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Pakistan as a U.S. ally

By Sumit Ganguly

The designation of Pakistan as a non-NATO ally is the latest evidence of the pronounced propensity of the American foreign policy establishment to seek short-term political and strategic gains.

WHAT EXPLAINS the American decision to declare Pakistan a "major non-NATO ally?" The sheer significance of the decision, especially its timing, at least on the face of it, borders on the bizarre. Yet an examination of the historical record will reveal that this is simply the latest evidence of the pronounced propensity of the American foreign policy establishment to seek short-term political and strategic gains.

The United States, as is well known in India, repeatedly sought Pakistan's assistance during the Cold War to prosecute the strategy of anti-Soviet containment in South Asia. Pakistani decision-makers repeatedly and dexterously positioned themselves as valued allies in this quest. Yet as any self-respecting analyst of South Asian security knew, the Pakistani position was utterly disingenuous. Pakistan was interested in currying favour with the Americans solely because it wanted to build up its military capabilities against India.

Sadly, the paucity of South Asia expertise in the State and Defence Departments, the overweening interest in containing the Soviet Union and the maladroitness of Indian diplomacy all conspired to Pakistan's benefit. From the arms-transfer relationship forged under the Eisenhower administration in the U.S. in 1954 to the supply of sophisticated weaponry and financial assistance during the Zia-ul-Haq regime in Pakistan, Islamabad was a major, if fitful, beneficiary of Washington's military largesse.

This U.S.-Pakistan nexus did yield some strategic benefits to Washington, especially in the short run. In the early 1950s, the U.S. could carry out reconnaissance missions across Soviet Central Asia from its air bases in Pakistan. Later, during the Zia years, the close military ties between the two states permitted the U.S. to pursue its not-so-covert war against the Soviets in Afghanistan. Consequently, it would be dishonest to suggest that the U.S.-Pakistan relationship was of little or no strategic value to Washington .

That said, at the end of the Cold War, Pakistan's significance to the U.S. ended. The U.S. had few inherent interests in the region and virtually none in Pakistan barring the trite piety that it wanted good relations with a "moderate, Muslim state." Not surprisingly, Pakistan became the object of a raft of U.S. economic and military sanctions. Most of these remained in place during the 1990s despite fitful attempts to remove them. The 1998 Indian and then Pakistani nuclear tests brought more sanctions on Pakistan. Indeed, until the George W. Bush administration decision to lift the test-related sanctions in 2001 Pakistan had the unique distinction of being the state facing the most number of U.S.-imposed sanctions. The Bush administration lifted them because it had a markedly different approach to non-proliferation: namely, economic sanctions were of limited value in shaping a regime's strategic choices. More to the point, it was keen on courting India for a variety of reasons and thereby had to lift the Clinton sanctions. Pakistan, in effect, also became a beneficiary of this policy shift toward India.

The democracy-related sanctions on Pakistan remained in place. The events of September 11, 2001, as is well known, brought about a dramatic shift in the U.S. -Pakistan relationship. Once again, strategic geography proved to be Pakistan's enduring asset in dealing with the U.S. After having spawned, nurtured and sustained the loathsome Taliban regime, Pakistan notionally agreed to participate in its destruction. However, just as it behaved during the Zia years, its cooperation was far from full-blown. Long after the U.S. started its military campaign in Afghanistan, the Taliban spokesmen operated with impunity from Islamabad. Elements of the Pakistan Army also maintained their ties to their erstwhile acolytes. The U.S., keen on obtaining Pakistan's cooperation in the war against terror, only exerted limited pressure on the Pervez Musharraf regime to sever all ties with the Taliban.

Worse still, the U.S. evinced even less concern about Gen. Musharraf's continued support to the most egregious Kashmiri terrorist groups. It was only after the attack on the Indian Parliament on December 13, 2001, that the U.S. finally placed the Jaish-e-Mohammed and the Lashkar-i-Taiba on the Foreign Terrorist Organisation list. Despite this, Gen. Musharraf continued with his shell game with the array of Kashmiri terrorist organisations, shutting down their offices in one part of Pakistan but allowing them to re-open elsewhere and under slightly altered nomenclature.

The crisis in Indo-Pakistani relations after the attack on Parliament set off an array of American efforts to stave off a full-scale war in the region. However, even during this period the U.S. did not lose sight of its core interests in South Asia, namely the evisceration of the Al-Qaeda and the destruction of the remnants of the Taliban regime. As long as these interests were paramount, the Indo-Pakistani fracas was mostly an unwelcome distraction. India's misgivings about Pakistan's continuing support to a range of terrorist groups in Kashmir remained a distant concern. Consequently, the Bush administration engaged in what was mostly a fire-fighting exercise on the subcontinent. The central question of Pakistan's involvement with a regional and a global network of terror remained mostly un-addressed as long as it provided unhindered American access to Afghanistan.

Even the public revelations earlier this year of A.Q. Khan's clandestine nuclear and ballistic missile sales network failed to generate much American opprobrium. Instead, the State Department seemed to accept Gen. Musharraf's anodyne characterisation that Dr. Khan was an independent actor and the powerful Pakistani military a hapless and innocent bystander. Such a public position well suited the State Department's view that keeping Gen. Musharraf in power was a paramount American concern. Interlocutors in the State Department in public and private conversations stated that Gen. Musharraf was deemed to be indispensable in the quest for Osama bin Laden and his condottiere.

The quest for Osama, of course, assumed far greater significance following the continuing American military setbacks in Iraq. This was especially true for a President who had promised his countrymen that he could render the world a safer place through his exercise of American military might. In an election year, President Bush can proffer the American electorate few, if any, successes on the domestic political front. Consequently, he desperately needs some dramatic success in the foreign policy arena. What better symbolic success for his self-proclaimed "war on terror" than the head of Osama bin Laden?

Sadly, previous efforts to curry favour with Gen. Musharraf have yielded only very limited dividends. Accordingly, some dramatic gesture had to be made to elicit his cooperation. In this quest, what better reward could be offered than to make Pakistan a "major, non-NATO ally?" If this move alienated India, the cost was deemed bearable. After all, with Osama's capture, Mr. Bush's re-election would be all but assured. In a second term, the administration would have ample opportunity to undo any damage to Indo-U.S. relations for having granted Pakistan this new status.

(Dr. Sumit Ganguly holds the Tagore Chair in Indian Cultures and Civilizations and is the Director of the India Studies Program at Indiana University in Bloomington.)

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