Allies, but not friends

Published in the Dawn on August 30, 2004

By Touqir Hussain

It is said that a turning point in history is rarely obvious when it is happening. It is only long after the events have run their course that one can truly judge whether they had changed the direction of history. It may thus be too soon to appraise any lasting significance of the tragedy of 9/11.

All one can say is that 9/11 did not change history so much as it signalled some profound changes under way in human society. The international order as we have known in modern times is evidently crumbling, and the transition between a dying order and one waiting to be born has fostered non-traditional threats and opportunities raising serious global tensions. This is what provides the broad strategic canvas for the current picture of the US-Pakistan relations.

The essence of a good foreign policy is to recognize the emerging changes and respond within one's capabilities and resources. This is what Pakistan did after 9/11.

Whether Pakistan was forced to do it hardly matters; after all in foreign policy not all the choices are palatable, specially for a small country. Even big powers have to act often under pressure of circumstances. This is how history moves.

The fact is that prior to 9/11 Pakistan was supporting the Taliban, and by implication the Al Qaeda, at an enormous expense of international isolation. Over-strained by years of poor governance and an ambitious foreign policy in the region, Pakistan had neither the political will nor the resources to take on these forces.

The US provided them both. Also Pakistan was on the brink of bankruptcy. Only the US and its friends could bail it out. And they did. As for the US it could not have fought this war on terrorism without critical help from Pakistan, which it got.

Both sides were thus impelled to co-operate because of their national interests. Having done what they had to do, Pakistan and the US are now caught up in powerful currents of history, some flowing in the same direction, some in the opposite.

It is obvious that the US-Pakistan relations are being steered on the one hand, by America's foreign policy, which itself is being driven by international forces and its domestic compulsions, and, on the other, by the dynamics of Pakistan's own circumstances. The friction of these moving parts is raising a question mark about their alliance.

America seems to be in search of a new sense of purpose after the cold war. Apparently what the US wants to do with its monopoly of power is to use it, within the existing international institutions, if possible or convenient, and unilaterally if necessary, to guarantee an unchallenged assertion of its will on what it sees as a menacing, unpredictable and disorderly new world.

The idea is to preserve, at a minimum, its economic and military strength as well as to widen the margin of safety for its citizens traumatized by 9/11. Iraq War is only an extension of this argument to self-defeating ends.

As America might soon realize, there are limits to its power that may come to face, or may already be facing, two big challenges. A potential one by other big powers including allies and prospective adversaries or rivals, however muted their current posture.

But a current and more serious challenge is from issues surrounding the ethics of international system and the prevailing social order in much of the developing world especially in Muslim societies.

This domestic order rests on a degraded economic and physical security and human dignity of the marginalized, weak and the vulnerable, and thwarted aspirations for freedom, democracy and modernization of the liberal intelligentsia, not to mention any regional, ethnic and linguistic discontent.

These societies which have been under a slow and sustained assault from illiberal, pro-western elite for decades, have also to face another force, that of religious extremism fomenting such popular feelings as national honour, social discontent and religious identity.

Aroused by these tensions, much of the Islamic world is in revolt against its modern history. You have three groups here competing for the heart and soul of the Muslim societies - a truculent and fanatical band of extremists peddling a dangerously false version of a great religion; moderate Islamists with a wider appeal seeking a political route to power but not hesitating to use the extremists for their own purposes; and a liberal intelligentsia seeking a secular, democratic and nationalist dispensation. All these groups are jostling for space long occupied by the ruling oligarchies representing an oppressive social order.

The above struggle has entangled the US whose power and influence on behalf of the ruling elite and indifference, if not support, to the unjust international order that generally oppresses the Muslims is under challenge. There is thus a new wave of predominantly religion based-revisionism against the vestiges of the colonialist and imperialist era.

This is the broader strategic background to US re-engagement with Pakistan. which shares some of the above tensions and many more, some unique to its condition. Time was that South Asia was the focus of US interest because of the threat from outside.

But the region has changed and so has the basis for US relationship with it. The threat now is from inside to outside to which, as the US sees it, Pakistan contributes significantly both with its internal dynamics and external behaviour.

