By NITIN PAI
As the United States reviews its troubled relationship with Pakistan after the killing of Osama bin Laden, a number of thoughtful voices have argued for Washington to continue aid to Islamabad. The money is necessary, the argument goes, both to buy support for a graceful U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan and because nuclear-armed Pakistan is “too big to fail.”
This is a terrible idea.
First, it’s important to understand why aid to or sanctions against Islamabad so far have not had their desired effect. In effect, two entities comprise Pakistan—the military-jihadi complex and the Pakistani state—and aid benefits the former at the expense of the latter. The military-jihadi complex started on the back of U.S. assistance during the anti-Soviet war in the 1980s and has been in effective control since. The state is little more than a shell entity.
Though the world’s governments plead with or try to coerce the state into co-operating with them in the fight against terrorism, it can’t because it doesn’t really hold the reins. Look no further than President Asif Zardari’s inability to prosecute the assassins of his own wife, Benazir Bhutto, who was killed in 2007.
On the other hand, the military-jihadi complex is more powerful, officially taking one-fifth of the state’s budget, receiving three-quarters of direct, overt U.S. aid and presiding over a business empire with interests ranging from nuclear technology to breakfast cereal. This complex presents a security threat to the international community because it uses terrorism as an instrument of policy, secure in the knowledge that its nuclear arsenal shields it from punishment.
U.S. diplomats may think that there is a chance to bolster the state at the expense of the military-jihadi complex. Recent aid measures from the U.S. have tried to do that.
However, it doesn’t quite work that way, for the military-jihadi complex is able to corner aid for itself and deflect hardship onto the state. Economic sanctions, like those imposed after Islamabad tested nuclear weapons in 1998, hurt the average Pakistani more than they hurt the average military officer and militant. And foreign aid, of which Pakistan received significant amounts after September 2001, has benefited the officer and militant more than the hapless citizen. Even if aid is specifically earmarked for the average Pakistani, money is fungible. As long as the military establishment is in effective control of the administrative spigots, it can divert flows from other domestic revenue sources.
More aid will then only strengthen the army and its nexus with militants. It is not a coincidence that even as the U.S. has spent $20 billion in overt assistance to Pakistan since 2002, there has been both an increase in the size of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal and more antipathy toward the U.S. among the population—polls demonstrate this. Both protect the military-jihadi complex from external threats.
The international community should therefore rely on domestic processes to dismantle the military-jihadi complex. So far, the Pakistani elite who lead the putative state have had little incentive to put up an existential struggle against the complex: They know that the latter enjoys the West’s tacit support and they believe that foreign sponsors will avert the fiscal crises caused by the army eating up resources. The elite is likely to fight harder if they know that there is no bailout package in the offing.
They can certainly fight, if they want to. Over the last decade, they first backed Pervez Musharraf, the military dictator; then Chief Justice Iftikar Chaudhry in his legal battle against the dictator; then Mr. Zardari and so on. Clearly, the elite are pragmatic; they will support whichever side can win. If the military-jihadi complex is seen to be losing, they will pile up against it.
The time is right for Islamabad’s three chief bankrollers, the U.S., China and Saudi Arabia, to cut it loose. So far the onus of preventing really bad outcomes in Pakistan—the most extreme of which is represented as a jihadi takeover of the nuclear-armed state—has fallen on them.
But the current moment provides an opportunity for them to get out of the way of Pakistan’s political transformation. Recent incidents, from the killing of bin Laden in Abbottabad to the raid on a Pakistani naval base, should begin to turn public opinion against the army. The civilian leaders of the state have the opportunity to force reform. They can reduce defense expenditure, place the military under civilian control and wind down support for militants. However, if external aid and political support shores up the credibility of the military establishment, this process will stop and the old dynamic will resume.
Needless to say, turning off aid flows to Pakistan comes with risks. The army will try to play the U.S., China and Saudi Arabia against each other. In the past month, Pakistan has made a show of cozying up to China for military support. Yet China’s response has been lukewarm, indicating that Beijing or Riyadh wouldn’t want to become the sole guardians of a delinquent ward. Their own self-interest, along with persuasion from Washington, might bring about cooperation.
And what if tough love actually brings about the nightmare, putting a jihadi regime in control of nuclear weapons? Yes, the risks of nuclear proliferation, international terrorism and war with India are likely to increase. Even so, the overall situation would at least inject clarity in the minds of statesmen to allow them to work together and move to contain or dismantle the source of the threats.
But this worst-case outcome is unlikely simply because it is not in the interests of the Pakistani elite. It is certainly not in the interests of the army, which is primarily interested in its own survival. When threatened with the risk of punishment by the Bush administration in 2001, Mr. Musharraf promptly changed course.
Once aid is cut off, ground realities will create more chances for Pakistan’s own state to force the army to change course. All the more reason then for the world to allow Pakistanis to decide what they want to do about their state.
Courtesy: THE WALL STREET JOURNAL