More sticks - Asif Ezdi - Monday, November 01, 2010

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The writer is a former member of the Pakistan Foreign Service.

The Obama administration’s decision earlier this year to elevate the Pakistan-US strategic dialogue to the ministerial level was meant to reassure Islamabad on two counts. First, that Washington seeks to broaden its cooperation with Pakistan beyond the issues of Afghanistan and counterterrorism which at present preoccupy American policy-makers, to include also such matters as energy and economic development which are of importance to Pakistan; and second, that Washington is interested in a long-term engagement with Pakistan that will continue also after the fight against the Taliban and Al-Qaeda is over. By giving these assurances, Washington expected to lessen mistrust and anti-American feeling among Pakistanis and secure more willing cooperation from Islamabad in fighting the terrorist threat.

After three rounds of strategic dialogue in little over half a year, not many in Pakistan will have been reassured. On the contrary, the intensification of US pressure on Pakistan to “do more” at a time when Washington itself is contemplating talks with the Taliban, US incursions into Pakistani territory and America’s wider plans for the region centring on “making India a global power” have further deepened Islamabad’s mistrust of Washington.

The American apology for the US intrusion into Pakistan has defused this particular cause of friction, at least for the moment. But the US demand that Islamabad “do more” is only likely to intensify further as the Obama administration comes under pressure to show success against the Taliban so that the promised troop drawdown may start from next July.

Several high-level US emissaries like Jones, Panetta and Mullen have met Kayani in the past to convey the message that failure by the Pakistan army to move against the Haqqani group and other Afghan Taliban militants could force the US to act unilaterally. But these warnings have not produced the results desired by Washington. The main purpose of holding the third round of the strategic dialogue only three months after the previous session was to repeat these warnings to Kayani from the highest levels of the US administration before the next US strategy review on Afghanistan which is due in December.

Obama himself dropped in to deliver this message to Kayani at a meeting between the Pakistan delegation and Donilon, the incoming US national security adviser. A press release issued by the White House the same day spoke of the “need to increase pressure on extremist safe havens” in Pakistan. Separately, Clinton also dropped in at Kayani’s meeting with Holbrooke to say that “Washington’s patience is wearing thin with Pakistan’s reluctance to take a more aggressive stance against militant groups operating from Pakistan over the Afghan border.” A similar message was delivered to Kayani in his meeting with Gates and Mullen.

Together with these “sticks,” Washington also offered some “carrots.” A new $2 billion military aid package to be used mainly for the sale of counterterrorism equipment to Pakistan was announced during the Washington talks.

There is recognition in Washington that the hesitation to comply with the US demands comes from the army, not from the civilian government. One senior US official was quoted as saying that “Pakistan’s military can deliver on subjects important to the US but doesn’t want to, while the civilian leadership in Pakistan wants to, but isn’t able.” The press release issued by the White House on Obama’s telephone call to Zardari last week also hinted at the divergent stances of Pakistan’s political and military leaderships. According to the press release, Zardari “acknowledged that more work needed to be done to address the direct threat ... posed by terrorist groups in Pakistan,” a position at variance with that taken by Pakistan’s military leadership.

To express his appreciation to Zardari, Obama expressed support for democracy in Pakistan although democracy is not facing any threat. Obama also invited Zardari to visit Washington next year. The message is clear: Washington would like Zardari to stay in power despite the fact that he faces serious charges of massive corruption and is deeply unpopular in the country.

Whether the combination of carrots and sticks held out by Washington will get it what it wants remains to be seen. One US expert, Michael O’Hanlon, an analyst at the Brookings Institution, is sceptical. He has said that the military aid package announced by Washington was “nothing game-changing” and proposed that to get an “acceptable outcome,” Pakistan should be given a nuclear cooperation deal similar to the one the US has with India. O’Hanlon is not the first American political analyst to have made this suggestion.

But this particular carrot is one that the Obama administration has so far refused to offer. In the official US briefing before the strategic dialogue, Ruggiero, Deputy Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, said quite categorically: “We’re not in any discussions with the Pakistanis on civil nuclear cooperation.”

US double standards aside, the major reason for Pakistan’s failure to get a nuclear deal from Washington has been that we have not made optimum use of our own diplomatic assets. First, Pakistan is an indispensable partner of the US in the fight against Al-Qaeda and the Taliban. Second, Pakistan’s assent is required for the fissile material cutoff treaty (FMCT) that US and other Western countries have been pressing for. Third, without Pakistan’s participation, the nuclear test ban treaty cannot enter into force.

If Pakistan uses these diplomatic cards skilfully, it could also get a nuclear deal like that given to India. But the Pakistan government has other priorities. For Zardari, as for Musharraf before him, retaining Washington’s support for their personal rule is far more important. The present government has recently raised the issue with Washington but in a largely perfunctory manner. Zardari’s own indifference is clear from the fact that he did not bring it up in any of his meetings with Bush and Obama or in his telephone conversation with Obama last week.

Like the government, our parliamentarians and political parties have also been remiss. The question has not been raised in parliament or elsewhere by the opposition. Nisar has now complained of a breach of parliamentary privilege over the government’s failure to brief the National Assembly on the strategic dialogue. But that does not explain why the PML-N has been silent over the question of access to civilian nuclear technology for so long.

A section of our media has been all too willing to swallow the American contention that Pakistan stands disqualified for nuclear cooperation because of its proliferation record. An editorial in Daily Times on 24 October is typical. “Our expecting to be treated like India when it comes to a civil nuclear pact is naïve,” it wrote, “since Pakistan stands accused of nuclear proliferation in the past and has been described as the epicentre of the region’s troubles.”

Actually, it is Daily Times that betrays monumental naiveté by its failure to understand that the AQ Khan network was only an excuse. The real reason was the decision of the Bush administration to “make India a global power,” to quote the then Secretary of State Rice. As a Reuters news story of 8 October said, the US response to Pakistan’s request for civilian nuclear cooperation has been lukewarm because of “fears over how it would affect Washington’s ties with India.”

We will not get a nuclear deal from Washington as a gift but only if we use our diplomatic cards skilfully and demonstrate firm resolve. A test will come next January, when the Conference on Disarmament starts its next session and pressure is mounted on our delegation to withdraw our objections to the commencement of negotiations on FMCT. Washington has warned publicly that its patience with Pakistan is running out. Privately, it can be assumed, even more dire threats have been hurled at Pakistan. Left to himself, Zardari would quickly bow before this pressure. The political parties, parliament, the media and the civil society therefore have a duty to stop him and provide the government with the backbone to stand up to the American threats.


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