By Brahma Chellaney
Nov 02 2015
US President Barack Obama’s decision to sell an additional eight F-16 fighter jets to Pakistan illustrates the US policy of persistently rewarding a country that still refuses to snap its ties with terrorists or observe other international norms.
The F-16 sale decision is also part of a broader US effort to bolster Pakistani defences against India, in spite of the warming US-India relations. In that sense, America’s Pakistan policy still bears a striking resemblance to China’s Pakistan policy. This approach predates the Obama presidency.
For instance, president George W. Bush’s administration upgraded America’s relations with Pakistan by designating it as a major non-Nato ally (MNNA) in 2004 and providing it with 24 F-16s. The US has equipped Pakistan with specific systems to plug gaps in its defences against India, even though a revisionist Pakistan refuses to accept the territorial status quo on the subcontinent and continues to train and export terrorists.
One example of US weapon transfers was the sale of nine P-3C Orion maritime aircraft and 60 Harpoon missiles in 2005 to offset India’s naval advantage. However, the Obama administration’s year-old move to equip the Pakistan Navy with eight GRC43M cutter vessels for medium to long endurance coverage of the northern Arabian Sea has run into congressional opposition. The supply of strategic weapon systems emboldens Pakistan to ratchet up hostility with India.
More significantly, by showering Pakistan with billions of dollars in financial support annually, the US has made that country one of this century’s largest recipients of American assistance.
According to the Congressional Research Service, the US, over the past 13 years, has given Pakistan more than $18 billion in economic and military aid as well as $13 billion in counterterrorism support related to the war in Afghanistan. Ironically, the US military’s main foe on the Afghanistan battlefield is the Pakistan-reared Afghan Taliban, which still operates from sanctuaries on Pakistani territory.
Through its generous aid and political protection, the US, in effect, has become an enabler of Pakistan’s export of terrorism. After all, terrorists continue to train inside Pakistan for cross-border operations in India and Afghanistan. The Pakistani military’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency aids even those terrorists that attack American troops in Afghanistan.
Despite Pakistan’s duplicity in the fight against terrorism, Washington—largely because of its interests in Afghanistan and other regional considerations—has shied away from imposing any costs on the Pakistani military for still nurturing forces of jihad. Instead, it still relies on extending carrots to Pakistani military commanders in hopes of convincing them to sever their ties with all terrorist groups and to bring the Taliban to Afghan peace talks.
The F-16 decision followed Obama’s U-turn on American troop withdrawal from Afghanistan. In fact, short-term compulsions have led the US to forge even closer institutional ties with the Army and the ISI, the main wielders of power in Pakistan.
Significantly, the US’s Pakistan policy has failed to deliver on other fronts as well, including reining in Pakistan’s nuclear-weapons programme and promoting a genuine democratic transition there. With the development of a robust civil society remaining stunted, jihad culture is now deeply woven into Pakistan’s national fabric. And despite an elected government in office, the military rules the roost in Pakistan.
The most powerful person is not Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif but army chief General Raheel Sharif. Gen. Sharif, who is not related to the prime minister, calls the shots on key issues, ranging from the direction of the Pakistani foreign policy to the Afghan peace process and his country’s nuclear-weapons programme.
Without staging an overt military coup, Gen. Sharif has increasingly encroached on the authority of the elected civilian leadership, thereby bolstering the army’s power and promoting an image of himself as a national saviour. This has made him a cult figure. The power encroachment has extended to setting up special military courts to try civilians for terrorism and the army arrogating to itself the right to oversee internal security across the country.
In the latest action reflecting the army’s growing sway, the military brass has installed one of its own generals as the national security adviser to the weakened prime minister. Indeed, the prime minister—who still has no foreign minister—has been compelled to let the military take charge of foreign policy and national security, including all aspects of internal security. So, the government’s prime responsibility now relates to the economy, but it cannot touch the financial prerogatives of the military, which, according to some estimates, consumes 26% of all tax receipts.
With the military, intelligence and nuclear establishments not answerable to the elected government, Pakistan has been frenetically expanding its nuclear arsenal, building even low-yield tactical nukes for use on the battlefield against India. A recent report by two US think tanks said that Pakistan may be adding 20 warheads to its nuclear arsenal every year and, at this pace, could have the world’s third largest nuclear stockpile within a decade. The arsenal provides the generals the nuclear shield to harbour terrorists without inviting military retaliation from India.
