Uneasy Partners: Pakistan and the United States

There is nothing "normal" or "ordinary" about Pakistan, from the rationale for its creation to the fact that it played a crucial role in the last epic battle of the Cold War, the expulsion of the Soviet Union from Afghanistan. It played an equally significant role in the first battle of George W. Bush’s global war on terrorism (GWOT). It is in the context of the ongoing conflict that President Gen. Pervez Musharraf’s presents In the Line of Fire: A Memoir.

While reading this book, a reader gets the feeling that he is straddling two worlds. One is the world of the Bush administration, in which countries are "either with us or against us" in the GWOT. The other world is that of the Muslim rulers, who were caught between their desire for survival and their wish to stay on the right side of George W. Bush. The Islamists and extremists envision both worlds as enemies of Islam and have declared jihad on them. Musharraf was in a particularly difficult position: the Islamists view him as America’s puppet, while the Americans are not satisfied that he’s been sufficiently cooperative.

Pakistan is nothing if not a place where politicians (including its generals, who are no less politicians than their civilian counterparts) have mastered the art of making the best of the worst situations. Musharraf has lived up to that legacy. He opted to side with the U.S. in Bush’s GWOT. In the process, he abandoned the Taliban and has become one of their chief hunters. But that is just the beginning of a long, unfinished story.

The Taliban regime, which only Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE recognized, emerged as a haven for al-Qaeda. The UAE and Saudi Arabia withdrew their diplomatic recognition of the Taliban after 9/11, leaving Pakistan to be the last "defender" of that doomed regime. The U.S. made Pakistan an offer it could not refuse. It came in the form a telephone call from Secretary of State Colin Powell. He was blunt: "You are either with us or against us." If that wasn’t a clear enough threat, Powell’s deputy, Assistant Secretary of State Richard Armitage, made it even clearer. According to Musharraf, Armitage conveyed the threat to the director of Pakistan’s spy agency, ISI. He said the message that he got was, "If we choose the terrorists, then we should be prepared to be bombed back to the Stone Age."

Even though Armitage now categorically denies that he used those words, Musharraf got the message. He "war-gamed the United States as an adversary" and came to a speedy conclusion. His reasoning was that of a soldier, free of circuitous arguments and convoluted caveats. As he puts it, "The ultimate question that confronted me was whether it was in our national interest to destroy ourselves for the Taliban. Were they worth committing suicide over? The answer was a resounding no."

Musharraf rightly opted to support the United States, while extracting a high price in the form of military and economic assistance, which the Bush administration was more than willing to offer. In this showdown, Pakistan was the weak actor, but it had a lot of political clout as a potential spoiler.

The U.S. could have invaded Pakistan, but then what? An attack on Pakistan would have been even bloodier and more catastrophic than the quagmire in Iraq. In all likelihood, Pakistan would have been forced to use nuclear weapons, even though the rumor immediately before the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan was that the American and Israeli special forces were on dry runs to capture Pakistan’s nuclear weapons. Needless to say, that type of rumor may serve some purpose for public consumption or for propaganda purposes; however, actually capturing nuclear weapons from Pakistan would not have been exactly a "cakewalk" for either of those aspirants.

The most understated aspect of the U.S.-Pakistan relationship in the post-9/11 era was how Bush himself exploited Pakistan’s need for America’s friendship, its economic assistance, and, above all, the power of being identified in South Asia as America’s leading partner in the GWOT. Bush started out threatening Pakistan, but ended up enticing it into fighting America’s GWOT.

Uppermost on Musharraf’s mind was India’s advantage if Pakistan were to appear wishy-washy about helping and supporting the Americans. From Musharraf’s perspective, by going along with Bush, he dealt a coup de grâce to India’s aspirations to undermine Pakistan. While discussing the role of India and its almost overzealous willingness to help the U.S., Musharraf is his usual candid self. He writes, "It is no secret that the United States has never been comfortable with a Muslim country acquiring nuclear weapons, and the Americans undoubtedly would have taken the opportunity of an invasion to destroy such weapons." There is little doubt that, in the entire duration of the Cold War years, Pakistan and the U.S. remained uneasy allies or partners. That became glaringly obvious when American intelligence found out the extent of the role of A.Q. Khan, father of Pakistan’s nuclear weapon, in running a global nuclear department store. That episode actually goes to the very foundation of what is wrong with this partnership.

