The screws, they tighten on Pakistan’s military establishment

Washington is negotiating by other methods

So the Obama administration has announced that it has suspended $800m in aid to the Pakistani military establishment, amounting to around a third of the annual outlay. This is a bold departure from the traditional throw-more-money-at-the-problem approach that has not quite worked for the United States, Pakistan or other countries affected by the depredations of the military-jihadi complex. It does not yet, however, amount to a decision to cut Pakistan loose. (As I advocated in a recent WSJ op-ed).

Husain Haqqani, Pakistan’s ambassador to the United States, is right when he says a “pause” is not quite the same as “aid cut-off.” In recent weeks, Washington has ratcheted up the pressure on the Pakistani military establishment. (See this post). Cutting off military aid marks a further turning of the knob, albeit a much bigger one. Why? To make the Pakistani military more amenable to doing what Washington wants it to, and what since even before Osama bin Laden’s killing, General Ashfaq Kayani was refusing to do. What might these be? Taking down al-Qaeda linked taliban groups that Pakistan shelters on its soil, permitting US counter-terrorism operations in Pakistan and ensuring that Pakistan’s Afghan proxies do not disrupt a settlement in Kabul.

These are limited objectives. It is premature to conclude that the Obama administration has decided to break with its ally (the Pakistani military establishment), or even to make the rebalancing of civil-military relations a policy goal.

Even so, Washington’s move will have the effect of strengthening the civilian, anti-military political establishment, not least because the country’s elite will see that the all-powerful generals do not have the US behind them. This can galvanise greater opposition to the army although an open revolt is nowhere on the cards. It is unfortunate that at a time when the military establishment is at its weakest, the main political parties are fighting internecine battles. Given the ISI’s history of manipulating the country’s political parties, the eruption of conflict among Pakistan People’s Party, Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz Sharif, Muttahida Quami Movement and Awami National Party might not be a mere coincidence.

As the US reduces its troop levels in Afghanistan and its dependence of Pakistan to provide supply routes, it becomes less beholden to the Pakistani military establishment. Unless Pakistan manages get China and Saudi Arabia to intervene on its behalf, the Obama administration can continue to mount pressure on General Kayani & Co.

The risk now is of the military establishment attempting out-of-the-box solutions to get out of the box.

Post-deluge Pakistan

An assessment

At the risk of being entirely wrong, here is an assessment of the political implications of floods in Pakistan.

1. Fears of Pakistan ending up as a “failed state with nuclear weapons” are overblown. The disaster is unprecedented and the response understandably inadequate but it does not set off an explosive dynamic along political faultlines.

2. Political changes are unlikely. The disaster has further cemented the army’s popularity, allowing it to claim credit for the government’s successes (for it is a part of the government) but avoid the blame for the failures (which accrue to the civilian political leadership). Given the immense challenge of rehabilitation and reconstruction that lies ahead, General Ashfaq Kayani would have to be a conceited fool–which so far at least, he has shown no signs of being–to want to countenance a change in the political set-up. A weak, powerless and unpopular President Asif Zardari is just what he needs. Nawaz Sharif’s hopes to become the prime minister are unlikely to fructify before the next election because he is popular, has political weight and could challenge General Kayani’s hold on power.

3. Pakistan will not only receive debt waivers but also see a relaxation of conditions relating to financial assistance. While this will come as a relief for the government and the elite, it will weaken the endogenous factors that will aid recovery by delaying the implementation of important macro-economic reforms. It will also ensure the perpetuation of the current political setup because debt waivers and unconditional assistance will come much easier if there’s a facade of a democratic government. Furthermore, given that a significant part of the international assistance will be routed through international agencies and NGOs, it will not strengthen the Pakistani government’s civilian capacity.

4. Jihadi militant organisations will become more powerful but will not be allowed to increase their political profiles. This disaster, like the 2005 earthquake, is being used by organisations like the Lashkar-e-Taiba to bolster their credentials as a providers of social services. However, to the extent that the Pakistani government will be dependent on international assistance–and it will become more so in the immediate future—the military establishment will not allow such organisations to make a direct play for power. Let’s not forget that the LeT is a surrogate of the Pakistani military establishment, which, if it wants to, can directly seize power in a coup.

5. The military establishment will use the disaster as an alibi for downgrading its war against the Tehreek-e-Taliban-Pakistan in North Waziristan and elsewhere. Engaging in disaster relief will draw on military resources from the battle against the taliban, but there are deeper reasons for the army’s unwillingness to sustain battle against them. How quickly and to what extent it will resume the fight depends almost entirely on how much the United States can coerce the army.

6. Pakistan’s support for the Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan will not be interrupted. The US will find it difficult in the coming months to press the Pakistan army to cooperate in counter-insurgency operations because of the alibi. The direction of the war in Afghanistan will therefore depend on the Obama administration’s political will and determination.

7. Pakistan’s domestic stability is set to worsen. In the short-term, resettlement of internally displaced persons will complicate the ethnic and sectarian tensions in cities like Karachi, Hyderabad and Quetta. While this is likely to result in greater violence, it is unlikely to lead to collapse of the state. Instability will place an economic cost on Pakistan, damaging endogenous factors that can aid recovery.

