Sunday, January 18, 2009

The Mumbai Attacks and the Future of Indian-Pakistani and U.S.-Pakistani Relations

With tensions between India and Pakistan escalating in the wake of last November’s terrorist attacks in Mumbai, Barack Obama need not look any further as to where his first test as President will come.

Relations between the two South Asian nuclear powers have deteriorated to their worst level since the beginning of the decade – that time also a result of a terrorist attack in India – with enraged Indian officials and defensive Pakistani officials trading accusations and retorts and people in both countries protesting in the streets against their South Asian rival, and although both countries deny they want war, each seems to be moving closer toward it, the most ominous sign being Pakistan’s recent redeployment of troops from the Afghan border to the Indian border.[1]

Upon taking office, Mr. Obama should pressure Pakistan with all of the means at the United States’ disposal to withdraw its troops from the Indian border and to ensure that a credible investigation into the activities of Lashkar-e-Taiba, the Pakistani Muslim extremist group allegedly responsible for the attack,[2] particularly how the group was able to evade Pakistani authorities, goes to completion. Although it is important that India does not further agitate the situation, evidence of Pakistan’s negligence and even alleged support of Lashkar-e-Taiba, as well as Pakistan’s recent mobilization along the Indian border seem to point to Pakistan as the main instigator of the current crisis, so it seems that compelling Pakistan to back off is essential in diffusing the renewed tensions between the two South Asian rivals.

In being more forceful toward Pakistan in this situation, Mr. Obama should not only seek to repair relations between India and Pakistan, but should also use the opportunity to redefine U.S relations with Pakistan. Under the Bush Administration, the United States was far too lenient with regard to Pakistan, providing it with fairly unconditional support to fight the Taliban and Al Qaeda along Pakistan’s border with Afghanistan and to safeguard of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal from extremist groups. While these goals are important to pursue, the Obama Administration should make it very clear to Pakistan that it can not hope to receive the same amount of aid and favorable treatment from the United States that it has enjoyed for the past eight years if it does not adequately use them to fulfill the said goals and that the United States is willing, however reluctantly, to relinquish such aid and treatment if the job is not done adequately. In acting accordingly, Mr. Obama will be able to demonstrate that he truly does mean to be an agent of change, and internationally as well as domestically.

One of the best tools at Mr. Obama’s disposal for influencing Pakistan is the sheer weight of America’s annual Pakistani military aid package, which totaled $5.4 billion in February 2008.[3] As U.S President, Mr. Obama should explain to Pakistan that the United States will not continue to give the Pakistani military billions of dollars intended to help with the fight against the Taliban and Al Qaeda in Waziristan only to have Pakistan station its troops along the Indian border, hundreds of miles away from the Islamic militants it is being subsidized to fight. Furthermore, Mr. Obama should expound on how the ability of an Islamic extremist group like Lashkar-e-Taiba to operate within Pakistan and from there strike abroad is an indication that the Pakistani military has not been able to effectively suppress the Islamic radicals within its country.

While Mr. Obama should not immediately halt aid to the Pakistani military, he should hint that he is not afraid to resort to such a measure, explaining how in these tough economic times, when the U.S. government is running a budget deficit of over $1 trillion,[4] the United States is looking to cut costs wherever money is not being well spent and that, given the circumstances in Pakistan, it appears that such money given to Pakistan has not been well spent.[5] In order to continue to receive aid then, he should continue, Pakistan should demonstrate that such money is being well spent. A good start would be to redeploy the troops stationed along the Indian border back to the northwestern provinces and to investigate how Lashkar-e-Taiba was able to operate within Pakistan and make adjustments accordingly.

Hopefully other methods will be able to convince Pakistan to stop mobilizing troops along the Indian border and to conduct a thorough investigation into Lashkar-e-Taiba and the Mumbai attacks, but should the United States resort to threatening to reduce or halt military aid to Pakistan, it is likely that not only the civilian government but also the Pakistani military and the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), the two main beneficiaries of the U.S. aid,[6] would be in agreement to redeploy Pakistani troops away from the Indian border.

At any rate, under the Obama Administration the United States should develop an alternative strategy for being able to combat the Taliban and Al Qaeda in Pakistan as well as to prevent Pakistan’s nuclear weapons from falling into the hands of radicals that does not involve providing billions of dollars in aid to the Pakistani military. Such a contingency plan would make the United States more confident about threatening to cut off aid to Pakistan.

It is hard to say exactly what the best arrangement might be. Perhaps the best strategy would be fairly similar to the current one – in which Pakistan would support the United States in its conflict with the Taliban and Al Qaeda – but just with different mechanics. The current strategy is not built for long-term success: by giving money to the military, the United States is merely perpetuating the dominance of that institution over the civilian government that has existed throughout modern Pakistan’s history, as evidenced by the various civilian governments that have been overthrown by military dictators like Generals Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq and Pervez Musharraf.[7] Furthermore, it is almost impossible for the United States to control how the Pakistani military spends its funds, which is a recipe for waste and misuse.[8]

A strategy that dealt directly with the civilian government may be more efficient than the current one and might move Pakistan in a better direction for the long run. Perhaps a favorable trade arrangement with Pakistan in return for military action against the Taliban and Al Qaeda instead of direct military aid would at least be less of a waste of money and might even strengthen the Pakistani economy and, by extension, the civilian government.

Placing more emphasis on the civilian government has its own risks, though. Pakistani civilian government has been more known for corruption than efficiency or democracy: indeed, the last three prime ministers with effective control – Benazir Bhutto, Nawaz Sharif, and Yousaf Raza Gillani, currently in office – have been indicted on corruption charges at some point in their careers.[9] It would take a very dedicated, skillful, and accountable civilian administration indeed to rule effectively over the country and the military, and Pakistan may not have that for a while.

While Mr. Obama should keep these considerations for long-term U.S.-Pakistani in mind, for the moment he should confine them within the context for the current crisis; diffusing tensions and averting war between India and Pakistan should be the Mr. Obama’s immediate goal in the region, for a large-scale and potentially nuclear war that would destabilize the region is in no one’s interest.


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