The U.S. and Pakistan: Dysfunctional allies

May 4, 2009 at 7:35 pm | Posted in International | Leave a comment

As insurgents creep ever closer to Islamabad, the Americans are starting to wonder how secure is Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal. There’s no imminent threat, these shadowy sources tell the Times, but there are still concerns that extremists may try to steal a weapon in transit or insert sympathisers into their nuclear facilities. The problem is that Pakistan’s arsenal is dispersed all over the country, the Pentagon doesn’t know where all these facilities are, and as the insurgency spreads, the fear grows that the Taliban might end up controlling an area where nukes are kept.

Washington would worry less if the Zardari government just disclosed where it keeps all this stuff, but there’s not much chance of that happening because the Pakistani military fears the US would then bomb its weapons facilities – a fear which isn’t exactly unfounded given all the drone raids. And so Pakistani officials adopt a stiff upper lip, tell the world that everything’s under control, and American officials take their frustration to the papers, who gamely ratchet up all the dire talk about the country being ‘on the brink’.

David Albright and Paul Brannan of the Institute for Science and International Security wrote in a recent report documenting the progress of those facilities, “In the current climate, with Pakistan’s leadership under duress from daily acts of violence by insurgent Taliban forces and organized political opposition, the security of any nuclear material produced in these reactors is in question.” The Pakistanis, not surprisingly, dismiss those fears as American and Indian paranoia, intended to dissuade them from nuclear modernization. But the government’s credibility is still colored by the fact that it used equal vehemence to denounce as fabrications the reports that Abdul Qadeer Khan, one of the architects of Pakistan’s race for the nuclear bomb, had sold nuclear technology on the black market.

In the end, those reports turned out to be true.

I think this episode is reflective of how awkward and confused the relationship is between the U.S. and Pakistan. Pakistan and Afghanistan share the same security threat and you can’t bring stability to one without also achieving it in the other. However, these countries’ relations with America are very different; Afghanistan is essentially a U.S. client state, whilst Pakistan – for all the aid, military assistance and invasions of its territory – still retains some pretence of independence and thinks the Americans are trying to ‘micromanage’ their politics. Add to this the distrust between their military & intelligence agencies and you have a relationship which seems dysfunctional and isn’t really serving the interests of either party.

Obviously, the change in tone from the Bush era hasn’t made things easier. Bush signed off on billions of dollars in aid, lent the dictatorship of Pervez Musharraf an aura of international legitimacy and wrapped him in warm words as a ‘warrior’ in the fight against extremism. Under this new, democratically-elected government the aid has slowed, and the tone from team Obama has become more critical & brooding. They can perhaps be forgiven for wondering where all the love has gone.

So this week’s tripartite meeting between Presidents Obama, Karzai & Zardari could not come at a better time. There clearly needs to be greater openness between all parties about what they can and cannot do, what opportunities they can exploit and what constraints they’re working within. If this could be accompanied by concrete agreements on better intelligence sharing between the Pakistani & American intelligence services, that too would be a massive step forward. And if Obama could come around to seeing the self-destructiveness of the drone raids, then you’d have a summit from heaven. Either way, things certainly have to improve; solving the Af-Pak problem is going to be hard enough without the kind of dysfunction & distrust which comes across strongly in the recent reporting.

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