Pakistan’s Perfect Storm

Within a matter of days, events on the Afghan border seem to be creating a perfect storm of mistrust and conflict between the United States and Pakistan

: The recent U.S. heliborne attack with troops inside Pakistan’s tribal area; the report that President George W. Bush had signed off on such attacks in July, allowing U.S. forces to conduct these raids without clearance from Pakistan; the short-term shutting down of the U.S. supply route to Afghanistan by Pakistan, ostensibly for “security reasons”; and finally an unequivocal riposte from Pakistan’s army chief General Ashfaq Pervez Kayani that “There is no question of any agreement or understanding with the coalition forces whereby they are allowed to conduct operations on our side of the border.” Unless good sense prevails, the U.S.-Pakistan alliance may be heading for the rocks in a storm that could rent the tenuous alliance between these two “allies.”

There may be good grounds for the U.S. to feel that it has been let down by Pakistan in the past. Pakistan’s ambivalent approach to the Afghan Taliban and continuing hidden links to former Afghan Mujahideen commanders, such as Jalaluddin Haqqani and his son Siraj, came to be at odds with its partnership with the U.S. against militants in the border region. Coming clean on that score may not have satisfied the U.S. Hence the Bush signature on unilateral attacks even perhaps as he entertained the new Pakistani prime minister in Washington this July.

Suddenly the old policy of “a wink and a nod” that worked for President Pervez Musharraf and that appeared to be continuing under the new democratically elected Peoples’ Party government seems to have been set aside. Kayani’s tough statement appears to have widespread public support in Pakistan. The Prime Minister echoed his words. But President Asif Ali Zardari uncharacteristically has been silent. If this portends fissures in the ruling hierarchy then the signs are not good for the balance of power inside Pakistan.

Other dangerous possibilities appear likely in the U.S.-Pakistan relationship. The next time the U.S. physically invades Pakistani territory to take out suspected militants, it may meet the Pakistan army head on. Or it may face a complete a cut-off of war supplies and fuel in Afghanistan via Pakistan. With only two weeks supply of fuel available to its forces inside Afghanistan and no alternative route currently available, the war in Afghanistan may come to a screeching halt. The Bush approach may prove to be yet another example of short-term thinking that damages the longer term objective. The Taliban meanwhile will be applauding from the sidelines.

A major consequence of the U.S. invasion of Pakistan’s territory will be the further alienation of the Pakistani public and a serious internal problem for the fledgling civil government that took over from Musharraf’s autocracy. The U.S. may think it has considerable leverage over the Pakistani government because of the latter’s economic ills and financial straits and its overwhelming reliance on U.S. aid. But it is failing to measure the power of the Pakistani street. Already, a vast majority of people in Pakistan, including inside the army, see the United States with hostile eyes. Anyone in Pakistan seen as aligning with the Americans would lose public favor. And the nationalists and religious extremists will then get a chance to say “we told you so!” and gain the upper hand.

All this is happening as the lame duck Bush presidency is getting ready to pack its bags. But the campaign to succeed Bush is heating up. Cross border U.S. attacks inside Pakistan will distract from the war on terror in the region. They will also divert the campaigns of Senators John McCain and Barack Obama from finding solutions to hurling new rhetorical bombs at each other to prove that each is tougher in the use of military force than the other.

Both Pakistan and the United States need to rethink their actions. Pakistan must prove with actions not just words that it is willing to shed its ties to all militants. The United States must ratchet down the rhetoric and the use of force, especially against an “ally” in this war on terror, a war that will last well into the next president’s term and may be beyond. And it must fully equip the Pakistan army to fight a mobile counter insurgency in its borderlands. Otherwise, the U.S. will not only lose an ally in Pakistan but ignite a conflagration inside that huge and nuclear-armed country that will make the war in Afghanistan seem like a Sunday hike in the Hindu Kush.

Shuja Nawaz is the author of Crossed Swords: Pakistan, its Army, and the Wars Within (Oxford University Press 2008).

A perfect storm brewing in Pakistan

Within a matter of days, events on the Afghan border seem to be creating a perfect storm of mistrust and conflict between the United States and Pakistan: The recent US heliborne attack with troops inside Pakistan’s tribal area; the report that President George W. Bush had signed off on such attacks in July, allowing US forces to conduct these raids without clearance from Pakistan; the short-term shutting down of the US supply route to Afghanistan by Pakistan, ostensibly for “security reasons”; and finally an unequivocal riposte from Pakistan’s army chief General Ashfaq Pervez Kayani that “There is no question of any agreement or understanding with the coalition forces whereby they are allowed to conduct operations on our side of the border.” Unless good sense prevails, the US-Pakistan alliance may be heading for the rocks in a storm that could rent the tenuous alliance between these two “allies”.

