Stuck in Second Gear

Indian Express, February 21, 2007

The outgoing US Ambassador to Pakistan, Ryan Crocker, has attempted to resolve the apparent contradiction between Washington’s view of General Pervez Musharraf as a critical ally in the war against terrorism and intelligence about terrorists still operating out of Pakistan.

“Pakistan has been fighting terrorists for several years and its commitment to counterterrorism remains firm,” Crocker told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee at the hearing on his nomination as US ambassador to Iraq. The challenge faced by Pakistan in coming to terms with Taliban fighters along its border with Afghanistan, he explained, lies in a lack of ‘capacity.’

As suicide bombings and general lawlessness illustrate the insecurity of millions of Pakistanis, Pakistan’s self-congratulating elite can now sit in the comfort of its drawing rooms and debate a new issue: What is worse — being doubted for lack of commitment as an American ally or being recognised as an incapable one?

Clearly, from the US point of view the task expected of Pakistan is not being accomplished. One implication of Crocker’s assessment is that Pakistan must now brace itself for pressure in improving its capacity. Alternatively, it would have to allow other US allies, possibly NATO, to complete the task to which General Musharraf is committed but which Pakistan’s military and law enforcement machinery are unable to do.

The underlying message in Crocker’s faint praise for Pakistan must not go unheeded. Finding friendly rulers and then bolstering their capacity to fulfil strategic objectives has been the mainstay of US foreign policy in the greater Middle East for years. For this policy to work, US diplomats must gloss over the flaws and weaknesses of allies and ensure a constant flow of military and economic assistance. The aid, and the dependence that results from it, is supposed to buy the US influence.

Concerns about democracy and human rights must be played down and critics must be assured that “slow but sure reform” is on its way. The economic growth that results from injection of large doses of aid, coupled with stage-managed elections and some diversity in a semi-controlled media, are useful instruments of convincing sceptics that the glass is half full. Many smart people would argue that this model of US policy has by and large worked.

They argue that US support of the region’s rulers, capable or incapable, has prevented the entire region from going up in flames. But others argue, quite effectively on the basis of the existing record, that the capacity of America’s allies from Morocco to Indonesia to live up to Washington’s expectations, especially in the war against terrorism, is diminishing.

Sooner or later, US policy will end up combining the “constructive instability” paradigm, which causes US intervention on the scale of Iraq with attendant consequences, and the “island of stability” exemplar that led the US to ignore the turbulence brewing under the Shah’s rule in Iran.

Ambassador Crocker has conducted himself successfully in Pakistan, retaining General Musharraf’s confidence and helping the general preserve his lifeline to Washington. The only thing the realists in the United States seek from Pakistan is full cooperation in tracking down Al-Qaeda operatives and shutting down the Taliban who have become a serious threat to stability in Afghanistan.

As he leaves Pakistan to deal with the mess in Iraq, Ambassador Crocker has communicated a subtle message to the military regime in Islamabad, which he has done much to save from the wrath of America’s “constructive instability” visionaries.

General Musharraf and his colleagues need to redefine their priorities and rebuild the capacity of the Pakistani state in the areas where it is lacking — counter-terrorism, law enforcement, limiting non-state armed groups.

The Pakistani state has become weak as its functionaries have expanded their role to include being the manipulators of domestic politics and dealers in urban real estate. Pakistan must become an effective state run under its constitution and the rule of law. Otherwise, it will continue to be a victim of terrorism as well as an alleged safe haven for terrorists.