8. The insurgency in Balochistan is likely to be contained. To the extent that the army is willing to use brute force and targeted killings to keep the lid on the conflict, and to the extent that the Baloch lack outright political support internationally, the prospects of secession are dim.

9. While radioactivity-leakage risks are low there is some risk to the security of nuclear plants, equipment and material. Such facilities are likely to have been built to withstand such contingencies. However, in the confusion that accompanies such events, there is a higher chance that physical security of nuclear installations can be breached. So far, there are no media reports flood waters affecting nuclear installations.

10.Disaster relief, reconstruction and rehabilitation will be decently funded. Despite the slow start in fundraising, despite concerns over aid distribution, the international community is unlikely to ignore humanitarian needs during the relief phase. However, it is unclear if the Pakistani government has the inclination and capacity to use the funds and goodwill to sustain its efforts beyond the short-term relief phase into the medium-term rehabilitation & reconstruction phase.

11. The US will make only small gains in popularity despite playing a leading role in relief and reconstruction. China and Saudi Arabia are likely to make disproportionately large gains. (In the short-term though, the situation is likely to be the opposite, because the narrative will be factual.)

Tailpiece: Pakistani officials and commentators would do well to avoid using the “unless the world gives money Pakistan will become a nuclear-armed failed state” bogey as it has been used so many times by so many people that it reeks of a shakedown. The humanitarian tragedy is serious enough a reason for well-meaning people and governments around the world to help.

The road that India built

…in Afghanistan

Zaranj-Delaram Map

The 218-km road connecting Delaram (on the Kandahar-Herat highway) to Zaranj, on the border with Iran has been completed (via Swami Iyer). The strategic importance of this road—as news reports never fail to mention—is to provide landlocked Afghanistan an alternative access to the sea, allowing it to break free from Pakistan’s traditional stranglehold.

Since this route passes through several hundred kilometres of Iranian territory before connecting to Chabahar on the Persian Gulf, it remains to be seen if Iran will prove to be a better neighbour than Pakistan. From a purely economic standpoint though, Afghanistan should benefit from the competition between the two routes.

There is a lot of hope pinned on this alternative route. For Afghanistan, this is an opportunity to regain better access to the Indian market that it lost in 1947. For India, it is an opportunity to regain better access to Central Asia that it too lost in 1947. To the extent that Pakistan remains wedded to its traditional strategic rent-seeking behaviour it is likely to attempt to foil these plans. And as the attack on the Indian embassy has shown, it remains wedded to old tactics as much as it is to old strategies.

This being so, it is strange that the India should be considering withdrawing four companies (around 400 personnel) of the paramilitary Indo-Tibetan Border Police currently deployed in Afghanistan. There is a case for a robust Indian military presence in Afghanistan; with force levels carefully calibrated, on the one hand to secure Indian interests, and on the other, to avoid being seen by the local population as an ‘occupying’ force. Reducing India’s military presence at a critical phase in Afghanistan’s counter-insurgency war is uncalled for at this stage.

Why the US paid big money to Pakistan

The US government’s complicity is not without reason. Although the reasons wouldn’t be the ones it can put in front of Congressional auditors. That’s because the money that the US was paying the Musharraf regime was the only way—short of messy, and far more expensive, military methods—it could retain a hold over its actions.

American dollars were not “wasted”, even if they won’t please prissy auditors

So the New York Times reports that all that money that the United States is giving to the Pakistani military establishment is being “wasted”. Musharraf’s regime is not only overcharging the United States, siphoning off much of it and not spending the money on fighting terrorism, as it should. One European diplomat is quoted as saying that the Americans are being taken for a ride.

Yet none of this is the least bit surprising. The US government knew before and during the entire period that the Pakistani establishment would behave exactly as it is behaving. The lessons of the anti-Soviet jihad of the 1980s in Afghanistan point to that. Musharraf’s contemporary shopping list—F-16 fighter aircraft, P3-C Orion maritime surveillance aircraft and anti-ship missiles—was not exactly secret either. The smart people in Washington won’t be unaware of the principle of fungibility of money, as also the fungibility (to a large extent) of military hardware and training. The European diplomat is either being charitable or being naive. The US government is not a victim of the Pakistani military establishment: it is a willing accomplice.

But its complicity is not without reason. Although the reasons wouldn’t be the ones it can put in front of Congressional auditors. That’s because the money that the US was paying the Musharraf regime was the only way—short of messy, and far more expensive, military methods—it could retain a hold over its actions. The US essentially bought the co-operation of the Pakistani military establishment. The itemised billing was for show. Indeed, this strategy required the US to allow its money to be used, abused, siphoned and spirited away by the Musharraf regime. The idea was not to insist on transparency and accountability on how the funds were spent. Rather, it was to hold Musharraf accountable for the results. The pertinent question that needs to be asked—and criticism leveled against the Bush administration—is how far it pursued the latter. It is also reasonable to ask, in the interests of good governance design, how far the former affected the latter.

Let’s not forget externalities. Supplementing Pakistan’s military budget allowed the Musharraf regime to purchase more weapons than it could otherwise have changing the military balance with respect to India. And the US stands to benefit (via Atanu Dey, who has a lucid explanation of dollar auctions and deadly games) from the inevitable Indian response. If there is a victim in this story, it is the poor Indian taxpayer.