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The end of a geopolitical affair

In Pakistan’s current crisis, why is its military is so reluctant to consider simply seizing power? One reason is that General Ashfaq Pervez Kayani cannot count on the US looking the other way. Pramit Pal Chaudhuri writes.

world Updated: Jan 22, 2012 00:09 IST
Pramit Pal Chaudhuri

In Pakistan’s current crisis, why is its military is so reluctant to consider simply seizing power? One reason is that General Ashfaq Pervez Kayani cannot count on the US looking the other way. At a minimum, Washington would have to slap sanctions on an economically faltering country. At a maximum, it would be the last straw in a bilateral relationship at its lowest ebb since it was first woven in the 1950s.

Pakistan’s establishment claims it has been used and abused by the US, the most serious violation being that country’s stealth attack on Abbottabad that led to Osama bin Laden’s death. There has been the Raymond Davies affair, the endless drone attacks and the increasingly public accusation of double-dealing by senior US officials – the most notable being Admiral Mike Mullen’s linking of the Inter-Services Intelligence with terrorist groups.

There is some satisfaction for India in all this. It has been persistently claiming the existence of a military-terrorist nexus. Many in Washington agree. After Abbottabad, there is no one in Washington who doesn’t. The US-Pakistan relationship, says Daniel Twining of the German Marshall Fund, “was really at a historic high for the past decade but is diminishing.” But it might not matter as much to the US if relations fall apart, he says.

Other events are undermining the basis of the US-Pakistani bond. Islamabad had expected the US to totally retreat from Afghanistan, leaving Pakistan’s Taliban allies in charge. Instead, the US will leave a substantial force behind along with many drone bases. The US is talking with the Taliban, but only desultorily with groups that Islamabad patronises.

With the US Congress also pulling the plug on aid to Pakistan, what is left? The answer is nukes. “If Pakistan didn’t have nuclear weapons, with Al Qaeda almost gone, no one would care a fig about that country,” said one ex-US ambassador to the region. As they realise this, Islamabad is getting more paranoid about the security of its “strategic assets.” The more unstable they look, the more willing the US will be to try and do something risky to salvage Pakistan’s nuclear weapons.

US officials are talking about a “new normal” in their Pakistan relations. This would cut ties to the bare bones: counterterrorism cooperation, limited military transit requirements, Afghan talks, narcotics and some humanitarian assistance. “We’ll have to work with the Pakistan military on a limited basis while negotiations with the Taliban proceed,” says John Schlosser, a former state department South Asia hand.

There seems to be no real understanding among Pakistanis that their leverage is dwindling or how much Abbottabad vapourised their credibility in the US. A parliamentary committee report on how to change the US relationship bizarrely demanded, for example, a civilian nuclear agreement.

It could get worse. “The relationship will fall further if the US finds [Al Qaeda chief] Zawahiri in Pakistan. Or there are terror strikes on India or the US,” says Bruce Riedel, former AfPak advisor to Barack Obama.

The worst thing is that Washington is decoupling just at a time when Pakistan, economically and otherwise, can least afford to lose their most generous international partner.