There may be good grounds for the US to feel that it has been let down by Pakistan in the past. Pakistan’s ambivalent approach to the Afghan Taliban and continuing hidden links to former Afghan Mujahideen commanders, such as Jalaluddin Haqqani and his son Siraj, came to be at odds with its partnership with the US against militants in the border region. Coming clean on that score may not have satisfied the US. Hence the Bush signature on unilateral attacks even perhaps as he entertained the new Pakistani prime minister in Washington this July.

Suddenly the old policy of “a wink and a nod” that worked for President Pervez Musharraf and that appeared to be continuing under the new democratically elected Peoples’ Party government seems to have been set aside. Kayani’s tough statement appears to have widespread public support in Pakistan. The Prime Minister echoed his words. But President Asif Ali Zardari uncharacteristically has been silent. If this portends fissures in the ruling hierarchy then the signs are not good for the balance of power inside Pakistan.

Other dangerous possibilities appear likely in the US-Pakistan relationship. The next time the US physically invades Pakistani territory to take out suspected militants, it may meet the Pakistan army head on. Or it may face a complete a cut-off of war supplies and fuel in Afghanistan via Pakistan. With only two weeks supply of fuel available to its forces inside Afghanistan and no alternative route currently available, the war in Afghanistan may come to a screeching halt. The Bush approach may prove to be yet another example of short-term thinking that damages the longer term objective. The Taliban meanwhile will be applauding from the sidelines.

A major consequence of the US invasion of Pakistan’s territory will be the further alienation of the Pakistani public and a serious internal problem for the fledgling civil government that took over from Musharraf’s autocracy. The US may think it has considerable leverage over the Pakistani government because of the latter’s economic ills and financial straits and its overwhelming reliance on US aid. But it is failing to measure the power of the Pakistani street. Already, a vast majority of people in Pakistan, including inside the army, see the United States with hostile eyes. Anyone in Pakistan seen as aligning with the Americans would lose public favor. And the nationalists and religious extremists will then get a chance to say “we told you so!” and gain the upper hand.

All this is happening as the lame duck Bush presidency is getting ready to pack its bags. But the campaign to succeed Bush is heating up. Cross border US attacks inside Pakistan will distract from the war on terror in the region. They will also divert the campaigns of Senators John McCain and Barack Obama from finding solutions to hurling new rhetorical bombs at each other to prove that each is tougher in the use of military force than the other.

Both Pakistan and the United States need to rethink their actions. Pakistan must prove with actions not just words that it is willing to shed its ties to all militants. The United States must ratchet down the rhetoric and the use of force, especially against an “ally” in this war on terror, a war that will last well into the next president’s term and may be beyond. And it must fully equip the Pakistan army to fight a mobile counter insurgency in its borderlands. Otherwise, the US will not only lose an ally in Pakistan but ignite a conflagration inside that huge and nuclear-armed country that will make the war in Afghanistan seem like a Sunday hike in the Hindu Kush.

Author’s Note: This article has also appeared on The Huffington Post. I have been traveling in Pakistan, specifically in the border region, and doing more detailed analyses of the situation in the Federally Administered Tribal Area. Please wait for more articles in due course.

The Possibility of Peace in South Asia

New Delhi

Even as two civilian governments struggle to maintain their political hold in both India and Pakistan, recent developments indicate that both recognize that the Possibility of Peace trumps confrontation. This change of mood between two formerly hostile neighbors is a reflection of economic necessity in both countries and the need for civilian rather than military-dominated rule in Pakistan. A couple of weeks ago, while I was in India, the Foreign Ministers and Foreign Secretaries of both met in Islamabad and the focus appeared to be on opening up economic ties, even as conflict resolution proceeded on a somewhat slower track. The head of the leading Pakistan Peoples’ Party of Pakistan, Asif Ali Zardari, called for the removal of visas for travel between the two countries.

