Troubled U.S. – Pakistan relations

In the wake of the killing of Osama bin Laden, relations between the U.S. and Pakistan have entered a new and unpredictable phase. Washington has recently gone to considerable lengths to tone down initial criticism of Pakistan for sheltering the world’s most wanted man, now saying that there is no evidence that he received high level protection. This is hardly surprising because initial U.S. criticism was rapidly antagonizing the entire country – with potentially dire consequences. Not only does Pakistan have three times the population of Iraq and Afghanistan combined, it now possesses dozens – if not hundreds – of nuclear warheads and the means to deliver them over long distances. The country is self-sufficient in uranium and there have been recent reports that the production of weapons grade material is being increased. The reasons why a relatively poor nation is adding to its already considerable and expensive arsenal remain opaque. A nightmare scenario for the West in general and the U.S. in particular is that some of these might find their way into the hands of terrorists.

8th Jun 2011


Editorial


Troubled U.S. – Pakistan relations

In the wake of the killing of Osama bin Laden, relations between the U.S. and Pakistan have entered a new and unpredictable phase. Washington has recently gone to considerable lengths to tone down initial criticism of Pakistan for sheltering the world’s most wanted man, now saying that there is no evidence that he received high level protection. This is hardly surprising because initial U.S. criticism was rapidly antagonizing the entire country – with potentially dire consequences.

Not only does Pakistan have three times the population of Iraq and Afghanistan combined, it now possesses dozens – if not hundreds – of nuclear warheads and the means to deliver them over long distances. The country is self-sufficient in uranium and there have been recent reports that the production of weapons grade material is being increased. The reasons why a relatively poor nation is adding to its already considerable and expensive arsenal remain opaque. A nightmare scenario for the West in general and the U.S. in particular is that some of these might find their way into the hands of terrorists.

Such an extreme scenario has been dismissed by Pakistan, claiming that its nuclear weapons are completely secure. But after the May 22 assault on one of the country’s major naval bases which lasted for 10 hours and saw the destruction of considerable amounts of military hardware – including one or two P3-C maritime patrol aircraft – these assurances will again be scrutinized. The attack on Karachi’s Mehran facility was well organized and seems to have received the benefit of some good insider information and a former navy commando suspected of providing assistance has been arrested. Similar assaults on nuclear installations cannot be ruled out and indeed it is possible that the Karachi base itself could have housed sensitive weaponry.

As worrying as the attack itself is the persistent delusion in a section of Pakistan’s ruling military and political elite that India was somehow behind the plot. Despite the Taliban claiming responsibility for the attack, saying it was in retaliation for the death of bin-Laden, a view persists that everything is in fact part of a master plan developed in New Delhi. This sort of North Korean-style paranoia cannot be helping Pakistan grapple with the reality that its stability is being threatened by Islamic fundamentalism, both from within and from over the border with Afghanistan. In fact militants are crossing the border in both directions as a recent assault on a Pakistani border post has demonstrated.

While the death of bin Laden is a blow to that fundamentalism, it will never entirely recede. There will always be a few human beings in any society who are attracted to extreme political views coupled with violence – terrorism is a phenomenon that goes back centuries and manifests itself in many forms. The United States has been on the receiving end of attacks before 9/11 with the Oklahoma City bombing of 1995 and a similar assault on the New York Stock Exchange in 1920 being examples of home grown terrorism. To believe that the death of one leading terrorist marks the end of al-Qaeda is a mistake.

The U.S. is growing weary of the struggle in Afghanistan, which remains unwinnable in a conventional military sense. While many other countries continue to commit troops to the cause, the war is increasingly being run and fought by Americans. Close allies the Netherlands and Canada have withdrawn thousands of their troops and equipment, to be replaced by a few dozen Malaysians and Tongans. This trend looks set to continue, with Britain also hoping to extricate itself in the not-too-distant future.

The key to progress is the role of Pakistan. While no country can completely control and monitor every single citizen, measures can nevertheless be taken to clamp down on extremism and make life for terrorists as difficult as possible. There has been some recent speculation that the Army has been preparing for a major offensive in the troubled North-West of the country but to date nothing has eventuated. In the meantime the Taliban, the Haqqani Network and a few al-Qaeda operatives are being hunted only by U.S. Predator drones.

Pakistan has a reasonably well-equipped standing Army of around 600,000 and an Air Force able to provide considerable support. Much of this strength is still facing India in the east of the country because of the fiction that an invasion might occur at any moment. Just because India and Pakistan have fought three limited wars in the past 60 years is no reason for a continuing belief that another such event is the greatest danger the country faces. Far more serious and imminent is the danger represented by extremists, who want to turn the entire country into a fundamentalist caliphate.

If Pakistan took greater steps in dealing with the problem it would regain the trust of both India and the U.S. which has been damaged by recent events. If all three countries developed a long term strategy for combating extremism then the task of guaranteeing that Afghanistan will not re-emerge as a major terrorist haven will be made considerably easier. In the meantime Pakistan needs to further increase its nuclear security and cease building more warheads.

 

 

 

 


 

Defence Review Asia at a glance