U.S. must stop pampering Pakistan

by Brahma Chellaney

U.S. policy on Pakistan isn’t working, and unless Washington fundamentally reverses course, it risks losing the war in Afghanistan and making the West an increasing target of jihadists. That is the key message emerging from the recent terrorist assaults in Mumbai.

U.S. aid to Islamabad is now close to $2 billion a year, placing Pakistan as one of the three top recipients of American assistance along with Israel and Egypt. In fact, on the eve of the Mumbai attacks, the United States persuaded the International Monetary Fund to hand a near-bankrupt Pakistan an economic lifeline in the form of a $7.6 billion aid package, with no strings attached.

Despite such largess, Pakistan is host to the world’s most-wanted men and the main al-Qaida sanctuary. Recent polling shows that Osama bin Laden is more popular in Pakistan than ever, even as America’s negative rating there has soared.

A shift in U.S. policy on Pakistan holds the key to the successful outcome of both the war in Afghanistan and the wider international fight against transnational terror.

First, if the U.S. does not insist on getting to the bottom of who sponsored and executed the attacks in India’s commercial and cultural capital, the Mumbai attacks will probably be repeated in the West. After all, India has served as a laboratory for transnational terrorists, who try out new techniques against Indian targets before seeking to replicate them in other pluralistic states.

Novel strikes first carried out against Indian targets and then perpetrated in the West include attacks on symbols of state authority, the midair bombing of a commercial jetliner and coordinated strikes on a city transportation system.

By carrying out a series of simultaneous murderous rampages after innovatively arriving by sea, the Mumbai attackers have set up a model for use against other jihadist targets. The manner in which the world was riveted as a band of 10 young terrorists — all from Punjab province in Pakistan — held India hostage for three days is something jihadists would love to replicate elsewhere.

Given the easy manner in which outlawed terrorist outfits in Pakistan resurface under new names, the U.S. knows well that a ban on any group or the temporary detention of some terrorist figures (as happening now in Pakistan under international pressure) is of little enduring value. More Mumbai-type attacks can be prevented only if the masterminds are identified and put on trial and their sponsors in the Pakistani military-intelligence establishment are, with the help of Europeans, indicted in The Hague for war crimes.

Second, let’s be clear: The scourge of Pakistani terrorism emanates not so much from the Islamist mullahs as from generals who reared the forces of jihad and fathered the Taliban and al-Qaida-linked groups such as the Lashkar-e-Taiba, the group blamed by India, the U.S. and Britain for the Mumbai attacks.

Civil-military relations in Pakistan are so skewed that the present civilian government is powerless to check the sponsorship of terrorist elements by the military and the latter’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency, or even to stop the army’s meddling in foreign policy. Until civilian officials can stand up to the military, Pakistan will neither become a normal state nor cease to be a “Terroristan” for international security.

U.S. policy, however, still props up the Pakistan military through generous aid and weapon transfers. Even as Pakistan has emerged as a common thread in the investigations of most acts of international terror, U.S. policy continues to be governed by a consideration dating back to the 1950s. Washington has to stop viewing, and building up, the military as Pakistan’s pivot. By fattening the Pakistani military, America has, however inadvertently, allowed that institution to maintain cozy ties with terror groups.

A break from this policy approach would be for the Obama administration to embrace the idea currently being discussed in Washington — to condition further aid to the reconfiguration of the Pakistani military to effectively fight terror, and to concrete actions to end institutional support to extremism. The nearly $11 billion in U.S. military aid to Pakistan since 9/11 has been diverted to beef up forces against India. Such diversion, however, is part of a pattern that became conspicuous in the 1980s when the ISI agency siphoned off billions of dollars from the covert CIA assistance meant for anti-Soviet guerrillas in Afghanistan.

For too long, Washington has allowed politically expedient considerations to override its long-term interests.

It is past time U.S. policymakers actively encouraged elected leaders in Pakistan to gain full control over all of their country’s national-security apparatus, including the nuclear establishment and ISI.

The ISI — a citadel of Islamist sentiment and the main source of support to the Taliban and other terrorist groups supporting jihad in Kashmir, Afghanistan and elsewhere — should be restructured or disbanded. State-reared terror groups and their splinter cells, some now operating autonomously, have morphed into a hydra.

U.S.-led NATO forces in Afghanistan, like border troops in India, have been trying to stop the inflow of terrorists and arms from Pakistan. The real problem, however, is not at the Pakistani frontiers with Afghanistan and India. Rather it is the terrorist sanctuaries deep inside Pakistan that continue to breed extremism and export terrorism.

Since the economic viability of Pakistan depends on continued U.S. aid flow as well as on American support for multilateral institutional lending, Washington has the necessary leverage. Further aid should be linked to definitive measures by Pakistan to sever institutional support to extremism. Only when the institutional support for terrorism is irrevocably cut off will the sanctuaries for training, command, control and supply begin to wither away.

Unless the U.S. reverses course on Pakistan, it will begin losing the war in Afghanistan. While America did make sincere efforts in the aftermath of the Mumbai assaults, with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mike Mullen personally visiting Islamabad to exert pressure, U.S. diplomacy remains hamstrung by Washington’s continuing overreliance on the Pakistani military.

Before the chickens come home to roost, the U.S. pampering of the Pakistani military has to end.

Brahma Chellaney, a professor of strategic studies at the privately funded Center for Policy Research in New Delhi, is the author, most recently, of “Asian Juggernaut: The Rise of China, India and Japan.”