the least power to prevent.” Three, because Pakistan has been seen through the muddied lens of Afghanistan the past decade, the US is yet to truly sit down and decide what it wants to do about Pakistan.
“So three years into [Obama’s] presidency, the arguments over how to deal with Pakistan still rage. ‘On this issue, more than any other, you get such disparate accounts from different parts of our government,’ one senior State Department official conceded to [Sanger]”.
Those three facts combine to produce something akin to an opportunity for Pakistan: set our house in order for our own sake and the outside world will respond positively.
But the problem with irrationality, emotionalism, paranoia and stubbornness is that opportunities are obscured by ever-present threats, sometimes real, often invented.
The Americans think Pakistan and its army worry about the Fourth Betrayal — a repeat of 1965, 1971 and 1989 when the US either turned its back on Pakistan or refused to help.
But we may already be beyond that; we could be in the realm of the feared Final Betrayal — a Pakistan neutered of the one element that supposedly guarantees its survival: its nuclear programme.
As Sanger claims, one of the first things Kayani did in the aftermath of May 2 was to move around the components of the nuclear arsenal — just in case the Americans tried to take it out.
The writer is a member of staff.