If the reactions in New Delhi of Indian officials, journalists, and senior and retired military officials is representative of the general Indian population, there is deep support for this kind of Great Leap towards normalcy. The key is economic necessity. As a leading Indian economist explained to me, India desperately needs Pakistani cement for its rapidly growing economy, enough to install a conveyer belt system at the border to speedily clear shipments from Pakistan. The foreign ministers spoke of their continuing efforts to consummate a gas pipeline deal that would allow Iranian gas to flow through Pakistan to India; this despite US opposition to such trade with Iran. Pakistani businesses have already begun investing in warehouses and infrastructure along the border with India near Lahore, waiting for trade to open up.

Basic economic laws dictate that a country’s major trading partners are its immediate neighbors. Today, Pakistan’s major trading partner is it major military partner: the United States, some ten thousand miles away! It could learn from the Indian example of expanding its trade with neighboring China that is expected to rise from billion today to billion by 2010. In New Delhi, Indians speak wistfully of their trips to Pakistan to stock up, among other things with consumer goods likes ladies shoes. A strong Indian rupee goes far in Pakistan. For the huge Sikh population in the provinces that border Pakistan, there is tremendous potential for both trade and religious tourism: their major religious shrines are located inside Pakistan. If visa-free travel were allowed, Lahore that now has barely two major hotels might find that even 50 such hotels might be inadequate.

I raised the issue of visa-travel travel with President Pervez Musharraf, the architect of the diplomatic opening to India in recent years, and the then Director General Inter Services Intelligence and now army chief General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani in conversations over the past two years. Both recognized the potential benefits of such a move but expressed the fear that there would be opposition from the vocal but tiny religious groups that consider India the perennial “enemy”. Now that he is army chief, General Kayani is in a better position to lead from the front on this issue.

Now, as a new civilian leadership has emerged in Pakistan, led by peace makers Zardari and former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, and the Indian government is laying the grounds for fresh elections while facing tests in provincial polls, it may be time for leaders in India and Pakistan to create a South Asian Compact that would create prosperity for both. If they do this, both countries could reduce their crippling defence expenditures and better meets the vast unmet basic needs of their poorest populations.

Shuja Nawaz is the author of Crossed Swords: Pakistan, its Army, and the Wars Within released in Pakistan and India in May and in the United States and United Kingdom in June. He can be reached at www.shujanawaz.com

Pakistan: Navigating the Perilous Path to Democracy

Pakistan today is taking baby steps back to becoming a democracy again, after nearly eight years of the rule by fiat of General Pervez Musharraf, the “liberal autocrat”. The Nigerian author Chinua Achebe put it very well: “Democracy is not something you put away for ten years, and then in the 11th year you wake up and start practicing again”. Pakistan has been through that cycle twice before, after military rulers and keen US allies, Field Marshal Ayub Khan and then General Zia ul Haq stayed in power for over a decade each. The announced agreement between former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and Mr. Asif Ali Zardari of the Pakistan Peoples’ Party about the restoration of the judiciary represents a major attempt by the newly elected government to respond to the democratic needs of Pakistan and its people.

If the US alliance with Pakistan is to remain but this time with the people of Pakistan, not with any individual, then the US needs to show greater patience and allow Pakistan to reconstruct its political system and make decisions based on the norms of democracy not autocracy. This means, among other things, involving the people of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, bordering Afghanistan, in discussions that will allow them to be consulted in their governance, giving them greater autonomy of action and providing them security through the presence of a well trained military on the one hand and well targeted economic opportunities on the other. Simply upping the military ante will not do the trick.

The US made no attempt to take these wider needs into consideration after it invaded Afghanistan. It was only in late 2006 that the Pakistanis came to the US to seek help in developing the area and building the capacity of the ill-equipped Frontier Corps and other military and para-military forces in the region. Now, the US, Pakistan, and importantly Afghanistan have agreed on a tripartite plan to improve collaboration and operations in the border region on both sides of the frontier. But the earliest training will not begin till this fall. And none of the economic work has begun in earnest. Even when it does it will be a paltry 750 million over 7 years. Of the 150 million a year that was promised, a sizable chunk will flow back to the United States through contracts for consultants. And crippling legislative restrictions on the flexible use of the funds (e.g. to help “convince” local tribes and leaders to collaborate) will mean that only a small amount will find its way to the ground. Unless Pakistan and its overseas partners can show change occurring rapidly in FATA, the Taliban will have the upper hand. After all they are already reported to be paying some Rs. 15,000 a month to their fighters. We have to outbid them in real terms.

