By Mosharraf Zaidi
As I write these words, James Mattis is only just approaching Islamabad. But before he has even arrived, we know how this visit will go.
Pakistanis and Americans have become cultured in associating low expectations of the bilateral relationship. Mattis’ trip to Pakistan will not be very different from the visits of dozens of senior American officials over the last sixteen years. The Americans will go in and come out of these meetings with a dual edged message: “You’ve done great, but we need you to do more, to help us in Afghanistan”. The Pakistanis will continue to say nothing meaningful or believable, for example: “There is not an inch of Pakistani soil that is available to terrorist groups”.
Here in Pakistan, there is a wide swathe within the intelligentsia that is always keen to paint the Americans as overreaching and arrogant, with a comeuppance that is fast approaching. The strategic community in Pakistan has spent decades propagating all kinds of ideas about the state of the world. Yet Pakistan finds itself in a strategic headlock that is asphyxiating its autonomy and sovereignty with every passing minute. Of course, we are told, all of this is the fault of corrupt politicians like Nawaz Sharif – but beyond blaming elected civilians through WhatsApp ‘forwarded as received’ messages and Twitter hashtags like #ModiKaYaar, what is the evidence of the competence of Pakistani strategy?
Numerous former generals spend years on the television talk-show circuit evangelising for the imminent demise of the United States. Just recently, a former Pakistani representative at the UN wrote an op-ed that juxtaposed Pakistan with North Korea and Iran, not as a cautionary tale but as a parable about the need to maintain its nuclear options. At defence and security related workshops, conferences and seminars across the country, this kind of aggressive approach to managing Pakistan’s standing in the world is palpable. This is no different from three decades or two decades or even one decade ago, but one massive material difference has emerged today: the China factor.
Pakistani strategists have adopted an unquestioning approach to China that reeks of strategic desperation, rather than strategic luxury. The problem with the China-lubricated path to confrontation with the US and its key proxies in our neighbourhood, namely India and Afghanistan, is that China itself has never actually prodded Pakistan to take on the Americans. The reason is simple: nobody can beat them. This isn’t a moral or ethical issue: it is one of pure firepower. Despite all kinds of strategic and tactical provocations, China has maintained both a credible deterrence to American political power, as well as its most important trade relationship. America and China are primary competitors on the global stage, and yet maintain an economic symbiosis that is unprecedented in history.
Pakistan’s relationship with China is not a licence for Pakistan to pursue policy paths that lead to international isolation or sanctions. The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor is not now, nor has it ever been, a single-shot instrument to drive economic growth, jobs or prosperity for 210 million Pakistanis. Even if Pakistanis may believe it to be true, there is no evidence that China has ever sold itself to Pakistan as a be-all, end-all saviour. It is not. It has never been. It will never be.
Pakistan is a uniquely privileged country in terms of its geographical location. It can leverage this civilisational and existential advantage by virtue of its potential to add value to the actors that have interests in this region or by virtue of its potential to harm those actors and their interests. Pakistan’s strategy thus far seems to be to draw benefits from various actors on the basis of the harm that Pakistan can do to them. There is one key exception to this strategy: China.
China has bet on Pakistan because CPEC is a value multiplier, for China and potentially for Pakistan too. But the essential enabling factor in this relationship is China’s proximity to Pakistan, and China’s liquidity as a donor and lender. But even this liquidity is qualified. And Pakistani officials know this well.
Consider. When Pakistan needs money, government officials in Pakistan do not fly to Beijing, or Shanghai. They fly to London and New York. The massively successful Sukuk bond issue last week and the World Bank’s continued relevance in this country should serve as pointers about how to manage relations with both China and the US.
When push comes to shove, China is still a secondary actor on the global stage as far as finances are concerned. China will happily lend money at favourable terms for concrete deliverables. But it will not underwrite the Pakistani government’s spending habits. Not before. Not now. Not ever.
When shove comes to desperate pleas for rescue, it is still the formal financial institutions of the West, primarily tied to the US, that represent sources of funding for Pakistani government’s spending habits.
It is a paradox that any halfwit could decode successfully. Pakistan needs China. Pakistan needs America. But both China and America are stronger and more powerful than Pakistan. So job number one is that Pakistan must insure itself against both China and America. Job number two is that Pakistan must try to have the best relations imaginable with both. And job number three? Pakistan must avoid, at all costs, the worsening of relations with either beyond a certain cut-off. Let’s call this cut-off, the HQN/LeT cut-off line.
The infinite and unquestioned wisdom of the Pakistani strategist has produced a parade of embarrassments and tragedies. We used ‘tribals’ in 1948, and then throughout the 1980s. But after 9/11 when the Maliks were hunted down and killed by terrorists, we were busy signing peace deals with Nek Mohammad. We loved our Muslim brothers in Bengal to win freedom in 1947, but didn’t love them enough to abide electoral victories to them, or tolerate their language. We loved the Afghans enough to let in five million, and support the Taliban in the 1990s, but abandoned them the moment an American deputy secretary of state threatened to bomb us “back to the stone age”.
We love Baloch sardars when they slavishly take the money and shut their mouths, but we bury them in their caves when they try to negotiate. We love Mohajirs as an antidote to the PPP, but not enough to tolerate them when they start walking around in Karachi as if they own the place. We loved Syed Ali Shah Geelani when there was no cable television, but abandoned him for photo-ops in New Delhi. Eventually, it is both possible and probable that Pakistan will do to the HQN and LeT what it did to Fata tribesmen, to Kashmiri separatists, to Baloch sardars, and to the MQM. This is the foundation upon which American hopes for action against the HQN and LeT rest. We can’t blame Mattis or his colleagues for at least trying, can we?
Mattis came to a Pakistan where our strategists have produced a political party called the Milli Muslim League as we head into an election year. The idea? That force-feeding Hafiz Saeed and the LeT/JuD to the Pakistani mainstream will soften the blow of eventually rendering them impotent, in terms of their ability to harm Pakistan’s interests – at home or abroad. Even if plausible, the LeT model does not work for the HQN. One way or another, Pakistan needs to develop a coherent and defensible position on the Haqqani Network. The current position is inconsistent with Pakistan’s internal realities, unacceptable to the US, indefensible as far as the Chinese are concerned, and unsustainable at large.
This is no way to defend our country, no way to conduct international relations, and no way to prepare for the future. Our complaints should not be directed at James Mattis. They should be directed at the architects of this mess.
The News, December 6, 2017