ANALYSIS: Limited options —Dr Hasan-Askari Rizvi
The Pakistani government is not prepared to admit publicly that its precarious economic situation restricts its foreign policy options and increases its dependence on international financial institutions and the US
US-Pakistan relations have passed through many ups and downs. Alternating periods of cooperation and sanctions against Pakistan always evoked debate in both countries, reflecting varying degrees of distrust as well as convergence and divergence on bilateral, regional and global issues.
Given the sharp differences in the positions of the two countries in the global hierarchy, Pakistan’s political circles always found this relationship overwhelming. This perception became more conspicuous in the early 1980s when the United States, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and many other states joined hands to build an Islamic-Afghan resistance to the Soviet military presence in Afghanistan.
Since then, US policies towards Pakistan have had greater implications for Pakistan’s domestic context. There were Pakistani winners and losers from the American economic and military assistance and secret funding in the 1980s. In addition to General Zia-ul Haq’s military government, the major winners were Islamic groups and parties. The ISI and the CIA used American funds, material and weapons to strengthen Islamic orthodoxy and militancy to expel the Soviets from Afghanistan. Even when the US left the region in 1990, Pakistan’s military continued to rely on orthodoxy and militancy to pursue its agenda in Afghanistan and it launched a new jihadi project in Indian-administered Kashmir.
The US’ Pakistan policies helped improve the political clout of the extreme right-orthodox religious elements, especially those advocating or pursuing jihad as an instrument of foreign policy and security agenda. This created a symbiotic relationship between Islamic militancy-jihad and the Pakistani state.
The reinvigoration of Pakistan-US relations after 9/11 had similar far reaching implications for Pakistan’s domestic politics.
Islamic parties and militant groups have been the major losers of the current Pakistan-US relations. Their privileged interaction with the Pakistani state suffered initially when the government and the military downgraded their relationship with Islamic and militant groups rather than severing it. However, the drift between the two increased over the years and by 2007, the Taliban and their associates openly turned against their one-time patron — the Pakistani state.
Pakistan’s decision in April 2009 to launch the Swat/Malakand military operation drew the battle lines. In addition to the Taliban and their associates, most Islamists and militants are opposed to Pakistan’s counter-terrorism policies which are described as an appendage to American policies.
The on-going debate in Pakistan on Pakistan-US relations is influenced more by domestic power politics rather than the realities of global politics and the options available to Pakistan against the backdrop of its troubled economy. Pakistani critics have chosen neither to pay any attention to the dynamics of global politics nor take into account the imperatives of promoting internal political cohesion in Pakistan and revitalising its economy.
The current domestic debate, at times emotionally charged, focuses on a number of issues including the physical and personnel expansion of the US embassy in Islamabad, renting of about two hundred houses in Islamabad by the American embassy, and the provisions of the “Enhanced Partnership with Pakistan Act 2009” (The Kerry-Lugar Act).
There are several unsubstantiated issues that are being raised by those opposed to reinvigorated Pakistan-US relations. These include allegations of the presence of an American security agency, Blackwater, and the arrival of several hundred marines, some of whom are engaged in military-like activities in the vicinity of Islamabad. These people also claim that a good number of American personnel enter Pakistan without visas and without the knowledge of the Pakistani government.
Islamic parties and militant groups are pursuing a massive propaganda campaign against the above issues. Their discourse, unsubstantiated by facts, reflects their self-created perceptions influenced by a narrow religious disposition. Most of them rely heavily on a host of conspiracy theories to explain how the US wants to destabilise and undermine Pakistan.
The Jama’at-e Islami, known as pro-West until 1990, spearheads the anti-US campaign and publicises the threat of the US taking over Islamabad or dismantling the nuclear programme by using a private security agencies and American marines that have been sneaked into Pakistan. Such disposition of Islamic and militant groups is not merely ideological but also reflects their fury on the loss of political clout in Pakistan’s domestic context due to Pakistan’s participation in the US-led global efforts to contain militancy, especially the recent military operations in Malakand/Swat and the tribal areas.
Some opposition is coming from the PMLN and others with strong rightist-nationalist orientations. The PMLN is pursuing a two-track policy. The top-most leaders like Nawaz Sharif and Shahbaz Sharif do not publicly criticise current American counter-terrorism policies and support Pakistani security operations in Malakand and the tribal areas. However, the PMLN’s second line of leadership minces no words about Pakistan’s security operations, Pakistan-US relations and especially the Enhanced Partnership Act, which is being described as an insult to Pakistan. Their views overlap with those of the Jama’at-e Islami.
The current attack on the Enhanced Partnership Act is also part of the opposition effort to somehow knock out the PPP-led federal government, which is already facing a credibility crisis due to poor governance. If that is not possible, they want at least President Asif Ali Zardari forced out of office. The current controversies on Pakistan-US relations provide the opposition with a good opportunity to build additional pressure on the government.
The US government has to share the blame for the current anti-US campaign in Pakistan. Some American statements provide ample ammunition to the opposition in Pakistan. The occasional talk of drone attacks in Balochistan to wipe out the ‘Quetta shura’ of the Taliban gets a negative response even from those who actively support counter-terrorism.
The wording in the Enhanced Partnership Act regarding monitoring could have been done more carefully to take into account sensitivities in Pakistan’s political domain. For example, nuclear proliferation has been mentioned three times and the stipulation in section 203 (c)(1) “…to dismantle supplier networks relating to the acquisition of nuclear weapons-related materials, such as providing relevant information from or direct access to Pakistani nationals associated with such networks” can easily cause controversy if not read carefully.
The provision in section 302 (a) (15) regarding “…military budgets, the chain of command, the process of promotion for senior military leaders, civilian involvement in strategic guidance and planning, and military involvement in civil administration” has caused alarm in political circles. Though the Act talks of monitoring only, this is being interpreted in Pakistan as a cover for interference, making it obligatory for Pakistan to seek US approval on these matters.
The government of Pakistan has allowed confusion to persist on the issues being raised by the political circles and the media. Its explanations are often vague and do not fully respond to the questions being raised.
The Pakistani government is not prepared to admit publicly that its precarious economic situation restricts its foreign policy options and increases its dependence on international financial institutions and the US. The government is unable to defend the new US assistance as an opportunity to revive the economy or to counter the criticism by Islamist and rightist-nationalist circles. (Daily Times)
Dr Hasan-Askari Rizvi is a political and defence analyst.