Pakistan’s rulers still fail to understand regional geopolitical realities

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Even the elaborate Independence Day celebrations on August 14 could not conceal the panic that has gripped Pakistan’s ruling elites since America’s military and nuclear agreements with India in June and July respectively. People who have spent a lifetime in subservience cannot imagine living without it. Retired mandarins and generals have consumed acres of newsprint reassuring each other that Washington’s abandonment of Pakistan despite Pakistan’s numerous favours are no particular cause for concern, and Islamabad should instead cultivate closer links with China and even Russia. Such assurances are entirely self-deceiving; subservience to Washington is an article of faith with the Pakistani establishment, especially the military. After all, China and Russia were there long before Pakistan came into existence, and if they could act as a counterweight to the US, good relations could have been established with them at any time.

The establishment’s grief is particularly acute because Pakistan was abandoned so soon after committing itself totally to the US agenda in the so-called war on terror. It made a U-turn on the Taliban and allowed its land and bases to be used to attack and destroy Afghanistan; it arrested and surrendered thousands of Arab, Pakistani and Afghan suspects to the US; it abandoned its own nuclear programme and humiliated its most prominent scientist, Dr Abdul Qadir Khan; and it sold Kashmir down the Jhelum river; all to please and appease the US. The Pakistani establishment’s cardinal sin is–”and they seem incapable of learning from history–”that it harbours pious hopes on matters of state policy. Pakistani commentators frequently ask: “how could the US abandon us after all we have done for it?”

This borders on the ridiculous: political policies are not based on sentiment but on the harsh realities of life. It is not Washington’s fault that general Pervez Musharraf snapped to attention when Colin Powell called on September 12, 2001, without demanding anything in return. Musharraf hoped that the Americans would “appreciate” his help, repeating the mistake that an earlier military dictator, general Yahya Khan, made in July 1971, when Pakistan facilitated the visit of Henry Kissinger, then US national security advisor, to China. That achieved nothing for Islamabad, but provoked the Soviet Union to enter into a defence treaty with India, thereby sealing the fate of the then East Pakistan.

This time the US’s “abandonment” of Pakistan has been even more crude. Islamabad has been told in no uncertain terms to forget about equal treatment vis-à-vis Delhi and to accept its role as a junior partner to India, which the US is propping up as a rival to China. India has been promoted to the same status in the subcontinent as Israel is in the Middle East–”a US gendarme, with special political and military privileges. The supply of US military equipment to India will accentuate the already huge military imbalance in the subcontinent. In the nuclear field, the US treatment of the two rivals stands in glaring contrast. While India is promised nuclear cooperation and supplies of fuel for its Tarapur nuclear reactors, Pakistan has been forced to place its nuclear assets under virtual American control. Had the Americans wanted to, they could have nudged the Indians to settle the Kashmir dispute in an amicable manner that would have satisfied the legitimate aspirations of the Kashmiris.

As Dr. M. R. Srinivasan, formerly chairman of the Indian Atomic Energy Commission, admitted, India’s old power reactors had reached 85 percent of full capacity and would have had to be downgraded because of shortage of fuel, but for the US lifeline. He admitted: “with larger quantities of uranium available at international prices, which are much lower than Indian prices, the operating costs of our older units will go down”, thanks to US help. Another Indian official told the BBC that India had nuclear fuel only till the end of 2006. If the Americans had not come through, Delhi would have had to close down its nuclear reactors, including its military programme. So why is the US so anxious to confer special favours on India?

Indo-US cooperation and the downgrading of Pakistan’s status must be seen in the context of the larger scenario emerging in Asia. The US is determined to encircle China, which is regarded as an emerging economic and military rival that could soon eclipse the US’s power in Asia. China’s economic growth, however, is based on the availability of an uninterrupted supply of fuel. Its oil imports are second only to the US, and increasing; hence the great efforts Beijing is making to cultivate such oil- and gas-rich giants as Russia and Iran, while the US’s policy is aimed at controlling supplies of oil and gas to China to slow its economic growth. As US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice has said, US relations with the three major Asian powers–”Japan, South Korea and India–”provide the “strategic context” in which Chinese ambitions can be restrained. Anti-China sentiment in the US Congress is even greater, verging on the hysterical. Among rightwing ideologues that dominate the top echelons of the US government and advisory boards, there is active encouragement of Japan to go nuclear to confront China. This stands in sharp contrast with the vicious campaign against Iran aimed at frustrating even its peaceful nuclear activity.

