A second chance

SOMETIMES big decisions turn on simple questions. In the aftermath of 9/11, the question was a simple one: did we get it? Did our generals get that 9/11 was an epochal, seismic shift, that the old way of doing business had to be chucked out, replaced by a new pragmatism to fit new realities?

The generals didn’t get it. They thought 9/11 was a blip, one that required temporary adjustments and deflections, for which they would be rewarded handsomely, before eventually going back to business as usual.

No thought was given to long-term changes or course corrections, which made sense for a state which rarely has anything by way of strategy, statecraft here being limited to haphazardly responding to crises.

Ten years on, Pakistan is struggling mightily with the consequences of misreading 9/11 and what it meant for this country and the security choices before it.

Which is why debating the minutiae of the present round of accusations and recriminations between Pakistan and the US matters little. Has the CIA been handed a bunch of Pakistani visas as a result of an explicit understanding that no unilateral American operations will take place on Pakistani soil or was it more of a mumbled half-promise accompanied by severe arm-twisting?

Has Ghulam Nabi Fai been outed as a warning that if Pakistan continues to hamper American efforts to get what it wants most — eliminating terrorists who may threaten the US homeland and interests — then the US will undermine what Pakistan cares about the most — getting something out of Kashmir?

Doesn’t matter, really. Locked in a static worldview, the generals missed the flux of strategic opportunities, and threats, that 9/11 produced.

From resetting ties with the US in a way that would draw Pakistan on to the right side of world opinion to re-examining
Kashmir and the broader relations with India to looking internally and embarking on reforms that would alter the economic and security trajectory of the country — there was much that could have been done.

Instead, we chose to hunker down, grab the carrots that were dangled and brace ourselves for blows from the stick. It amounted to being shaped by circumstances rather than getting ahead of the curve. Inevitably, Pakistan found itself more and more isolated and less and less secure.

But a strange thing has happened: we’ve got a second a chance.

The plummeting relations with the US over the past year, and particularly in 2011, could have gone one of two ways. It could have tipped the balance in favour of the hawks in the US, the ones who believe Pakistan should be punished because we are recidivists, habitual scofflaws, and deserve to be isolated further instead of coddled foolishly.

Or it could have crystallised Pakistan’s ultimate worth to the US, the pain-in-the-neck ally who gives American policymakers many sleepless nights, but fewer than if it were outside the American tent altogether.

Sift through the statements of American officials in recent months, particularly since the OBL raid, and you’ll find traces of the latter, a more hard-nosed assessment of what Pakistan means to the US.

Cage-rattling aside — that’s part of the game — American officials appear to have recognised at least two things, though they will never admit this in public.

One, Pakistan’s assistance, wherever and whenever it has come, is worth substantially more than no assistance. CIA spies on the ground are worth more than no CIA spies on the ground, as the OBL raid spectacularly illustrated. The alternative to drones still flying over Fata is drones not flying over Fata — which would remove a key plank of US counter-terrorism strategy. The supply route to Afghanistan through Pakistan is worth billions more than any alternative supply route to Afghanistan, a particularly priceless concession at the time of budget cuts in the US.

Two, Pakistan’s assistance, wherever and whenever it has come, has been bought on the cheap. Twenty billion dollars or thirty billion, the money that has flowed to Pakistan over the last decade is essentially a rounding error on the balance sheet of the wars the US has fought, the amount it has spent on its armed forces or what it has shelled out to deal with sundry crises at home and abroad.

Hence all the talk about the US having ‘no option but to work on relations with Pakistan’ — opting out, American officials realise, will leave the US with little leverage over Pakistan and possibly a bigger headache to deal with eventually; trying to nudge things along between the two countries at least offers the possibility of building on the advantages engaging Pakistan offers.

And hence our second chance.

Ten years since miscalculating the impact of the events surrounding 9/11, as the drawdown in Afghanistan begins, as the world’s focus on Pakistan as a terrorism haven sharpens, as Pakistan’s economic and security trajectory threatens a terrifying slide downwards, the generals again have a choice: does Pakistan want to climb to the right side of the US and world opinion or do we want to confirm the perceptions of the hawks internationally who believe Pakistan must be contained, or pummelled?
The reactionary statement put out after the 139th Corps Commanders’ conference in June suggested the generals still didn’t get it, and perhaps they didn’t even get they were faced with a choice again.

But put your ear to the ground and listen carefully to the noises coming from the foreign-policy and national-security circles in recent weeks and it tends to mirror what American officials are saying: there is no option but to work on the relationship.So at last, signs of an emerging pragmatism? Not necessarily.

Having cultivated anti-American public opinion as a buffer against American demands, a weak and discredited army high command appears caught in a new dilemma.

The generals and the mandarins may finally be coming around to a chastened understanding of reality, but how do they, in their weakened and discredited state, convince the public of that reality when in their strong and strutting state they were convincing the public of the opposite?

The writer is a member of staff.

cyril.a@gmail.com