In the meantime, Pakistan must bring back some semblance of normalcy to that region by allowing the local tribes to police themselves and work with the government in maintaining law and order. This will help isolate the militants who thrive on the chaos and confusion of constant and sweeping military actions. But, the Pakistan army and paramilitary forces must not cede the space to the Taliban to establish their writ, as happened in the hasty deal of 2006. And the government needs to re-establish for now, and only as a transitional measure, the role of the tribal Maliks and local political administrators who know how to manage the affairs of their tribal society. For the longer term, it needs to find effective ways of integrating FATA into NWFP and Pakistan proper and to raise the quality of life and services available to its inhabitants.

The impatience being shown by elements in the United States government with the attempts of Pakistan’s new democratically elected government to fight the war against terror inside its borders reflects a deeper divide in the way both countries view their past and future relationships. Under Secretary John Negroponte’s forceful pronouncement and body language at the conference that he addressed in Washington DC on May 5 indicated a lack of understanding about the ground realities in FATA and Pakistan. Over the horizon attacks are no substitute for action on the ground and human interaction and intelligence gathering. Moreover, each side needs to understand how the other operates. The US has a shorter time horizon and seeks a quick and simple solution to its difficulties in Afghanistan, a country where, because of the diversion of forces to Iraq, it invested less than necessary military resources and where economic development since the US invasion of 2001 has been spotty at best. Pakistan has a longer memory and time horizon. It recalls how the US decamped from the region and left it in the lurch after the Soviets departed Afghanistan in 1989. It fears that the US will do the same again. It may not take much for that to happen: some well directed and continuous Taliban attacks on the British and Canadian forces would push the politicians in those two countries, who are teetering in their support of the coalition, into pulling out of Afghanistan. That would make it difficult for the US to go it alone, since the rest of the “Coalition of the Almost Willing”, including aspirants to membership of the Western European Club are largely what my fellow analyst Michael Scheuer calls “ditch diggers” not fighting forces.

The fledgling and rather tenuous coalition government in Pakistan has a huge task before it: restoring democracy, the judiciary, and the economy (buffeted by waves of global price increases in food and energy). It will need to reach clear and unambiguous agreements amongst itself, without footnotes or reservations that could be exploited by opponents of democracy and the proponents of the status quo ante. And it will need to gradually restore civilian supremacy over the huge and dominant military. Fighting the wars within Pakistan, against foreign and home-grown terrorists and Islamists, will demand patient planning and careful navigation through the constitutional and bureaucratic minefields sown by the ancien regime. The leaders of the Pakistan Peoples’ Party, Mr. Zardari, and the Pakistan Muslim League (N), former Prime Minister Sharif, have till now shown a desire to talk their way through difficult situations. The political glue holding them together seems to be opposition to General Musharraf. If they fail to work together, their coalition will fracture, giving Musharraf the upper hand again. The new army chief, General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, wisely has given space to the new government to make its own decisions and by maintaining a low profile allowed it to operate fairly autonomously. So must the United States. Otherwise, we risk seeing Pakistan’s latest experiment in democracy fail like many others before it. We do not have the time to re-learn the lessons of democracy every decade or so.

As Democracy Dawns in Pakistan, Challenges Remain

"Democracy is the best revenge." These words of slain former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto must have reverberated in the minds of millions of Pakistanis today, as Pakistan took its first steps toward the true democracy that General Pervez Musharraf promised over eight years ago but could not deliver. The National Assembly elected Syed Yousaf Raza Gillani of the Pakistan Peoples’ Party Prime Minister with an overwhelming 2/3rds majority of 264 votes. His opponent, Pervez Elahi of Musharraf’s supporting Pakistan Muslim League Q Group garnered only 42 votes. Significantly, the first executive order of the new Prime Minister was the release of the 60 judges, including the Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry, from house arrest. A host of lawyers and members of civil society marked their new freedom this evening with an impromptu procession to the former Chief Justice’s home where they raised the Pakistan flag. Standing with him on the balcony as this scene unfolded were fellow Justice Tariq Mahmood and the President of the Supreme Court Bar Association, Aitzaz Ahsan, who led the lawyers’ movement against Musharraf. This flag that had been removed when Musharraf dismissed and incarcerated the Chief Justice through an executive order as the Chief of Army Staff on November 3, 2007. He later had this extra-constitutional order validated by his self-appointed Supreme Court.