The US’s anti-China policy, however, goes beyond mere encouragement of Japan. In mid-April, “the Japanese government agreed to let the US Army’s 1st Corps transfer from Fort Lewis, Washington [state] to Camp Zama near Yokohama”, according to Conn Hallinan in an article published by the “Foreign Policy In Focus” webzine (May 31). The importance of this move is not that US troops will be stationed in Japan–”more than 50,000 have been there since the Second World War–”it is the nature of these troops, especially the 1st Corps, whose responsibility extends beyond the Pacific Basin to include the Indian Ocean and the Persian Gulf, through which passes most of the oil that sustains China’s economic growth. By allowing the deployment of these troops, “Japan has become essentially the frontline US command post for the Asia-Pacific and beyond”, according to Christopher Hughes of Warwick University in Britain. Other US hawks–”CIA director Porter Goss and defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld, for instance–”have declared China a “military threat” to the US.

When Rumsfeld repeated this ludicrous assertion on a recent visit to Singapore, papers in South East Asia were quick to point out that China’s annual defence expenditure of US$60 billion to $90 billion is miniscule compared to the US’s $400 billion. US threats against China have forced the latter to move closer to Russia, as last month’s military exercises between the two countries–”the first in history–”showed. More than 10,000 troops participated in exercises near Russia’s Pacific port city of Vladivostok and the Chinese coastal province of Shandong from August 18 to 25.

In this evolving global scenario, Pakistan is a two-bit player, but its ruling elites continue to act as if they are major actors. Apart from their schizophrenic behaviour–”panic on the one hand and delusions of grandeur on the other–”what makes their plight so pathetic is their desperation to appease Uncle Sam at all costs. They are prepared to put up with any insult from the US so long as they remain in its good books. The US’s attitude is reflected by a recent cartoon in the Washington Times, a rightwing daily that is close to the establishment, which depicted Pakistan as a pet dog (May 6). This appeared after Pakistan’s arrest of an al-Qa’ida operative, al-Libbi, who was promptly handed over to the US. The cartoon showed an American soldier praising the dog (Pakistan) and telling it to “now go and get Osama!” There was hardly a whisper of protest from Pakistan’s elites.

Instead, they have antagonized neighbouring Iran, as well as allowed anti-Pakistan sentiment to fester among the Northern Alliance zealots in Afghanistan, in the mistaken belief that this would appease the US. Afghanistan has been handed over to India, whose intelligence agency, RAW, has been busy with their disruptive activities aimed at discrediting Pakistan. Periodic outbreaks of violence against Pakistanis and Pakistan’s interests compound the insults the Afghans hurl at Islamabad almost daily. Not even lowly Afghan officials think twice before insulting Pakistan, despite the fact that landlocked Afghanistan would starve were it not for Pakistan allowing goods to pass through its territory.

Pakistani officials continue to delude themselves that because of Pakistan’s strategic importance, all they have to do is sit while others come rushing to ask for favours. Even the relationship with China is taken virtually for granted. Unlike the Americans, who have neither history nor cultural sophistication, the Chinese take a longer view of history. They have pursued economic growth with deliberate measures since 1978, not allowing others to sidetrack them into adventures that they do not wish to embark on. While US policy is aimed at provoking the Chinese into rash action, the latter have refused to fall into this trap. China’s moves to cultivate relations with Iran and Russia are aimed at securing them a steady supply of energy, which the US intends to frustrate.

Unless the Pakistani elites grow out of their dependency syndrome, they will achieve neither respect nor security. Pursuing policies that run contrary to the wishes of their people is the wrong approach, but those who have nothing but contempt for their own people cannot be expected to change their habits quickly. Pakistan would do well to keep a safe distance from America, but this is not something the ruling elites understand or wish to hear. This is the real tragedy of Pakistan’s history and its current situation.

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