Air Commodore ® Khalid Iqbal
While Pakistan does not seek an all out confrontation with the United States, it is also not starved of the options to continue enduring a transactional relationship. Beside commonly stated reasons for American frustration, one major cause is Pakistan's recent effort to look for alternative alignments within Asia.
Recent diatribe by the American leadership was indeed a close call, hopefully the worst is behind us; however next American relapse, with spiralling effect, may not be far away. Incriminations hurled on Pakistan are rather serious. Waging of a proxy war is too sombre a blame to die down. America has indeed mouse trapped itself; these accusations would keep coming back to haunt it with snowballing effect. America will neither be able to swallow nor spit it. Descent on escalatory ladder would be much tougher than the climb.
Process of strategic divergence that started with the Raymond Davis episode has reached its peak. Public hostility towards the United States has reached new heights, exposing inherent strategic incompatibility of Pak-US relations. A decade after 9/11, Pakistan is being asked the same question “Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists”. Going by this fixation, America has indeed lost a decade in fruitless pursuits.
This time around American calculus is grossly out. Much has changed since 9/11. Thanks to American Machiavellian approach towards Pakistan, gap between the public perception about America and leadership's policy evaluation about America is at its minimum. Expectations of buckling like a decade ago are misplaced. Given the spike of public antagonism, no political leader could afford to digress from collective national sentiment, at least publicly. Statements by the political leaders indicated that a national level consensus had evolved much before the convening of APC.
Amid the prevailing confusion of jumping the fray by other countries like China, Saudi Arabia, Iran and, India, visit by the Centcom chief was a mysterious one. In all probability he came with an ultimatum which triggered an extraordinary meeting of corps commanders which voted down any military operation in North Waziristan; thus limiting the turf for the APC.
APC has formalised the national consensus; and sent across a strong message. Now, at national level, there is a need for the political leadership to fully assume the charge of Pakistan’s America policy and demonstrate that it could walk the APC talk. First 'to do' is to lower the tempers at political level and convert this crisis into opportunity.
Pakistan needs to evaluate its options, which are numerous; and review the courses of action available to America, that are numbered. Nevertheless, none of the sides can afford a direct confrontation without enormous risks. There are compatible capabilities on both sides, Americans are aware that in any military confrontation, Pakistan has no option but to retaliate irrespective of the losses. Americans are well aware of the limitations of employment of raw military power and crude economic sanctions.
America may not conduct conventional operations on Pakistani soil. It may encourage the cross border incursions by Afghanistan based militants to overstretch Pakistani forces. It is likely to conduct periodic special operations akin to Abbotabad attack to embarrass Pakistan’s military leadership, create an aura of insecurity amongst the general public and induce a feeling of helplessness amongst the political leadership.
In addition, the US would focus on non-operational military punishment, by severing military aid and supplies. However, this will go back in circles to haunt America as it will curtail the combat prowess of hpw Pakistani military to carry out operations in tribal areas. That is why Admiral Mullen told the US lawmakers that a “flawed and strained engagement with Pakistan is better than disengagement”.
America understands that the relationship with Pakistan cannot be broken because of the constraints entrapping the US. A damage control effort has already been initiated by relevant American functionaries. It will be interesting to see, how America balances its compulsions and limitations.
Pakistan cannot afford escalation, likewise the US also cannot up the ante unrestricted without the risk of reaching a point of diminishing returns. By scuttling the semblance of a strategic partnership, the US has already lost most of the leverage it had over Pakistan. Though Pakistan wont opt for escalation, it is prone to respond, in kind, to the US actions.
The US could stop bilateral aid to Pakistan. But that is unlikely to hurt Pakistan too much. US aid does not help the government’s precarious fiscal situation in any meaningful way as only 12-15 per cent of the total amount is channelled for budgetary support. If $3 billion (per annum) in economic and military is disbursed fully, this accounts for less than seven per cent of the total foreign exchange earnings of the country. The increase in export revenues and remittances in the current year was almost twice that amount. As regards significance of the aid, World Bank data shows that during the previous five years, net Official Development Assistance (ODA) from all sources to Pakistan has averaged less than 1.5 per cent of its Gross National Income. Per capita aid from all sources in 2009 was $14 only! Severing of civilian aid would have only a 0.14 percent impact on Pakistan’s GDP growth. These facts do not point towards any meltdown if the American aid is withheld.
But the real concern for Pakistan’s solvency would be loss of support from international lenders like the World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF); both look towards the US before deciding, they may deny the requests until a nod by the White House.
A candid estimate puts losses to Pakistan’s economy due to its participation in war on terror around US$ 70 billion. The US has provided $20.7 billion to Pakistan since 2002, which makes about 0.1 percent of the American treasure spent on war on terror over the same period. The biggest head, consuming $8.9 billion, is “Coalition Support Funds.” However, a sizeable portion of it remains un-remitted. The US is getting obnoxiously stingy on reimbursements of this fund, rejecting 44 percent claims in 2009, as compared to 1.6 percent in 2005.
Beyond that lie export quotas, both bilateral and others: if the US declares Pakistan a state sponsoring ‘terrorism’ that would unleash a sanctions regime which will severely impact Pakistan. However, in view of the strong support by China, America will not be able to accomplish this. In case of an eventuality, Pakistan could respond by imposing corresponding transit charges of logistics flowing through land routes and slam a ban on transit of its military aircraft through Pakistani air space. This would literally choke the foreign troops operating in Afghanistan.
Pakistan understands that it is not in its interest to allow terrorists safe havens or allow such elements to launch attacks on other countries from inside Pakistan. A number of meaningful administrative and military related suggestions have been made by Pakistan to control the trans-border movements; to which American have shown a cold shoulder.
Pakistan needs to project itself as an agent of peace in Afghanistan. It is uniquely placed to facilitate a process of cohabitation amongst various factions of Afghan resistance. America needs to understand that it cannot continue to slaughter the resistance forces while paying lip service to the need to reconciliation.
It is now amply clear that America wants to run away from Afghanistan at a faster pace than its advent. It does not serve long term American interests to leave behind a stable Afghanistan, so it is doing all gimmicks to spoil the pudding. Pakistan needs to take appropriate measures to minimise the impact.