More than ever, Pakistan stands out as a military with a country, rather than a country with a military.
Against this background, if Pakistan is to become a moderate, stable country, the military’s vice-like grip on power must be broken and the ISI made accountable. However, US policy, far from helping to prop up the country’s elected civilian leadership, is implicitly aiding the military’s usurpation of powers.
Gen. Sharif is scheduled to visit Washington shortly for talks with top American officials. During a US visit last year, Gen. Sharif was awarded the US Legion of Merit for his contributions to—believe it or not—“peace and security.” The US’s mollycoddling has encouraged its allies to also pamper Gen. Sharif. British Prime Minister David Cameron held talks with Gen. Sharif at his official Downing Street residence, while new Afghan President Ashraf Ghani started his Pakistan visit by meeting the general first.
More ominously, the US has recently explored the idea of cutting a nuclear deal with Pakistan. Dangling the offer of “nuclear mainstreaming” Pakistan—as advocates of the exploratory talks call it—carries a double risk: Incentivizing the actions of a state sponsor of terrorism and legitimizing a nuclear programme built through theft of technology, deception and clandestine transfers from China. A deal would also whitewash the biggest nuclear proliferation scandal in history, known as the A.Q. Khan affair.
The paradox is that those in Washington who worry about a rogue commander in Pakistan seizing control of a nuclear bomb seem oblivious to the fact that the Pakistani military has already become radicalized and that the ISI has turned rogue, with its jihadist rampages spawning more dangerous Islamists.
As long as Pakistan’s nuclear weapons programme remains outside government control, any American hope of limiting it would remain a pie-in-the-sky goal. For the military, unconventional instruments—nukes, including a new generation of tactical nuclear weapons, and terrorism—will remain favoured tools to neutralize India’s conventional military superiority, at least until India is able to impose unbearable costs on it for waging a “war of a thousand cuts”.
An impotent Prime Minister Sharif seems unable to deliver on any promise. For example, he pledged in a joint statement with Obama after an October meeting at the White House that Pakistan would take “effective action against United Nations-designated terrorist individuals and entities, including Lashkar-e-Taiba and its affiliates, as per its international commitments and obligations under UN Security Council resolutions and the Financial Action Task Force”.
But no sooner had he reached home than Pakistani authorities announced “enhanced” state security for UN-designated terrorist Hafiz Saeed—Pakistan’s most-protected private individual who carries a $10 million US bounty on his head. The enhanced security was a reaffirmation that Saeed—the founder of the Lashkar-e-Taiba, an ISI front organization held responsible for the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks—remains a prized asset for a military wedded to exporting terrorism as an instrument of state policy. As Saeed’s public activities and fiery speeches mock America’s bounty, US silence and inaction stands out conspicuously.
The real problem with the US’s Pakistan policy is that it refuses to learn from past mistakes. For example, America’s failure or unwillingness to bring the ISI to heel parallels its highly ineffectual air war against the organization that bears an acronymic affinity with the ISI—ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria). The reality is that both the ISI and ISIS are transnational terrorist organizations that became powerful largely because of misguided American policies of arming jihadists in Afghanistan in the 1980s and in Syria in recent years.
As two American scholars, C. Christine Fair and Sumit Ganguly, contend in the journal Foreign Affairs, the “US turns a blind eye to Pakistan’s misdeeds”, subsidizing both its nuclear expansion and “its stable of Islamic terrorists”. They counsel that, “If Washington cannot end Pakistan’s noxious behaviours, it should at least stop sponsoring them.”
Despite a long record of failure, US’s Pakistan strategy remains focused too much on carrots and too little on sticks or disincentives. Obama has spurned even congressional advice to suspend some aid to Pakistan and impose travel restrictions and other sanctions on Pakistani officials known to have ties to terrorists. Those that harboured Osama bin Laden in a Pakistani military garrison town have gone scot-free.
Indeed, Obama’s move to keep US troops in Afghanistan indefinitely, leaving any withdrawal decision to his successor, means that the US will continue to fight the war on the wrong side of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, while still rewarding the Taliban’s backer, Pakistan.
It is past time for America to fix its broken Pakistan policy. It must begin by bridging the gap between policy and practice, including by employing some sticks. Sustained US pressure is vital to encourage a reformed Pakistan at peace with itself.
Brahma Chellaney is a professor at the Centre for Policy Research.