US Move Is Bad News for South Asian Security

Washington’s policymakers might believe they have scored a diplomatic coup of sorts in South Asia by reportedly reaching a deal with Pakistan to allow US troops to be deployed in Pakistan to hunt down Osama bin Laden.

This deal with Pakistan President Gen. Pervez Musharraf is supposedly in return for the pardon that Musharraf gave to nuclear expert Abdul Qadeer Khan, who has admitted to selling nuclear secrets to Iran, Libya and North Korea, and Islamabad’s not taking any further action on this confession.

The agreement was reported by Seymour Hersh of the New Yorker, but Pakistan officials have denied it.

But what the US government may believe to be a coup may turn out to be a delusion, if not a long-term liability.

If an intensified hunt for bin Laden succeeds, his capture will certainly boost President George W Bush’s election campaign. After the U.S.-created political and security mess in Iraq, he may have something to boast of.

But the costs of this “success” might prove onerous, and out of proportion to the benefits. To start with, it is not clear that the al-Qaeda fugitive now effectively controls a large global network.

More important, the physical presence of US troops on Pakistani soil – especially Special Forces, like the elite commando unit Task Force 121 that is reportedly being shifted from Iraq – will breed enormous resentment and discontent in Pakistan.

Its impact will be greatest in the sensitive areas adjoining Afghanistan: the North West Frontier Province (NWFP) and Baluchistan.

Already, radical Islamists rule the two provinces, catapulted into power there in elections by the unpopular U.S.-declared war on Afghanistan following Sep. 11, 2001. The resentment is likely to be extremely high in the turbulence-prone Pashtun “tribal agency” areas abutting Afghanistan.

Discontent will probably engulf all of Pakistan, including the country’s non-Islamist, liberal and moderate opinion, if US troops are deployed.

Many Pakistanis, like other South Asians, did not strongly oppose the US action in Afghanistan against al-Qaeda in 2001 or vocally oppose Pakistan’s “cooperation” with the US government. But foreign troops’ presence on Pakistani soil is another matter altogether.

When those troops are from the United States, it will cause big hurt to “national pride,” and injure widely prevalent ideas about “sovereignty,” Pakistani observers have said in interviews recently. Bluntly put, the US government is not popular in Pakistan. It is widely seen as a hegemonic, over-ambitious and cynical power, which has treated Pakistan shabbily except when its cooperation is useful in Washington’s short-term interests.

Even bin Laden’s capture is unlikely to enthuse the public in Pakistan and Afghanistan – any more than deposed president Saddam Hussein’s did in Iraq. In some ways, its impact may be worse.

The likely adverse reaction in Pakistan to a Khan-for-Osama deal with the US government must be understood in the specific context of South Asia’s tortuous relationship with Washington. This has at least four significant components.

First, there is a history of resentment against and suspicion of Washington in both India and Pakistan. India was a leader in non-alignment during the Cold War and often faced US hostility.

Pakistan was a US ally from the 1950s onwards. But after the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan, the United States downgraded it from a “frontline” state to a virtual pariah. It curtailed its access to armaments and technology to try to “cap” and “roll back” its nuclear weapons program, to which it had earlier turned a blind eye.

After the Cold War, the United States lost much of its economic, political and strategic interest in Pakistan. The 1998 nuclear blasts further marginalized Pakistan in the US scheme. Things changed after Sep. 11, because of Pakistan’s location right next to Afghanistan.

Second, many Pakistanis believe that Musharraf did not drive a good enough bargain with Washington while offering unconditional support to its “war on terror.” After Sep. 11, he fell in line without negotiating the terms for his support.

He allowed himself to be pressed into acting against domestic extremists and “diluting” Pakistan’s traditional stand on Kashmir, favoring a plebiscite about joining India or Pakistan. (Indian policymakers take the opposite view of this.)

Third, there is a widespread perception that the US government has “tilted” toward India, especially since President Bill Clinton’s 2000 visit, and US economic relations with India have significantly improved.

By contrast, there is virtually no US investment or business interest in Pakistan. Some Pakistani commentators believe that the US government knew the truth about Pakistan’s clandestine nuclear pursuits since the 1970s. Recent declassified US documents with the National Security Archive confirm these.

Washington chose to expose Khan at a time of its own convenience so it could mount effective pressure on Musharraf.

Fourth, the recent disclosures, many Pakistani analysts say, have put Pakistan’s future nuclear activities in jeopardy. At the same time, the US government and India are building a close strategic partnership, including sharing “dual-use” technology. This is widening the asymmetry between India and Pakistan in relations with the United States.

Thus, nuclear specialist and journalist Shahid-ur-Rehman has been quoted by the British Broadcasting Corp. as saying Pakistan will now find it difficult to maintain and modernize its nuclear facilities. “Pakistan’s program was based on smuggled, imported technology;” he says: “By contrast, India’s program was not as sophisticated, but it was indigenous. If there are curbs on India, they will not suffer.”

Argues Rehman, “If Pakistan needs a nuclear component, they will have to approach the international market. They will not sell it, so Pakistan will have to buy it on the black market.” His conclusion: “Pakistan’s nuclear program is now almost healf-dead.”

This sounds exaggerated, but there is certainly a contrast between Pakistan and India. India adopted the technologically easier route to nuclear bomb-making by reprocessing plutonium from unsafeguarded reactor fuel – thus, India could keep its nuclear program largely indigenous. Sanctions and import restrictions would not kill it.

Pakistan’s uranium-enrichment route uses a more sophisticated technology, involving centrifuges rotating at extremely high speeds like 1,000 revolutions per second. Such machines and their components cannot be made domestically. Pakistan is far more vulnerable to external restrictions.

Adding to this asymmetry is growing military collaboration between India and the US government, and India and Israel.

In February, the US government and India conducted relatively advanced joint air exercises. Washington has invited India to participate in a major North Atlantic Treaty Organization exercise in Alaska. New Delhi strongly supports Bush’s Ballistic Missile Defense plans and has offered to collaborate in developing that technology.

India has signed an agreement to buy the “Falcon” airborne early warning and control system from Israel, with US approval. This, Pakistani officials say, will “disturb the strategic and conventional balance in South Asia, and we will naturally take steps to redress the balance.”

This spells an accelerated arms race, in addition to the India-Pakistan nuclear weapons competition. The US government will only destabilize the situation further if it pursues its present policy.

Washington can help improve matters if it becomes even-handed and balanced in its ties with India and Pakistan and does not act only out of expedient considerations. There can be no long-term stability and security in this troubled region short of a momentum for global nuclear disarmament. Is the United States ready to move in that direction?

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.