British policy in Central and South Asia is in a bit of a bind. We want stability in Afghanistan, a special relationship with India, and have signed up to a strategic partnership with Pakistan. The problem for us in achieving our goals in the region is that the latter two see a stable Afghanistan as coming at the expense of one or the other. In August, a survey of Pakistan’s foreign policy elite found that ‘there was concern about Indian activities [in Afghanistan] which could undermine Pakistan’s security and stability.’ A former Indian intelligence official has told me via email that New Delhi only seeks to stop the country from ‘coming under the malign influence of the Pakistani Army’. So can the United Kingdom enjoy friendships with all three countries despite geopolitical realities or does something have to give? This is the crux of an article I’ve been working on for the last month.
The British (and American) solution to geopolitics seems to be democratic politics, but it has a major flaw: Pakistan’s support for terrorist groups in the region is due to its rivalry with India, not the nature of its government in Islamabad or the power of the military in Rawalpindi.
In the public statements of David Cameron and William Hague, in both opposition and government, there is a false dichotomy between a democratic Pakistan which is a peaceful actor in the region and an autocratic, terrorist-supporting Pakistan. “We want to see a strong and a stable and a democratic Pakistan,” the Prime Minister said in Bangalore last July, “but we cannot tolerate in any sense the idea that [they are] allowed to look both ways” (my emphasis). There is no recognition that democracy and state sponsorship of terrorism can coexist, even though they have in the country before.
Zulfikar Bhutto waged a clandestine proxy war against Afghanistan in 1975 using Afghan exiles. The late Benazir Bhutto acquiesced to ISI-backing of the extremist Gulbuddin Hekmatyar in the Afghan civil war and also supported the rise of the Taliban. In the late 1990s, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif shielded the Taliban from American pressure to hand over Osama bin Laden because of his help in Kashmir. And President Zardari is supposed to have told high-ranking Taliban prisoners last spring: “You are our people, we are friends, and after your release we will of course support you to do your operations.”
Mr. Cameron is not the only one to buy into this false dichotomy. It seems to have been the basis of the recent “memogate” scandal in Pakistan. Hussain Haqqani, the now ex-Ambassador to the United States, is alleged to have passed on a memo to Admiral Mike Mullen from the Pakistani president in which he said he would fire the Army top brass and reign in terrorist groups if the Americans protected him from a military coup. C. Christine Fair, a much respected South Asia expert, concluded a recent Foreign Affairs article with the claim that ‘the most likely path toward a stable country involves empowering Pakistan’s civilians to exert control over security and foreign policy.’
I am sceptical because it is not the nature of the Pakistani government which determines its support for terrorism, but its geopolitical rivalries, which have also been a catalyst for changes from military rule to democracy and back again. Promoting “values” and the rule of law may bring about a change in Pakistan’s official mindset eventually, but Western policymakers don’t have that kind of time.