Is Pakistan Necessary?

Does Pakistan need to exist? This is not a question normally asked about any country, but it is one that will be asked with increasing urgency in the years ahead if Pakistan continues to operate the way it does. Pakistan’s neighbors – Afghanistan, India, Iran, Tajikistan and increasingly China - are suspicious of its intentions. Often its actions tend to confirm these suspicions. Increasingly, the existence of Pakistan is being questioned by its component provinces as well – especially Balochistan and Sindh.

Since its creation, Pakistan’s preferred state of existence has been one in which it plays a mercenary role for a big power – America has usually been the first choice, but over the past decade Islamabad has indicated that China will do too. The problem is that these two countries do not really trust Pakistan (or each other). They know fully well that Islamabad’s rulers will simply opt for the highest bidder – while nurturing its own Islamist agenda just in case. China has begun to realise that its relationship with Pakistan has primacy only so long as the US is disinterested.

On the regional level, Islamabad may have revived its violate and deny tactics on the Line of Control separating India from “Azad Kashmir” – the part of Jammu & Kashmir (J&K) state which Pakistan now occupies. It is clear that the recent shelling across the LoC was intended as a message. Though one might quibble about who was sending it, given the level of control that the Pakistani military has over terrorist groups dedicated to the destruction of India, it would be irresponsible to assume that it was an “accident”. No terror group would attempt such a move without clearance from the military, and no rogue army unit would have done it without a nod from a rogue officer higher up. 

There are also credible media reports suggesting that the Pakistani military leadership is preparing to re-escalate cross-LoC terrorism. This is seen to be, at least in part, a response to what Islamabad believes to be: (1) a lack of results from the Indo-Pak dialogue – i.e. India is neither willing to make any territorial concessions in J&K nor to suspend its hydro-electric projects in that state; and (2) a hidden Indian hand behind the rapidly deteriorating situation in Balochistan, complementing the hidden Iranian hand which Islamabad believes wants to destabilize Pakistan for its role beside America in the war against terrorism. 

Meanwhile, President Gen. Pervez Musharraf, and the lieutenant generals lined up behind him, seem to believe that Pakistan is now well-positioned to take a tougher stand on a number of issues with its neighbors. The role of America’s most-allied ally (or Major Non-NATO Ally in Washington parlance) has given them the confidence to interpret the current geo-political situation as they have traditionally done – i.e. as a challenge to be handled through a series of tactical military actions. They are certain they will have American backing in any action that may impact upon Iran, such as a no-holds-barred offensive in Balochistan – which appears to have already commenced. 

President Musharraf has even delivered a veiled nuclear threat, subtly directed against Iran but couched as a warning against the insurgents in Balochistan – “…you will not even know what hit you”. About a week later the Pakistani government’s man in Balochistan accused Iran of supporting the resistance. Around the same time, two instances of shelling across the LoC were reported; and the Islamabad government denied that it occurred, instead accusing India of shelling Pakistani territory. 

The tactic of violate and deny is not new, and fits within a pattern of denial that Pakistani military leaders have employed since the creation of the state. The most recent example was the Kargil incursion of 1999, in which Pakistani military involvement continues to be denied – although soldiers have been awarded honors for their role in it.

The global picture of Pakistan is no less worrying. One can hardly bring Pakistan into a conversation without two issues popping up immediately: its nuclear weapons falling into the hands of Al Qaida and the stability of the country. Conventional wisdom is, of course, that these two issues are correlated – i.e. if Pakistan disintegrates, nuclear weapons will fall into the hands of Al Qaida; or if nuclear weapons fall into the hands of Al Qaida, then it must be assumed that Pakistan as we know it has disintegrated. 

This is the assumption which underlies the logic with which “the West” (primarily the US) deals with Pakistan. The corollary is that President Gen. Musharraf, must submit to American demands on Al Qaida to keep the axiom valid. From Musharraf’s viewpoint, this is a problematic but necessary condition for his continued survival. He is doing well, given the trying circumstances. Pakistani military commanders, for instance, are now directing American artillery fire from Afghanistan into Pakistani sovereign territory against suspected Al Qaida targets. 

Yet accidents can never be ruled out, and Washington is well aware of this. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice pointed out that contingency plans are in existence should any accident befall the well-guarded Musharraf. The implication is that, from the US perspective, Pakistan can be regarded as stable so long as Musharraf (or another suitably compliant general) is at the helm. More subtly, it shows the extent to which Washington depends on Musharraf the man rather than Pakistan the state. Musharraf is necessary. But Pakistan? Not necessarily. It can be credibly argued that a gradually unraveling Pakistan will very much suit the long-term objectives of the war against terrorism.

From the perspective of Pakistan’s neighbors, all this is beside the point. Under Gen. Musharraf, Pakistan’s actions against Afghanistan, India and Iran suggest that it is pursuing a policy of destabilisation against these countries. It is clear that at least in the case of Iran there is a direct and declared American interest involved. If proposed US arms sales – including F-16 fighter jets capable of delivering nuclear weapons – are followed through, then India would view this as directly inimical to its security. The Afghan government continues to complain about the fact that Taliban leaders are living freely in Pakistan and organizing attacks on its territory. 

Given that Pakistan has shown little inclination over the better part of the past five decades to co-exist with a stable and prosperous Afghanistan, India and Iran, it is perfectly reasonable for these countries to wonder how it benefits them to have a stable Pakistan as their neighbor. So long as Pakistan continues to destabilize its neighbors, either on its own or as a proxy, its neighbors cannot be expected to support a stable Pakistan. On the contrary, they may conclude that unless stable neighbors are in Pakistan’s interest, a stable Pakistan is not in theirs.

Pakistani leaders seem to be betting that, so long as they have the war against terrorism to link themselves to the US, none of the neighboring countries will get aggressive. But Washington is not a guarantor of Pakistan’s stability. It is merely the keeper of Musharraf’s flame. It will not let that flame burn too brightly or too low, so long as he can deliver “a senior Al Qaida leader” at regular intervals. 

However, the ability of Musharaff to deliver is becoming increasingly questionable, as senior officers are disenchanted with the humiliating erosion of sovereignty involved in attacking their own countrymen at the behest of a foreign power; the situation in the lower ranks is worse. For its part, the US is aware that the military establishment – Musharraf included - has no abiding interest in seeing America bring the war against terrorism to a successful end, as that would almost certainly terminate the relationship of convenience that has been re-forged after 9/11. But if Musharraf is unable to continue to deliver what Washington wants, he too may become unnecessary. Whither Pakistan then?