May 30, 2011

Mixed Signals

The following article originally appeared in The Indian Express on May 30, 2011.

The weeks since the killing of Osama bin Laden by US Special Forces have witnessed intensified recriminations and engagement between the US and Pakistan. Last week, President Barack Obama said that Pakistan’s obsession with India as an existential threat was misplaced, reiterating a theme he and his top advisers have embraced since assuming office. In doing this, the Obama administration has been attempting to assuage Pakistan’s purported insecurities vis-à-vis India in order to redirect its energies towards addressing challenges at home and along its western frontier.

There is an unwillingness on the part of the US to recognise and completely contradict Pakistan’s pernicious national narrative. This narrative has directly compromised the integrity of the Pakistani state and the well-being of its public, as well as the security of every state actively engaged in Pakistan’s neighbourhood. This narrative consists either of complete fabrications or, more frequently, half-truths or select facts bereft of context. Although often associated with the military, Pakistan’s recent diplomatic overdrive illustrates how the civilian leadership is equally culpable for its perpetuation.

Washington’s response, both before and after bin Laden’s killing, has been uneven. It has forcefully rejected certain elements of Pakistan’s narrative, its obsession with India being but one. The State Department has also made sustained attempts of late to encourage Pakistan to get its economy in order, and thus transfer responsibility to the Pakistani government for the country’s economic well-being and offset the moral hazard of international aid. Furthermore, while Washington may regularly pay lip service to Pakistani sovereignty, it is perfectly willing to interfere in Pakistan’s internal affairs if they impinge on US national security interests. The US should therefore be expected to continue unilateral cross-border strikes and intervene in support of democracy despite Pakistani protestations.

At the same time, the US tacitly tolerates other elements of Pakistan’s narrative. For example, Pakistani leaders regularly state that their country remains a victim of terror, and is responsible for capturing several leading terrorists. This may be true, but it does not absolve Pakistan of either its support for terror groups acting abroad or its offers of sanctuary. Vociferous public anti-Americanism is yet another element of Pakistan’s narrative, employed to delineate limits to its manoeuvrability, yet Washington nonetheless tolerates the ISI’s sustained efforts to shape public opinion against America.

Finally, there are those elements that Washington continues to give credence to, or at least leave unquestioned: Pakistan’s insecurities are legitimately propelled by fears of encirclement, India’s growing resource base, its nuclear weapons programme, and its reported “Cold Start” doctrine, thus adequately justify Pakistan’s inordinate military spending, greater investments in its nuclear and missile programmes, and support for terror groups targeting India and Afghanistan. That lasting peace between India and Pakistan and the settlement of the Kashmir dispute to Pakistan’s satisfaction will almost entirely eliminate its insecurities. That the army remains the only secular institution in Pakistan that “works” and is therefore deserving of support. And that Pakistan’s top military and intelligence officials bear little or no responsibility for the actions of their subordinates and affiliates, a claim even less credible given revelations from the ongoing trial of Tahawwur Rana and the testimony of David Coleman Headley. The erroneous conclusion drawn by the Obama administration from such questionable assumptions is that demonstrations of Indian magnanimity will allow Pakistan’s misguided, but not necessarily malevolent, security forces to reallocate resources towards improving the country’s security and economy.

Responding to Pakistan’s narrative requires an important cognitive leap, one that most in Washington are still reluctant to take: Pakistan’s purported obsessions and insecurities are self-inflicted, created and consistently advanced to serve important private interests, almost always to the detriment of the country and its people. This applies equally to all the challenges commonly associated with Pakistan, be it the military’s political preponderance, the proliferation of nuclear technology and materials, the cultivation and use of terrorist proxies against both adversaries and nominal allies, the growing radicalisation of the body politic, and periodic India-Pakistan crises. There is also little clarity regarding Pakistani pleas for a long-term strategic relationship, which it professes to desire as a symbol of legitimacy, but also works to undermine through its transactional demands and poorly concealed enthusiasm for a hasty US withdrawal from Afghanistan.

Although the US is using bin Laden’s whereabouts as leverage to extract short-term concessions, it remains unwilling to recognise the centrality of Pakistan’s self-defeating narrative and the dire need for its complete reversal, absent which the multifarious challenges associated with Pakistan are unlikely to be meaningfully addressed. This, in turn, necessitates the coordinated advancement of a counter-narrative by states whose national security interests are compromised by Pakistani misbehaviour, including India, Afghanistan and — most importantly — the US. What must be promoted is an entirely different conception of Pakistan’s national interest, including its self-identification as a non-revisionist and peaceful state wholly responsible for its own behaviour and well-being. Based on the mixed signals from Washington, it is unclear whether even the dramatic circumstances of bin Laden’s death will produce that desirable outcome.