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(Reprinted from Yale Global, February 28, 2006)


U.S. and Pakistan: An Insecure Alliance

Pakistan has to be more than a stop on President Bush’s anti-terror campaign

By Paula R. Newberg

It's hard to know whether U.S. President George W. Bush's visit to Pakistan is a desperate act to shore up an ailing ally, a cheerleading trip to spur on the American anti-terror campaign, or a simple photo opportunity on the road to India. No matter. When President George Bush arrives in Islamabad he will find a deeply troubled government and a country suffused with discontent. Pakistan's governance problems are significantly affected by its relationship with the U.S. just now—and it's President Bush's job to help craft a long-term solution to southwest Asia's security problems and Pakistan's own stability.

The American-led anti-terror campaign lies close to the heart of Pakistan's many woes. Despite almost 70,000 Pakistani troops deployed near the Afghan border, the Pakistan government's seeming impotence in fighting militancy—which the U.S. uses to justify its own clandestine border operations—appears politically ham-handed, tactically incompetent, diplomatically awkward, remarkably inconsiderate of public opinion and thus, oddly complicit with Al Qaeda supporters. U.S. bombing campaigns along the border with Afghanistan leave civilian fatalities and public disapproval in their wakes. To Pakistani villagers, it looks as if a foreign army is waging war on their territory.


  Pakistan and the U.S. claim that their most successful collaboration is in sharing information—and say no more. ... Instead, both traffic in secrecy, duplicity and dishonesty in dealing with their own citizens, and in so doing, foment further distrust among their own citizens.  

Gathering and analyzing intelligence are not public sports. Pakistan and the U.S. claim that their most successful collaboration is in sharing information—and say no more. The current global climate of distrust and fear, and a long, troubled diplomatic history with the U.S., call for both governments to handle their alliance carefully and above all, sensitively. Instead, both traffic in secrecy, duplicity and dishonesty in dealing with their own citizens, and in so doing, foment further distrust among their own citizens. The wages of this shadowy war tax Pakistan's clumsy political system more than it can bear.

A renewed local insurgency in Baluchistan is stoking the fires of national discontent. Bush's advisors have no doubt told him the province is a unruly place whose old-fashioned guerrillas score points against the central government while they skirmish among themselves—and hence, today's battles, like those of old, will fade away with little cost to Islamabad. Such optimism would be unwarranted. It's true that tribal politics can be nasty—but it's also true that Islamabad has never treated Baluchistan as a full partner in its unwieldy federal system, whether in the distribution of natural gas revenues or encouraging political participation.

What Baluchistan has been good for, sad to say, is its astonishingly permeable border with Iran and Afghanistan—good for war, smuggling, corruption and rebellion. Indeed, the porous border areas between Pakistan and Afghanistan have always helped define security policy for both states. But all roads run in two directions: Baluch insurgents found refuge in Afghanistan in the 1970s, Pakistan supplied the Afghan mujahidin in the 1980s through Baluchistan, refugees have ranged freely across the mountains and plateaus in all directions, and today, weapons travel toward Pakistan to fuel insurgency anew.

Although Pakistan and its allies express support for the idea of closing the Pakistan-Afghan border, success has been limited: Weapons and militants continue to move, even when revenues from black market activities shrink. This is why Afghan President Hamid Karzai is so keen to keep the borders closed and step up the hunt for Al Qaeda. But with army installations now insurgent targets, it's easy to see how Islamabad—and potentially, the U.S.—might wrap these secular Baluch nationalists under a broader terrorist flag.

What a mistake. As the anti-terror campaign holds larger meaning for Pakistan's domestic politics—it's equally about the fundamental, if ignored, role of citizens in making policy—so Baluchistan continues to remind Pakistan's government, and should remind the U.S., that tribal and ethnic identities provide a political vocabulary when national identity and enfranchisement are absent.


  Tribal and ethnic identities provide a political vocabulary when national identity and enfranchisement are absent. ... Little wonder, then, that Islamist parties can so easily provoke disturbances by renting crowds to protest policies or events.  

That fragile national identity, framed by almost six decades of unresolved debate about the country's political structure, has left society open to many competing visions of its future. Little wonder, then, that Islamist parties can so easily provoke disturbances by renting crowds to protest policies or events. It is also easy to turn all the people's anger—whether about Danish cartoons or a missile attack on suspected Al Qaeda—against General Pervez Musharraf's principal backer, the U.S.

Pakistan keeps edging toward the moment when it won't be able to govern itself, but recovers almost miraculously from each moment of crisis. Musharraf's military government is demonstrably weak, even as the military enriches itself on the backs of civil society, takes over civic institutions and cumulatively unravels the country's frayed social compact. As a result, more than 35% of Pakistanis are profoundly poor, borders are inadequately defended and citizens cannot redress grievances against the government, militant groups, foreign interlopers or allied armies.

Musharraf has had many opportunities to correct these ills—but hasn't. He has pilloried opposition politicians when they criticize military rule, given the army free rein in civic life, and diminished vital civic institutions, including courts and legislatures. Musharraf has failed to reconcile the army's shallow modernism and the increasingly recondite sectarianism of militant—if officially powerless—political parties. It's an uneven match: Pakistan's Islamist parties are more often loud than correct and generally fare poorly in elections unless they cooperate with the military.

President Bush will soon step onto this disputed landscape. If past experience is a guide, he will see Pakistan solely through the focused lenses of the anti-terror campaign, view the military as the only effective national institution—what a military government always says—and thus limit his vision of a future, constructive U.S.-Pakistan relationship. If he does so, he will misread this complex country, and the U.S. and Pakistan will miss an opportunity to correct course for their relationship and for the Pakistani state.


  If past experience is a guide, [President Bush] will see Pakistan solely through the focused lenses of the anti-terror campaign ... and thus limit his vision of a future, constructive U.S.-Pakistan relationship.  

Although Pakistan's present predicaments are neither solely the result of this complicated alliance nor only the outgrowth of tired and misguided military rule, it has become the joint responsibility of the President and the General to turn their alliance to domestic political good. To Pakistan's profound detriment, this never happened when Field Marshal Ayub Khan, General Yahya Khan and General Zia ul Haq ruled from the 1960s through the 1980s. Following his illegitimate seizure of power and subsequent misrule, Musharraf's broken promises to cede power to civilian rule have indelibly marked his tenure, too. This time, the first step—small as it may seem in the shadow of global terror—is a fundamental shift in Pakistan's governance.

Little in Pakistan, and in its region, will improve until the military understands that the time for its rule has passed. Under no circumstances should the U.S. force, or appear to force, a change of regime. But if Bush seeks a stable, well-grounded, respected alliance between the U.S. and Pakistan, he will have to push for an elected, representative government that can negotiate such an alliance, fulfill its mission, and salvage security for the entire region.

Paula R. Newberg is dean of Special Programs at Skidmore College.

©2006 YaleGlobal

(This article was also published in the Daily Times of Pakistan and the Khaleej Times of Dubai, United Arab Emirates.)




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