By Dr. Azeem Ibrahim
22 January 2018
Throughout the Cold War, Pakistan has been an instrumental US ally in south and central Asia. And the close relationship has continued in the years after. Pakistan has been key to the US efforts in Afghanistan since 2001, as the only reliable staging post in a region squeezed between Iran and China.
In the service of this alliance, the US has supported Pakistan through thick and thin, through military dictatorships, through developing their own nuclear arsenal and through successive scandals involving Pakistan’s notorious ISI intelligence agency, and their dubious activities.
But in recent months, the ISI’s indiscretions and the tacit support they seem to have received from the military and political leadership of the country appear to have led the US to threaten to more or less cut ties with Pakistan. The transgressions which are motivating this move are Pakistan’s support for terrorist groups, and its duplicitous game of friend or foe it alternatively plays with the US and the Taliban.
A recent point of contention has been the release from prison in Pakistan of Hafiz Saeed, the alleged mastermind behind the 2008 Mumbai attacks. Pakistan insists there is not enough evidence against him to try him in court, despite the fact that India has produced and handed over to the Pakistani authorities what they call “considerable evidence”. Saeed’s lawyers claim that no such evidence has been presented in court.
This is very much in keeping with Pakistan’s history of supporting and protecting all manner of radical Islamist extremists. This historical policy has backfired spectacularly, as ordinary Pakistanis have suffered from radical Islamist terrorism more than any other intended target, but there is no denying that the ISI in particular has been keen to cultivate and protect Islamist terrorist agents to direct against India and Afghanistan.
Yet Pakistan has also traditionally yielded when the US applied pressure on them for such activities. In normal circumstances, when the US would have called for an individual such as Saeed to be “prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law”, they would have followed suit. Not so today.
There are a number of reasons for why this is so. The relationship between the US and Pakistan has never truly recovered after the bin Laden episode. It remains as inconceivable today as it was in 2011 that the leader of al-Qaida had lived safely, for so many years in hiding in Pakistan. And not just anywhere, but in a large compound in the large city of Abbottabad, less than a mile away from the Pakistan Military Academy. An alliance requires trust. And that trust has never been re-established.
A Buffer for Iranian Influence
Then, there is the fact that the US has largely withdrawn from Afghanistan. It retains no particular strategic interests in the region beyond, perhaps, containing Iran. But even so, Pakistan and Iran are natural opponents on national and sectarian grounds, so Pakistan would be expected to continue to serve as a buffer for Iranian influence with or without US support. So the US is keen to extricate itself from the complicated and damaging relation it has with Pakistan, and is currently repositioning itself as more favourable to India: a bigger economic partner, and a more reliable counter-weight to Chinese expansion in Asia.
But the crucial part of this is Pakistan’s own relationship with China. Whereas for most of its post-independence history, Pakistan has relied on US support against India and Iran, currently, the country is drifting ever more clearly into the Chinese sphere of influence. China is investing massively into infrastructure in the country as part of their New Silk Road initiative so that their access to the Western markets avoids the contentious Straights of Malacca. This investment is responsible for driving most of the current economic growth in Pakistan, as well as the increasing conditions ordinary Pakistanis are seeing along the Chinese-built economic corridor. The entire political and military establishment are also behind these new developments.
In other words, the US is happy to retreat from Pakistan, and Pakistan is happy to move on to a closer relationship with China. The case of Hafiz Saeed may become emblematic of this shift. The rational thing to do about this case would be to hand him over to a court in a respected independent country agreeable to all parties, or maybe something like the ICC. If he were found not-guilty, that would vindicate Pakistan’s long standing claim that India is accusing it of terrorism without any basis. If he were found guilty, Pakistan would be confirmed as a state-sponsor of terror.
But of course, no such thing will happen. Pakistan no longer feels itself beholden to American desires. And the US does not care enough to flex its muscle and get its way. It seems the two countries are having an amicable enough parting of ways. And the victims of Mumbai will be denied justice in the process.