The present phase of US engagement with Pakistan is aimed at not only soliciting its help in the war on terrorism but also, as the US professes in its national security doctrine, in its own move towards building a more open and tolerant society.

The 9/11 commission report affirms that much. Thus Pakistan could both be a partner and a target, an ambiguity that has a potential for friction in the future depending on the strategy of the US engagement.

So far the US has been so focused on enlisting Pakistan's help in pursuing its own war on terrorism that it has shown little understanding of Pakistan's long term interests, let alone acting on their behalf.

Many powerful ideas that move men and define a nation's life are playing on these interests, such as nationalism, democracy, religion, ethnicity and regionalism, and pressures for reform, modernization and social consensus. The US engagement has given them a critical mass but the direction of change remains uncertain.

Nationalism has come to the fore by seeking strong expression, at one level, through anti-Americanism provoked by the politically insensitive manner of the military-dominated war on terrorism and the gratuitous shock of the Iraq war, and at another, through the assertion of the will of smaller provinces.

Religion cuts across both, giving nationalism a strong idiom. Liberal aspirations for democracy also flow into anti-American channels but merge with and deviate from the religious wave as religion and democracy both use the same jargon of social protest though advocate different means of empowerment.

The result of all this is complex: national energies are either in collision or in confusion or channelled into illusions and emotions. It is not clear how the fission of all this may influence the future direction of the country.

But one thing is evident that the outcome will be exponential. And the US could be part of the problem or the solution. So could be General Musharraf who has wrested some sense of purpose from this confusion.

Musharraf may have resolved the complexity of the challenge but being under attack from all sides he has failed to build a reformist coalition, and had to fall back on the institution that he represents - the military - and the very flawed political process he had overthrown in 1999. His compromises with the both may have enfeebled his reformist agenda but he remains the only commanding force for change.

Pakistan has been in a mess and it is immaterial how it got there. Whether the military was responsible for it or the politicians, the fact is this mess can only be sorted out by some measure of strong government - a "soft authoritarianism" as they say.

The question of legitimacy is raised but it can be answered by citing successful instances in recent history of "performance legitimacy" specially in East Asia. Yes the military needs to de-escalate its role in politics but this will not happen easily or overnight.

The politicians who have been confederates of the military and subservient to it to protect their own dominant social status cannot command it to change. Only one of their own can.

And the US can help by weaning the military away from its past illusions by meeting Pakistan's genuine security needs, and working with India to seek a lasting solution of the Kashmir problem.

Kashmir is not just a moral issue, it touches every conceivable problem that afflicts Pakistan's body politic and the security environment in the region. Resolution of this dispute and a strong US relationship with both India and Pakistan is central to any US effort to realize its respective interests in either country - be it terrorism, nuclear proliferation, regional peace and stability or democracy.

The US also needs to invest in real social and economic change in Pakistan which would require a much bigger financial effort than the present one and a different aid strategy.

Any benefits of the present aid commitment, which is still following the traditional lines, are dwarfed by the depth of anti-Americanism. The challenges that Pakistan presents, to itself and the US, have magnified.

The US, in cooperation with international financial institutions, and allies like Japan, should arrange major long term assistance to Pakistan that should be people-oriented focusing on social sectors - education, primary health, rural infrastructure - and trade, investment and transfer of technology.

Only a social restructuring and dynamic economy can change the system that subverts democracy and can create conditions that support the emergence of a level playing field for politics and representative institutions.

Pakistan's main problem is its socio-economic structure and not lack of institutions or of capable human resources at the top level. Institutions exist but have been trivialized by their subservience to political purposes, and you cannot shore them up by "institution building" as some of the US studies recommend.

This oversimplifies the reality. Similarly the staking of US relationship on a single individual is also risky. The US needs to distinguish between Musharraf's reformist agenda and his personal ambitions.

The quality and magnitude of US engagement with Pakistan and its staying power should match the enormity of strategic challenges that Pakistan and the region pose to itself and the US interests. Only then could Pakistan and the US become not only allies but friends.