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Running out of ideas

The circumstances of Osama bin Laden’s location and death have sharply worsened relations between the US and Pakistan but also reminded Americans of their lack of options in dealing with that country. Anatol Lieven writes.

india Updated: Nov 20, 2011 11:35 IST
Anatol Lieven

The circumstances of Osama bin Laden’s location and death have sharply worsened relations between the US and Pakistan but also reminded Americans of their lack of options in dealing with that country. Indeed, if the Pakistanis can persuade China to increase aid, then Islamabad may turn out to have wider options than Washington.

This also limits India’s possibilities in dealing with Pakistan.

If it were proven that the Pakistani army had sheltered bin Laden, then US options would be much greater and much more ferocious. But as so often with Pakistan, nothing is proven or certain. The balance of probability is that some group within the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) knew that bin Laden was there, but incompetence remains a possibility.

And even if the ISI was responsible, it would not be clear if this was on the orders of the high command (probably with a view to keeping him as a bargaining counter for some later deal with the US), or a work of Islamist sympathisers within that organisation.

In fact, the only thing that seems certain is that we will never know for sure.

Nonetheless, anger among the American public and the US Congress is great, and the media is full of discussions about how the US can exert greater pressure. Most discussions focus on cuts in aid.

The problem is, however, that when it comes to US economic and development aid under the Kerry-Lugar programme, not much has actually been delivered, due to a combination of already existing Congressional anger at Pakistan’s sheltering of the Afghan Taliban, along with the inability of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) to monitor how the money is actually spent on the ground.

After what has happened, it seems probable that Congressional opposition will make it impossible to disburse more than a small proportion of Kerry-Lugar.

That leaves us with the possibility of reductions in US military assistance. This, by far, is the greater part of US help to Pakistan, thanks to the military’s predominance in Pakistan and because most of it is at the discretion of the US presidency and not subject to Congressional veto. This is where the issue of China’s aid to Pakistan becomes acute.

Due to the growth of its economy, China is now in a position to match the US weapon for weapon and dollar for dollar if it chooses to do so. Beijing’s statements over the past two weeks have made it clear that as a last resort, China will back Pakistan against US pressure.

Finally, Pakistan has its own means of pressuring the US in the form of the supply routes to US and North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (Nato) forces in Afghanistan. The US could opt for Central Asian routes, but that would tie it to some extremely nasty regimes in that region, while making it very dependent on Russian good will — necessitating concessions to Moscow in other areas.

The success of the Abbottabad raid may create a temptation in both the US and India to emulate it to capture or kill other militant leaders in Pakistan. Short of a complete breakdown in Pakistani co-operation, however, such a strategy should categorically be rejected.

The Abbottabad raid was conducted for the highest-profile target in the world, and involved a lot of luck. If this becomes a pattern, sooner or later a US force will run into a Pakistani unit — and given the anger of ordinary soldiers at US behaviour, the chances are that they will fight.

Where does this leave US and Indian strategy with regard to Pakistan?

On Afghanistan, the chances of real Pakistani compliance in attacking the Afghan Taliban seem close to zero, given the calculations of the Pakistan’s security establishment, the sentiments of its people (especially the Pashtuns), and the general perception that whatever happens, the US will soon pull back its forces.

To turn Pakistan from a problem to an asset requires a shift in US and Indian strategy towards negotiations with the Afghan Taliban leadership. The most important aspect of such a deal would be the withdrawal of all non-Afghan armed forces from Afghanistan. That would mean al-Qaeda, as well as anti-Indian, anti-Russian and anti-Pakistani terrorists; but it would also mean all US and Nato troops.

The Taliban would be given predominant power in the south and east of Afghanistan, and a share of power in a weak government in Kabul. They would also have to promise to suppress the heroin trade in return for international aid to their regions.

This is a deal that Pakistan would be glad to broker, and for which it is seeking Chinese support.

It would, of course, be very difficult for Washington and Delhi to accept, but leaders in both capitals need to ask themselves whether anything better can in fact be achieved in Afghanistan, given the West’s failure in the last 10 years to create an effective Afghan civilian state, and the way in which the speed of withdrawal of US ground troops is being dictated by America’s domestic political agenda.

Of course, any such agreed role for Pakistan in an Afghan settlement depends categorically on its preventing international terrorist attacks from its soil. If there is a major terrorist attack on the US by Pakistanis, then the overwhelming public demand will be for a very harsh response. This will also be true, albeit to a lesser extent, if there is a new terrorist attack against India.

So Pakistan must keep arresting key al-Qaeda figures like the Yemeni Mohammed Ali Qasim, captured in Karachi last week, and it must go on reining in Lashkar-e-Taiba and other groups from resuming their terrorist campaign against India — not for our sake, but for Pakistan’s own.

(Anatol Lieven is a professor in the War Studies Department of King’s College London and author of Pakistan: A Hard Country --Penguin. The views expressed by the author are personal)