Uncle Sam's pet: Tail wags the dog


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Oct 10, 2009
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Uncle Sam's pet: Tail wags the dog
Chidanand Rajghatta, TNN, 17 January 2010, 12:19am ISTText Size:|

It is one of the most complex, vexing, perplexing relationships in the world. One is called a master, a patron, a benefactor. The other is regarded as a client, a vassal, a rentier state. Yet the client plays the master like the tail wagging the dog. Broke and crumbling, Pakistan still takes the US for a ride with astonishing regularity, milking it for billions and getting away with nuclear proliferation and terrorism sponsorship that has earned other countries censure, sanction, and even punitive wars.

So what explains Washington's long over-indulgence of Pakistan? One simplistic explanation — old habit and sentiment. The US just can't let go of the prodigal client it lavished attention on for half a century after it served as a useful handmaiden/operating base during the Cold War. Alliances, military hardware and financial aid followed. It was an immoderate coddling that has enabled an anaemic state punch well above its weight — mostly against India.

Hal Gould, a South Asia scholar at the University of Virginia, says America's tragedy was its decision to nourish the megalomaniacal fantasies of Pakistan's anti-democratic elites by sucking the country into its militarized Cold War grand strategy. Each infusion of anti-Communist armaments reinforced the power of Pakistan's authoritarian ruling classes, fed their anti-Indian inferiority complex and resulted in wars and a perpetual pattern of military provocations, state-sponsored cross-border terrorism, and the development of nuclear weapons. Now the problem has become so huge that it can't be resolved through punitive action.

So why can't Washington punish Pakistan financially and militarily and even de-nuke it — a favourite Indian fantasy? On the face of it, there is nothing that Pakistan offers that is of any value to the US. Not oil, not mineral wealth. In fact, Pakistan's only export, goes the joke in Indian circles, is I-T — that stands for International Terrorism, not information technology.

Well, sentiment apart, another reason US can't or won't take on Pakistan is that at 180 million people, it is not a small country. The US came to grief against much smaller opponents Vietnam and Iraq (both around 25 million at the time they were pulverized), and is leery of even taking on Iran (75 million). Beating up Grenada, Panama and Yemen is one thing; but taking on Pakistan, even without its nukes is quite another.

But the more pertinent reason is danger from its errant, self-destructive client "going splat" — to paraphrase commentator Jim Hoagland's memorable expression. For more than a decade now, Pakistan has been making a living by threatening suicide — the only country in the world that negotiates with a gun to its own head, as another US scholar famously said. The Pakistani mantra: Touch us and we will collapse and let the jihadis take over, nukes included. "Oppose or ignore us at our — and your — peril is the unofficial national motto of Islamabad," according to Hoagland.

It is a ploy that has worked to deadly effect as each week seems to bring America's worst fears closer to realization. The threat of jihadi takeover is the ultimate American nightmare and the Pakistanis are adept at playing it, while camouflaging the fact that many jihadis are actually in uniform. In the Indian diplomatic community, long used to Pakistani bluster and blackmail and more familiar with the neighbour's psyche, it is common to hear — in part admiration — that Islamabad really knows how to play the Americans for suckers.

Then there is the small matter of trade secrets. Washington and Islamabad have been in bed for so long that there are many skeletons in the closet going back to the Cold War, especially the war against the Soviets in Afghanistan where Pakistan served as the errand boy. Although conspiracy theory is the staple of present-day Pakistan, there are abundant stories about how the CIA was in cahoots with Osama bin Laden and other "mujaheddin" types long before they morphed into al-Qaida.

Forget bin Laden, even on a relatively small fry as Dawood Ibrahim, Washington is afraid to put the screws on Islamabad even though it has declared the Mumbai don a terrorist. According to one theory, this is because Dawood worked with the US to help finance the mujaheddin in the 1980s before turning "rogue" — as with many other former allies. In fact, the theory that men like Dawood, Omar Saeed Sheikh, and even A Q Khan were all western intelligence assets at one time or another is proffered as explanation why the US has been reluctant to seek their custody.

While there are several other smaller reasons for continued US patronage of Pakistan (including keeping Lockheed Martin humming during an economic downturn with supply of F-16s), one major, immediate reason is that Pakistan remains the most convenient logistical lifeline to US troops in Afghanistan. In effect, Pakistan has its foot on the American jugular in the region — every time Washington gets tough, all Pakistan has to do is allow mobs to disrupt the supply route from Karachi to the Afghan front. The US will simper and fall in line.

While it may be argued that the US has an even stronger card (Pakistan's existence as a state), and often disregards Islamabad's complaints (on the drone issue, for example), the fact is Pakistan is willing to play the game of brinkmanship better than others, certainly better than Washington. It's a brazen tactic that enables Islamabad to get away with continued support to the Taliban elements, even as the US fulminates helplessly.

Western reporters, including a journalist from Canada's Maclean magazine and Taliban-captured New York Times reporter David Rohde have written graphically in recent weeks about the Pakistan army's open ties with the Taliban and the continued existence of terrorist camps. The accounts haven't particularly agitated Washington, where there are periodic certifications about Pakistan's good behaviour aimed at mollifying public agitation and lubricating the flow of aid.

Last week, as Pakistan was down to two weeks of fuel stocks and a nationwide power shortage, the country was still snorting defiance, demanding that Uncle Sam rush the $1.6 billion it owes Islamabad in Coalition Support Funds (for which Pakistan's bills are being more tightly audited), delink Pakistan from Afghanistan and re-hyphenate it with India, grant it the same civilian nuclear deal as with India, stop drone attacks on its territory and/or give it drone technology, and stop special screening of Pakistani travellers to the US, among other things.

For a country in the throes of an existential crisis, the checklist — and the chutzpah — was breathtaking. But that's pretty much how Pakistan approaches its affairs, and so far it has worked. Some things never change, and for now at least, despite its apparent irritation with its client state, Washington does not look like changing either.

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