As a departure from regular programming, here is a note: Pakistan is overplaying its hand.
As a background, It is customary for Pakistan’s “establishment” to react vehemently when one of three things happen:
1. The establishment perceives that their relevance and power in Pakistan (in relation to the civvies) is being eroded: The last time this happened was when the US, in a not so subtle way, tried to set up a framework for strengthening the civilian set-up by tying the aid money under the Kerry-Lugar bill to conditions such as (i) Not having coups (ii) Transparency in disbursement and expenditure (iii) Progress along the democracy front etc. The KL bill was greeted by shrill debates in the media, manufactured outrage and public mobilized through the usual “establishment channels” to make the displeasure of the establishment known.
2. Vital surrogates in Afghanistan are attacked: An example of this was when NATO helicopters attacked terrorists of the Haqqani faction in the Kurram agency. Pakistan perceives that the Haqqani faction best serves its interests in Afghanistan. Pakistan’s desire to control Afghanistan is a primary national security objective – even though it is cloaked in the “acceptable” language of keeping India out, the fact remains that the gravest threat to Pakistan’s territorial integrity arises from Pashtun nationalism, which is a far greater threat to the unity of Pakistan than even the unrest in Balochistan. Ofcourse Pashtun nationalism in border areas could easily be exploited by India which could strike grand bargain with the Pashuns along the lines of Bangladesh-Mukti Bahini. Pakistan retaliated to the attacks in Kurram by blocking NATO convoys and subsequent attacks on the tankers with tens of tankers set on fire.
3. Vital surrogates fighting India are attacked: The latest Raymond Davis spat arose due to CIA’s unilateral expansion of its activities to include the surveillance and penetration of Lashkar-e-Tayyiba. This CIA action is most likely due to a realization of three things (i) Western cities are just as vulnerable as Mumbai to commando-style attacks. This problem would be much worse if there are multiple commando-style attacks* (ii) The full extent of the complicity of official agencies in the funding and training of LeT has become apparent due to the confession of David Headley (Dawood Gilani). The CIA probably realizes that Pakistan’s security apparatus will not move against the LeT (iii) LeT is increasingly becoming a potent threat in Afghanistan, with the attacks on Indian embassy in Kabul traced to LeT operatives. Pakistan retaliated by arresting Davis, and demanding the withdrawal of CIA operatives in Pakistan whose primary brief is to keep tabs on “other” terrorist organizations.
Pakistan’s strategy seems to be three fold. It is a mixture of (1) Drastic and audacious steps such as blocking NATO convoys and arresting CIA agents. This is done for short term advantages and signaling to the Pakistani public that the Army/ISI do and can stand up to the US. Pakistan’s assessment is that these drastic steps would work due to American compulsions in fighting the Afghan war (2) Gaining the initiative in the civilian discourse by whipping up passions through shrill TV anchors and columnists. This was evident in the KL bill, where swathes of protestors had no idea or were misinformed as to what the real issues were! As part of this strategy, Pakistan is increasingly trying to convert the LeT into a Hezbollah-type organization with charity and political wings thereby deeply embedded into the civil society itself (3) Vastly expanding the nuclear arsenal to guarantee that American drone attacks (and other intensive attacks like air-strikes and cruise missile strikes) do not happen in the heartland against Army and Army-surrogate establishments.
The danger** in these assessments and strategy is two fold
1. Pakistan has no short-term and definitely no long-term leverage against the US: Pakistani economy is unviable. This gives rise to several pressure-points that the Americans can exploit vis-à-vis IMF an the world bank. Combined with the unrest in the middle east and sluggish economy in Europe and the natural disaster in Japan, Pakistan has very few allies to turn to. Even China is short of cash after increasing social spending. In any case Chinese money will come with far greater cost (and social unrest like the recent Reko Diq fiasco) than American money. In the best case scenario, Americans will meddle increasingly in the political and economic setup of Pakistan, trying to install a pliant civilian and army leadership. In the worst case, Americans will assassinate key Army and political figures. If one thinks this is a fantastic proposition, one needs to take a fresh look at the Zia case.
2. Pakistan usually misreads democratic governments with disastrous effect: This happened with India in 1965 (where Shastri was considered to be a “short dark man in a dhoti with no will to fight”) in 1971 where obliviousness to popular displeasure against Pakistan in Bangladesh was followed by a thorough misreading of US & Chinese support and Indian will to fight, in 1998 where International mood and Indian will to fight in Kargil was misread. Many more examples come to mind. In the current context, Pakistan has misread American domestic compulsions. The greatest danger to Pakistan today is a terror attack in the US being traced to Pakistani soil***. A successful attempt will drive the American public opinion against Pakistan and to prevent democrats from looking weak on national security Obama will be forced to retaliate militarily.
Frequent spats such as the spat over Raymond Davis is not winning Pakistan any friends among the US public in a time when Obama is due for re-election. Terror attacks originating from Pakistan certainly will not win any. In any case, the Afghanistan and Pakistan “problem” is due for a thorough “examination” in the upcoming presidential debates preceding the elections in 2012. Pakistan should also realize that the Americans are innovative as well. The drone attacks have started primarily as a result of Pakistan’s unwillingness or inability to take on militants in the border areas. This is deeply embarrassing to Pakistan and a far bigger headache than joint operations in the region. Last but not least, Pakistan seems to forget that the money, media and muscle available with the Americans is far in excess of what Pakistan and her allies have and it is best to not test American patience and goodwill or to stretch Pakistan’s luck till the next terror attack on US soil.
*Spectacular terror attacks against India are invariably replicated in the west. This includes the IC 814 hijack where the very same people were connected to the 9/11 hijack as well.
**I will not go into the dangers of the society getting radicalized as exemplified by the recent Salman Taseer and Bhatti case. That is a separate thread.
***This nearly happened with the failed times-square bombing attempt of Faisal Shahzad (the son of an Air Vice Marshal!!)