Pakistan’s Reward Could Turn Into Liability

U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell’s major surprise this week – making Pakistan a major non-North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) ally of Washington – was greeted with enthusiasm in Islamabad, but with stony silence here in New Delhi.

Pakistani Foreign Minister Khurshid Mahmood Kasuri exulted that with the new status, relations between Washington and Islamabad would get a boost in the future. Pakistan would be elevated to the same high level as US close allies such as Israel, Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand.

It will become the fourth Muslim-majority country to join the league of major non-NATO allies, after Egypt, Jordan and Bahrain.

The status is meant to reward President Gen. Pervez Musharraf for his "positive" role in the "war against terrorism" and to bolster his position domestically. As Powell put it: "President Bush and the American people appreciate the sacrifices Pakistan has already made to keep us all safer from terrorism."

The US government is particularly pleased that Pakistan has cooperated with it in the latest campaign to round up key al-Qaeda leaders, reportedly including the Number Two man, Ayman al-Zawahri, in South Waziristan near the Afghanistan border.

However, the move has all the characteristics of yet another short-sighted maneuver by the US government, made for essentially short-term reasons, including President George W Bush’s election campaign. It will create new imbalances in the complex and skewed triangular relationship between Washington, New Delhi and Islamabad. Imbalances will not promote stability or parity so much as instability and greater insecurity in South Asia.

Above all, Pakistan’s gains from the non-NATO ally status could prove illusory. They are liable to be negated by mounting pressure from the US government to intensify "mutual cooperation" against terrorism by signing agreements which give immunity to US troops from prosecution on Pakistani soil.

In terms of India-Pakistan relations, this is yet another swing of the pendulum from one extreme of favoring India to another, a pro-Pakistan tilt.

The non-NATO ally designation has dismayed and unnerved Indian policymakers. Although they did not react immediately to the announcement, "there was a ‘feel bad’ mood in the government" and the US embassy sent deputy ambassador Robert Blake "to do some firefighting" in the Indian foreign office, reported The Times of India newspaper. Indian officials believe that this ally status has a "strong political significance" in Pakistan. It will help the US administration’s secure military hardware for Islamabad. "All told, this is a label that Pakistan will wear proudly," an official has been quoted as saying.

India is likely to see Pakistan’s elevation in the US scheme of things as a setback to its own efforts to build an exclusive "strategic partnership" with Washington. India has gone out of its way to offer itself as a reliable, loyal, post-Cold War ally, one which supports the US government even on controversial questions like ballistic missile defense, on which Washington’s close allies have reservations.

There are worries in New Delhi that the non-NATO ally status will enable Pakistan to buy new weapons like P-3C Orion maritime surveillance planes and Harpoon missiles, and perhaps even F-16 fighter jets.

Many Indian policymakers believe that the non-NATO ally label is a reward for Musharraf’s cooperation on the issue of Abdul Qadeer Khan’s admission in February of having sold nuclear technology to Libya, North Korea and Iran. Powell tried to minimize this by saying, it "was something we have been working on for months and months and months. It’s not a reward for A Q Khan. (It’s) the same relationship we want to have with India."

Such even-handedness "as an afterthought" may not mollify New Delhi enough. India may try to extract some new assurances or arms from Washington, in turn impelling Pakistan to do the same. This could spell an accelerated South Asian arms race.

The Pakistan government stands to make two short-term gains from its major non-NATO ally status. Musharraf will benefit because after a long time, he will have something to show his critics, who accuse him of having conceded too much sovereignty and independence to the US government, without getting enough in return.

He might be able to disprove the widespread view prevalent in the Pakistani establishment, society and the press, that Washington has always "dumped Pakistan after its strategic goals are met" and it is not genuinely interested in a multi-dimensional, long-term relationship.

Secondly, Pakistani officials believe that the new status would greatly improve the prospect for arms purchases from Washington. They could have access to advanced weapons for the first time since 1990.

Since defense cooperation between Washington and Islamabad was resumed after Sep. 11, 2001, Pakistan has identified and asked for a number of high-technology weapons from the US government. But major non-NATO ally status does not open the doors to unlimited arms purchases. It gives the ally soft loans for leasing weapons and equipment for research and development purposes. It speeds up export licensing. It allows for US military training on easy financial terms.

However, the real downside is that Washington will probably insist on one condition for substantial arms purchase – that Pakistan sign a Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) that redefines the status of US personnel and property on the territory of another nation. SOFAs exempt US personnel from matters like criminal and civil jurisdiction, wearing the uniform, carrying arms, tax and customs relief, entry and exit of personnel and property, and resolving damage claims. Their basic purpose is to give immunity to US soldiers.

Sofas have been extremely controversial in Japan, South Korea, the Philippines and Bangladesh, where the US government insisted on a SOFA before providing relief to the victims of a major cyclone in 1991). Civil society campaigns and peace movements regard Sofas as serious, humiliating assaults on national sovereignty.

This was especially the case in Japan after a schoolgirl was raped by US soldiers in Okinawa in 1995, and in South Korea after young girls were killed by a US armored vehicle in 2002.

The United States has signed Sofas with more than 90 countries, or almost half the world – up from 40 at the end of the Cold War. After winding up certain military bases under popular opposition – for example, Clark and Subic Bay in the Philippines – the United States has used Sofas as the preferred instrument of maintaining military dominance in "allied" countries.

The SOFA issue is bound to become ultra-sensitive in Pakistan given existing suspicions about Musharraf’s pro-U.S. proclivities. The "reward" or "promotion" could soon become a liability.

(Inter Press Service)

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Author: Praful Bidwai

Praful Bidwai is a New Delhi-based political analyst and peace activist, a columnist with twenty-five Indian newspapers and co-author (with Achin Vanaik) of New Nukes: India, Pakistan and Global Nuclear Disarmament. He shared the International Peace Bureau’s Sean MacBride International Peace Prize for 2000 with Vanaik.