Today Prime Minister Gillani promised to restore supremacy to parliament, ending the ersatz presidential system that Musharraf had introduced in Pakistan in contravention of its constitution. Gillani also promised to restore the judiciary to its rightful place. Against this background, a report emerged that Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte will be visiting Pakistan tomorrow to meet with Musharraf. Might it not make sense for the United States administration to finally recognize that power is shifting in Pakistan to parliament and that the presidency will need to return to its titular role without the power to make decisions on behalf of the people of Pakistan? If so, Negroponte’s first call should be on the Prime Minister. And tempting though it may be, he should avoid trying to sweep the army chief, General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, into the US’ stifling embrace. Kayani has promised to take the army back to its professional roots and away from politics. The US needs to stop trying to portray Kayani as a special friend of America. The US now should let the leaders of Pakistan act on behalf of Pakistan. This political change of today may also provide Kayani an opportunity to make his own changes in the army’s high command that Musharraf had stuffed with his favorites before handing over to Kayani last November.

The election of the Prime Minister marked some huge landmarks in Pakistani politics: first, this is the first time that the PPP has a Prime Minister who is not a Bhutto. Indeed, for the first time, the PPP has a Prime Minister from the Punjab, a key province in Pakistan’s polity. Significantly, Gillani is from Southern Punjab, an area that borders Bhutto’s native Sindh province. Second, for the first time, the leaders of the major two political parties in the coalition government, the PPP and the Pakistan Muslim League N Group are not sitting in parliament nor heading the government. Both Asif Ali Zardari, the co-chair of the PPP and Mian Muhammad Nawaz Sharif of the PML N will run their party’s affairs outside the national assembly. Meanwhile an isolated and seriously wounded Musharraf watched these developments from Army House, lacking direct command of the army, previously his sole "vote bank." Moreover, he has no meaningful political support in the national assembly, as today’s vote attested. His extra-legal steps of the past one year are now subject to challenge and risk being overturned by the new coalition government, with its two-thirds majority. Even the PML Q’s majority coalition in the upper house, the Senate, risks being depleted now in the wave of change that emerged from the lower house today and may be unable to block any constitutional changes passsed by the lower house.

In the flush of victory, the Pakistan Peoples’ Party of Bhutto and its coalition partners should pause to take stock of the enormous challenges they face in trying to dismantle eight years of autocratic rule. They will need to hold the coalition together, as individual party objectives clash. Both Sharif and Zardari will have to strongly resist the temptation to call all shots and allow the new Prime Minister to manage the business of government. As a start, the new government could set the tone for its tenure by keeping to a small cabinet rather than the 70 member cabinet of the previous regime that allowed all coalition partners and party factions in parliament to be bought off with ministries.

The other major challenge will be to avoid repeating the past politics of spoils and cronyism that created disillusionment among the population and eventually allowed the army to reassert itself as the key political player on the scene. Restoring the political system should be the first priority. Another major issue will be the restoration of balance to the economy that has had imbalanced growth and recently saw a resurgence of inflation and shortages of key staples and energy. Though it may be tempting for the new government to destroy the local governments that Musharraf’s regime introduced, it may be in the longer term interest of the new government to strengthen these local institutions by giving them greater fiscal and financial autonomy, something that the previous regime resisted. Bringing government closer to the people can only be good for governance. If there are any failures, the independent media in Pakistan with their new-found freedoms will pose sharp challenges to any government n Pakistan today.

Finally, on the security front, the government will need to seriously study and take over the fight against militancy in Pakistan to attack its root causes. It will need to work with the military in this regard to ensure that there is a proper balance between politico-economic measures and military actions in the border region where Al Qaeda and the homegrown Taliban now threaten Pakistan’s stability. Short-term salves and deals will not do the trick. Indeed, the amalgamation of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas into Pakistan proper may need to be put on the fast track. And, the new government will need to carry forward the initiatives that Musharraf launched to normalize relations with India, to reduce the defence burden on Pakistan’s economy, and to allow it to divert resources toward education and health. Some 50 million of Pakistan’s children have slipped through the education net, according to estimates by leading economist Parvez Hasan. The new government will have to turn back this dismal tide.

Pakistan has to play catch up economically and politically. Parliamentary democracy offers it a great chance. Will the politicians live up to these challenges? The time for celebration will be short. And, as the new government will no doubt discover, the time to get the country back on track may also be too short.

Published on The Huffington Post 24 March 2008