Wednesday, Sep 28, 2022

Balance of allies

Pakistan’s options are more limited than its defiance suggests

American and Pakistani strategic interests in Afghanistan were never aligned. Pakistan would like nothing more than to see the back of the last American soldier in Afghanistan,the sooner the better; if shot in the back,even better. The tactical expediency which underlies US-Pakistan transactional collaboration may eventually become unsustainable. The US has always been aware of Pakistani duplicity and its use of terrorism as an instrument of state policy. The decision,nevertheless,to remain engaged with Pakistan,and to extend significant military and economic assistance to it,was based on a judgment that,on balance,this would better serve US interests. The country was the most convenient transit for supplies to support US operations in Afghanistan. It provided,albeit fitfully and selectively,useful intelligence on terrorist and other jihadi groups targeting the West. Finally,it could help broker a peace agreement between the Karzai government in Kabul and the Afghan Taliban,paving the way for a less painful withdrawal of US combat troops from Afghanistan.

During the past year,Pakistan has fallen well short of US expectations on all these counts. It has even turned hostile in some cases,allowing militant attacks on NATO convoys,limiting intelligence-sharing and now appearing to bid for a total capture of power in Kabul by its Taliban proteges,rather than seeking a negotiated power-sharing arrangement. The US has reacted,predictably,by resorting to tried-and-tested methods,threatening suspension of its largesse,demanding action against the Haqqani group in North Waziristan and publicly exposing the Pakistan government’s complicity in cross-border terrorism. But this time round,Pakistan is defiant. It has rejected the US demands that it undertake operations to degrade the Haqqani network.

A key factor in Pakistan’s changed attitude is the perception of declining US power and influence,while its all-weather ally China grows from strength to strength. This has led to Pakistan taking greater risks and adopting bolder moves to advance its strategic interests in Afghanistan. It will be recalled that during a visit to Kabul not very long ago,Pakistan Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani advised Afghan President Karzai not to rely on the US to deliver peace and security,but to turn to China and Pakistan instead. Even if the US were to deliver an Armitage-like threat,as in 2001,to “bomb Pakistan back to the Stone Age”,this no longer appears credible to Pakistan 10 years down the line. This may be a misjudgment but there is no doubt that this is a major motivating factor.

Pakistan may believe that its alliance with China provides it with a shield against escalating retaliation from the US. Has China given any assurances to Pakistan? China would prefer if,at this stage,a Pakistani breach with the US is avoided. Despite divergences with the US on many other issues,China has been remarkably consistent in supporting,even encouraging,US military and economic support to Pakistan. This reduces the burden of maintaining its own alliance with Pakistan and reinforces the larger purpose of using Pakistan to contain India. China would probably counsel Pakistan to avoid a break with the US.

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It is possible that the current downswing in US-Pakistan relations may lead to an irreparable breach. In that case,one should expect China to step in with both enhanced economic and military assistance. This would still be the cheapest way of containing India. If the US attempts to sponsor UN sanctions on Pakistan,expect China to use its veto. Ditto for US attempts to declare Pakistan a state sponsor of terrorism or to put the Haqqani group on the UN terror group list. China is likely to condemn the US for escalating and expanding its drone attacks within Pakistani territory,but it is unlikely to risk any military confrontation with the US on Pakistan’s behalf. The US could retaliate by upping the ante and supply more sophisticated weapons to Taiwan,a “core interest” for China. Pakistan is not.

Pakistan is likely to seek support from its allies in the Gulf,in particular Saudi Arabia. How far the Saudis would go in bankrolling Pakistan,given the unstable and uncertain situation they face in their own region,is debatable. The Saudis are unlikely to risk alienating the US on behalf of Pakistan,given their own security dependence on the Americans. Like the Chinese,they are likely to counsel Pakistan to be prudent,maintain its alliance with the US and do what is necessary to assuage the latter’s concerns. The Saudis could well play a quietly mediatory role.

If this scenario is plausible,it is more likely that the US and Pakistan will work together to fashion a bargain,temporary though it may be. Pakistan could punish a few “rogue elements” in the ISI,put limitations on the Haqqanis’s Afghan operations and restore some of the disrupted intelligence-sharing and security cooperation with the US.


The evolving situation in US-Pakistan relations provides salience to India-Pakistan relations. If one pillar of Pakistan’s anti-India strategy (the other being alliance with China) is becoming shaky,expect Pakistan to avoid confrontation with India. It will want to keep its eastern front tranquil. There is heightened interest in Islamabad in raising the level of engagement and dialogue with India. The decision to grant MFN status to India is a pointer. There may be greater restraint on India-specific jihadi groups,like the LeT,from undertaking major cross-border operations. There may be less meddling in Kashmir. Though this will be tactical,it nevertheless provides an opening that could be taken advantage of. Picking up the threads on Siachen and Sir Creek may be more productive now than in the recent past. No harm in testing the waters.

India should avoid gloating over the fact that the US is now echoing the same charges that India has been levelling against Pakistan for the past several years. It may serve our interests better to adopt a low profile for the time being,while not ruling out a more interventionist role in Afghanistan,should that become necessary. The Haqqani network is,after all,as hostile to Indian interests there as to American interests. Its elimination will suit us just fine.

Pakistan’s stock internationally has never been lower than it is today. The danger it poses to the world as a nuclear armed breeding ground of,and sanctuary for,terrorism is universally acknowledged. There is no market anymore for Pakistan’s perennial lament: “We are like this only. Blame India.” The international community can no longer deflect the responsibility for dealing with the threat Pakistan poses to international peace and security on to India. India-Pakistan hyphenation is truly dead and buried. Amen.


The writer is a former foreign secretary,

First published on: 29-09-2011 at 03:13:07 am
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