x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Pakistan's problems, and the myth of American influence in Islamabad

Pakistan's demise has been predicted since it was created 64 years ago. But its resilience is being tested by the unprecedented threat of religious militants who wage their war in its cities.

During a meeting between the American ambassador to Pakistan and the former prime minister Nawaz Sharif in 2008, the Pakistani leader said that the "best thing" America had done recently was arrange to have the general Ashfaq Kayani appointed as chief of army staff.

"The fact that a former prime minister believes the US could control the appointment of Pakistan's chief of army staff speaks volumes about the myth of American influence here," the ambassador, Anne Patterson, noted drily in a cable to Washington that was published by WikiLeaks last month.

It is probably not for lack of trying.

During the past nine years America has given Pakistan about $12 billion in military aid, and billions more are promised for economic and development projects to prevent the nuclear-armed state from sliding into anarchy. For all that money and the expansion of its drone wars in the tribal areas to kill militants, the United States has achieved very little good in what anxious observers frequently describe as "the most dangerous country in the world". A country that also happens to be producing nuclear weapons at a high rate.

The well-being of its neighbours and the future of violent Islamism are inextricably linked to Pakistan's stability. A breakdown in the state machine, either sparked by militants or widespread riots in response to its disastrous economy (foreign debts are about $53 billion), would have consequences far beyond its borders.

Pakistan's demise has been predicted since it was created 64 years ago, but it has proven remarkably resilient. Yet the unprecedented threat Pakistan faces is the spread of religious militants who use its cities to carry out violent attacks against the country's leaders and ordinary citizens, where once the bloodshed was confined to the messy borders of Afghanistan and Kashmir.

That the governor of Punjab, Salman Taseer, was murdered by a member of his elite corps of bodyguards for speaking out against blasphemy laws is particularly chilling, because it increases fears that religious extremists have penetrated all parts of Pakistani society. The ruling elite appear no longer capable of protecting their own. From there it is perhaps not a stretch to worrying that Pakistan's nuclear arsenal, about 60 to 90 nuclear ballistic missiles, may fall into the wrong hands with the help of someone in the security apparatus with sympathies to fundamentalist groups. Lashkar-e-Taiba, an extremist organisation widely believed to have carried out the November 2008 attacks in Mumbai and other suicide bombings, has in the past expressed interest in acquiring a nuclear weapon. It is this worst-case scenario that drives the policy of the United States in Pakistan and probably keeps Barack Obama and his generals awake at night.

Could those nukes fall into the wrong hands? How secure those weapons are is not known, although the US has given $100 million in technical assistance to ensure that they are locked up properly. The Americans have not been given access to all the nuclear sites, but it is believed they are under heavy guard. There is a 1,000-strong security force overseen by a two-star general who is part of a larger, 8,000 to 10,000-strong strategic plans division that manages Pakistan's nuclear weapons, according to the Nuclear Threat Initiative, a group dedicated to non-proliferation.

It is, in fact, unlikely militants could take over the state, not least because the groups are not unified. And even if there was such a possibility, Pakistan's military is capable of counter-reacting.

In addition, extremists do not have political support from the general population, which means it is unlikely they would be brought to power by the ballot. The leaders of far-right political groups seem to have a huge say in public life, but they always end up at the bottom of the polls in elections.

Most Pakistanis do not appear to be concerned by extremist groups, anyway. In a survey of public attitudes last year of 2,000 adults carried out by the Pew Research Center, only 23 per cent considered the Taliban the biggest problem. But 53 per cent said the greatest threat to Pakistan was India.

The consequences of instability in Pakistan for India would be enormous. India, which has a vastly larger military than Pakistan, has long accused its neighbour's military of supporting anti-Indian jihadist groups in Kashmir and Afghanistan. At the very least India would amass troops along the eastern border in such a situation. But any confrontation would probably be averted by international intervention. India is being courted by leaders of the western world as it enjoys the prestige of a economic superpower on the rise. Indeed, the country's growing ties to the global economy make it susceptible to diplomatic pressure to not act in haste.

Then there is Afghanistan. Yet, its biggest worry is the withdrawal of all Nato and US troops, which could result in militants pouring across the border and into Kabul. A civil war would be the most likely outcome.

It seems obvious that Pakistan's and Afghanistan's stability are closely linked. The dramatic rise of the Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan during the past decade has coincided with Pakistan's problems with home-grown militants. They are clearly destabilising Pakistan, and its ability to protect its citizens, attract foreign investment and develop the economy.

But Patterson, the US ambassador, wrote in a cable posted on WikiLeaks:"There is no chance that Pakistan will view enhanced assistance levels in any field as sufficient compensation for abandoning support to these groups, which it sees as an important part of its national security apparatus against India."

"The only way to achieve a cessation of such support is to change the Pakistan government's own perception of its security requirements."

It brings to mind the phrase "cutting off your nose to spite your face".