hms iron duke

hms iron duke

Monday, 11 July 2011

Talking with Benazir

The American decision to ‘punish’ Pakistan by withdrawing some $800m of a $3 billion military aid package demonstrates Washington’s nuanced approach to dealing with Islamabad that is to be commended. Clearly, the Pakistani Government knew exactly the whereabouts of Osama Bin Laden at the time of his death in May at the hands of American Special Forces. There are no doubt several other senior Al Qaeda and Pakistani Taliban figures being quietly supported by the ISI, Pakistan’s Inter-Service Intelligence agency. And yet, the ‘punishment’ is measured, enabling Islamabad to insist it is only the routine withdrawal of men and equipment; the removal of which they had themselves sought. It is a diplomatic Pas de Deux, and so it must be.

Why are the Americans being so careful with Pakistan? Quite simply, America and the West are a very long way from being able to leave that troubled region. Indeed, the West will need to support the Pakistani state against the anti-state for the foreseeable future. Fail and nuclear-armed Pakistan will provide the space for Al Qaeda and its cohorts to reconstitute and re-group. This struggle is far from over. Indeed, the Americans, unlike their European allies, most of whom have tuned out, understand that any strategy that draws down in Afghanistan must necessarily draw up in Pakistan.

Why are the Pakistanis so ‘difficult’? A couple of years ago I was briefed by the ISI at the Pakistani Army Headquarters. The briefing was what one would expect; a justification of Pakistan’s uneasy relationship with the Americans and their western coalition partners. Above all, whilst an ungoverned or Taliban Afghanistan may be a threat to the West, Afghanistan is only important to Pakistan in the context of its struggle with India over the future governance of Jammu Kashmir. To understand Pakistan, a Pakistani view is thus always essential and years ago I had the best.

Back in the 1970s I had a conversation with Benazir Bhutto in the Oxford Union. As I recall our chat was shortly before her father, Zufikar Ali Bhutto, then Prime Minister was overthrown by a military coup so it must have been late 1976 or 1977. Two years later Prime Minister Bhutto was executed on what are still widely held to have been trumped up charges. This striking, beautiful woman had the poise of an aristocrat and spoke like one, albeit with an alluring taste of the Punjab. What she had was star quality, and I was star struck.

She was inordinately proud of her country, but despaired of it; she loved her people, but despaired of them. She told me that whilst Pakistan wanted to be governed, its needs were so great that it was virtually ungovernable. Pakistan would always be a compromise between tyranny, democracy, society and community because the relationship between the state and the people was like no other on earth. Sadly, she too met an untimely end fighting for the country in which she so passionately believed.

She also took a sophisticated view of her country’s troubled relationship with India. Whilst she could be as populist as the next Pakistani leader when it came to India (she rather infamously once urged a crowd to cut an Indian governor to pieces), she also sought to break out of the sterile cycle of distrust that so still haunts these two nuclear neighbours born out of the British Raj.

The Americans clearly understand that any adjustment to strategy can only take place if the US a) acts as an honest broker between India and Pakistan; and b) convinces India and Pakistan that Jihadists are as much a threat to them as to the West. Fail and the status quo ante will be rapidly re-forged, with previously fragile states even further discredited in the popular mind. In such circumstances India will seek to increase its influence in southern Afghanistan to keep the region instable. The Pakistani Army will be forced to look two ways, south over the green line in Kashmir at the Indian Army, and north at an instable border along its entire north-west from Nimroz, through Helmand, Kandahar, Zabul and beyond. To counter India’s stratagem the ISI will continue to destabilise Kabul to prevent and constrain Indian influence in Afghanistan. At best two weak states, Afghanistan and Pakistan, will be left to handle a complex and disruptive Pashto space – the very conditions that spawned the Al Qaeda threat to the West.

Had Harvard-educated Benazir lived and risen to power, which seems likely, she may well have provided a more consistent partner to Washington. It would have been risky but she was no stranger to risk. She could well have insisted in return on the de-militarisation of America’s strategy in the region, which Washington is now moving towards. There would still have been a big ‘if’. New Delhi would of course have been critical both to her strategy and that of the Americans. The sadness for me is that Indian politicians have seemed so lacking in vision and thus unable to move beyond the domestically factional. Would they have made the leap of faith required?

Forty one years ago, on the eve of the 1970 war the relationship between India and Pakistan may have been one of competing equals. No more. Today, it is the relationship between a failing nuclear-armed Islamic state and an emerging world power. If anyone can change the regional-strategic dynamics it is the Indians, but to do so they will need to start acting like the world power they claim to be. And yet we wait.

America is thus right to tread softly with Pakistan. However, since the premature demise of Richard Holbrooke momentum has been lost (for all the Ambassador's heavy-handedness).  American attention to strategic detail only makes sense if India is properly engaged so that the conflicts in southern and eastern Afghanistan and that in Jammu-Kashmir are once and for all ‘de-conflicted’, to use the ghastly jargon of the strato-wonk.

I could not say I knew Benazir Bhutto, but I did meet her and talk with her and being very young and naive at the time I was utterly star-struck, like so many. She had her faults. She could be haughty and imperious and too easily forgive those around her less noble, but she never lacked for a ready smile and a keen wit. Had she lived Pakistan’s future would have been brighter, as would Afghanistan’s and India’s futures. This is because she had something I have so rarely seen in the region – an ability to rise above the factional and see a truly strategic future for her country, her people...and her region.

America must therefore honour her legacy and stick close to Pakistan, for all its many failings. There is simply no other strategic option open – not today, not tomorrow, nor the day after.

Talking with Benazir – I only wish I had had more of a chance.

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