Musharraf has always maintained that Khan acted as a "loose nuclear cannon" and that the Pakistani government was not even aware of, much less facilitated, his proliferation activities involving Libya, Iran, and North Korea. There is little doubt that the Bush administration did not believe Pakistan’s story. However, as the story broke in 2002, when Pakistan had already reemerged as a "frontline" state in the GWOT, Bush swallowed hard and pretended that he believed Musharraf’s explanation regarding Khan’s rogue behavior. If there is any doubt, however, that the U.S. regards Pakistan as an active nuclear proliferator, one need only reexamine the speed and abruptness with which Washington rejected Pakistan’s pleading that the U.S. should offer Islamabad the same type of nuclear deal it offered New Delhi.

Another example of the uneasy U.S.-Pakistan partnership is the Bush administration’s frequently manifested dissatisfaction with Pakistan’s support for finding Osama bin Laden, who is understood to be hiding near the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. There is a school of thought in Washington that strongly believes that Musharraf and his ISI are playing games with the U.S. They have been arresting and handing over minor al-Qaeda underlings and functionaries for the past two years to maintain a semblance of cooperation, but they refuse to capture the "big enchiladas," bin Laden and his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahri. It behooves Pakistan, according to this argument, to keep America interested and involved in the region. There is a lot of money to be made by following that policy.

Musharraf is rather crass in making a point about Pakistan’s continued cooperation in tracking down terrorists, including al-Qaeda’s top leadership. He answers his critics by challenging them to ask the CIA how much money it paid to Pakistan for handing over al-Qaeda’s "high-valued" personalities. Then he observes, "We have captured 689 and handed over 369 to the United States. We have earned bounties totaling millions of dollars," without specifying how much money was paid.

The most interesting and intriguing aspect of this book is that the events it covers are still unfolding. When a reader is done with a chapter involving any aspect of the GWOT and glances at the television, he or she can pick up where the chapter left off, since the Pakistani president is continuing his publicity campaign this week in Washington. President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan is also in town. Both Musharraf and Karzai are publicly airing their disagreements with each other, while President Bush attempts to play peacemaker between them. It’s as if Musharraf’s book has come alive.

The release of Musharraf’s book was very well timed. He was visiting the U.S. to attend the annual meeting of the UN General Assembly. He appeared on the CBS show 60 Minutes and made his highly publicized remarks about Armitage’s threat. However, when confronted for clarification during a joint press conference with President Bush, he coyly offered contractual obligations to his publisher as a reason not to make further comments before the book’s release on Sept. 25. Bush expressed his surprise about Armitage’s remarks, but, in a good-humored way, went along with his guest’s explanation for not commenting.

Watching Musharraf make a series of appearances on TV programs and in think tanks around Washington, one sees that the general has a great future in the limelight of Washington. (That future seemed near when rumors spread of a coup in Pakistan, which was promptly denied by its military.)

One final impression the reader gets from Musharraf’s book is that the man is a high-stakes gambler. Both he and Pakistan are currently riding a roller coaster, as Afghanistan grows increasingly explosive and Pakistan’s domestic political situation becomes more volatile. Radical Islamism is on the rise in both countries, while the Bush administration is desperately seeking a major victory in its GWOT. At the same time, there is little affinity between the U.S. and Pakistan. The current partnership is a marriage based on the necessity of fighting the GWOT. Once an important phase of that war is over, the U.S. is expected to leave South Asia, as it did in 1989. At least India has its economic prosperity, its democracy, and its strategic partnership with the U.S. Pakistan would be on its own again, left to fend for itself. Under these circumstances, the title of Musharraf’s memoir, In the Line of Fire, is most appropriate – perhaps even ominous.

Read more by Ehsan Ahrari