US has a Blinkered Vision of South Asia

Gulf News, March 23 , 2005

The US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is sometimes described as a foreign policy visionary. She reportedly has the vision of a democratic Middle East, non-nuclear Iran and North Korea and a world order based on US primacy. But during her tour of South Asia last week, Rice indicated that the United States does not have any clue of how to deal with this nuclear armed region differently than in the past.

During her trip, Rice spoke of America’s friendship with India and its alliance with Pakistan. The United States is apparently offering fighter jets for sale to both countries while encouraging their peace process.

In Rice’s view, Pakistan has already made progress in instituting democratic reforms. The United States trusts the country’s unelected President General Pervez Musharraf, who took power in a military coup and refuses to keep his promise of giving up his military uniform, to hold free and fair elections in 2007.

Washington would like more Pakistani help in dealing with Dr A.Q. Khan’s nuclear proliferation network, but will settle for the help Musharraf has so far given. All in all, Rice appears happy with the status quo in South Asia.

News reports of the US Secretary of State’s visit to Pakistan showed similarities between US attitudes towards South Asia during the 1980s and now. Indeed some of Rice’s statements could have been cut and pasted from remarks made by President Ronald Reagan’s Secretary of State George Schultz during a tour of the region, two decades earlier.

Just as Schultz used to praise General Zia ul Haq for his courage in supporting the Afghan Mujahideen against the Soviet Union, Rice praised “the courage of the Pakistani people and the armed forces in the fight against terrorism.”

In 1985, the United States had accepted Zia ul Haq’s holding of partyless elections and the creation of a weak civilian government as steps towards democracy.

This time around, too, the United States is kicking the can down the road by accepting to wait for elections in 2007.

Given the track record of Pakistan’s military leadership, there is no guarantee that the 2007 election will be genuinely free and fair and that Musharraf would be willing to contest the poll as an equal of someone else.

Most Pakistanis expect another manipulated election, with intelligence services pre-screening candidates and forcing influential local politicians into and out of political alliances.

Although Rice did not speak on the subject during her visit, it is more or less certain that the United States is willing to sell F-16 fighter aircraft to Pakistan another repetition of the past pattern.

Pakistan’s military regimes have traditionally seen America’s alliance with Pakistan through the prism of military sales and the United States has always obliged. American arms are “toys for the boys”, a measure of the ruling general’s ability to get a pay off for Pakistan’s alliance with the United States. But historically, US military sales to Pakistan have discouraged its generals from seeking rapprochement with India while increasing Indian antagonism towards Pakistan.

If the United States seeks to encourage the peace process between the two nuclear armed neighbours, as Rice claimed, then it should be encouraging both India and Pakistan to undertake arms reduction and disarmament talks.

Hardly conducive

Selling expensive fighter jets to Pakistan, with 33 per cent of its population living below the poverty line and another 24 per cent living barely above it, is hardly conducive to helping Pakistan’s leadership identify its priorities.

It is interesting that soon after Rice’s departure from South Asia, Pakistan tested its nuclear capable missile and Pakistan’s Commerce Minister virtually backed out of including India in normal trade relations (also known as MFN).

With an American administration claiming to reshape the world, at least some South Asians expected a new US approach to their region as well.

In that respect, Rice’s visit has been disappointing. She would have done better if she had broken from the past. Instead of offering F-16s to Pakistan and India, the US should provide only economic assistance.

Instead of accepting vague assurances of gradual change in Pakistan, specific benchmarks for transition to democracy should be laid down.

Musharraf should be asked to give up his military rank. Elections under an independent Election Commission should be sought. The role of intelligence services in manipulating Pakistani politics should be noted and its end demanded.

What of the American concern that Musharraf might stop cooperating in the war against terrorism if he is not given a free pass on democracy and other issues?

Similar delusions have prevented visionary American initiatives towards South Asia in the past.

If Musharraf is the good guy Rice describes him to be, why would he stop fighting terrorism, which must be fought for Pakistan’s sake and not just America’s.

If, however, his heart were not in fighting terrorism how long before the American pay-offs start falling short of his expectations?