Saturday, May 7, 2011

The insanity clause-You don’t have to be crazy to run counter-terrorism in Pakistan; but it helps to appear so

UNDER your own nose is often the last place you look for something you have mislaid. But in this case the missing object was the target of perhaps the most expensive manhunt in history. It seems inconceivable that parts of the Pakistani establishment were unaware that Osama bin Laden was living in their midst. You might think it also seems unbelievable that Pakistan could be so breathtakingly duplicitous and take such a risk of antagonising America, its most important ally. In fact, you would be wrong: high-risk duplicity has long been the hallmark of Pakistani foreign policy.

You never know when the world’s most-wanted man might come in handy. Some members of the Inter-Services Intelligence or ISI, Pakistan’s spy agency, probably thought it a good idea to hang on to Mr bin Laden. The reasons lie in Pakistan’s tortured relations with America, with Islamist extremism and with India.

“Deadly Embrace”, a recent book on the America-Pakistan relationship, by Bruce Riedel, a former CIA officer who chaired a review ordered by Barack Obama of policy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, shows that Pakistan has long seen the United States as a fickle friend. Viewed from Islamabad, the relationship is a history of betrayals.

In the 1950s the two countries’ spooks got on famously. An American U-2 spy plane captured in the Soviet Union in 1960 had taken off from a secret airbase near Peshawar. Yet when Pakistan went to war with India in 1965, America stayed neutral.

Nor, despite Pakistan’s role in arranging his opening to China, was Richard Nixon much help when East Pakistan seceded to become Bangladesh in 1971—though he managed to antagonise India by sending an aircraft-carrier into the Bay of Bengal.

Close co-operation in the 1980s in arming and training mujahideen fighting the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan soon turned into sanctions over Pakistan’s nuclear programme. So on September 11th 2001, Pakistan’s then dictator, Pervez Musharraf, according to his memoirs, thought hard before succumbing to America’s threats and offering help in the looming war in Afghanistan.

Pakistan’s role in that war has been ambiguous. It has provided vital access. It has sacrificed hundreds of soldiers’ lives fighting terrorists. It has tolerated hugely unpopular drone attacks on Taliban and al-Qaeda targets in its territory. It has let hundreds of CIA agents roam about. When one of them shot two people dead in a Lahore street in January, it even, eventually, let him go. It has also captured and handed over al-Qaeda fighters—670 of them by 2006 according to Mr Musharraf, including in 2003 Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, alleged mastermind of the 9/11 attacks.

Yet Pakistan has also done much to help the Afghan Taliban rebuild itself after crushing defeat in 2001. It is even harder now to believe Pakistan’s denials that the group’s leader, Mullah Omar, lives in its territory. The army has been selective in the extremists it has attacked. The Haqqani network, which reserves its firepower for targets in Afghanistan, has been immune. So, the world now knows, was the biggest terrorist prize of all.

It may even be that his protectors had sympathy for Mr bin Laden and his views. Hamid Gul, a former head of the ISI, has promoted conspiracy theories about 9/11. He also believes—less controversially in Pakistan—that “the Taliban is the future” for Afghanistan. You can choose your friends, but not your neighbours. Americans come and go, but India will be there forever, and deeply ingrained in the Pakistani security establishment are the beliefs first, that India is the real enemy, and second, that to remain safe from it, Pakistan needs the “strategic depth” of a friendly Afghan neighbour. The Taliban, moreover, are predominantly ethnic Pushtuns, like many Pakistanis.

The strategy of using Islamist militants to topple a big power worked well in Afghanistan and was tried again against India in Kashmir. The links built up during the two insurgencies between the ISI, the army and the militants go deep. It seems highly unlikely that the Pakistani terrorists who attacked Mumbai in November 2008, for example, did so without some official connivance. The aim would be to raise tension with India, justifying Pakistan’s army in concentrating its forces on its eastern frontier. Since India and Pakistan both have nuclear weapons, this may be the highest-risk strategy of all. At home, the extremists now seem out of control, threatening the very survival of a moderate Pakistan. Yet the government still seems ambivalent about them.

Denying in the Washington Post this week any Pakistani knowledge of Mr bin Laden’s whereabouts these past ten years, Pakistan’s president, Asif Ali Zardari, resorted to a familiar defence. Pakistan is “perhaps the world’s greatest victim of terrorism”, which has taken the lives of 30,000 Pakistani civilians. It makes no sense, he implied, to be collaborating with terrorists.

For fear of finding something worse

Mr Zardari is right: it is a policy of almost lunatic recklessness. It assumes America is too dependent on Pakistan’s help to ditch it again. It assumes India will withstand almost any provocation. And it assumes the rise of extremism in Pakistan itself can still be contained. It is that final assumption that has looked shakiest this year. Two moderate politicians have been assassinated for advocating reform of the unjust blasphemy law. Few have dared condemn, and many have praised, their murderers.

If it were located anywhere else, Pakistan—which also has the world’s worst record on nuclear proliferation—might be treated as a rogue state. But it is too important. The fear of its lurching into fundamentalist hands is in turn part of what restrains America and India. That would be a catastrophe for the war in Afghanistan, for India’s hopes of a prosperous future in a calmer region and, most of all, for the vast majority of Pakistanis, who show little sign of hankering for harsh clerical rule. By Banyan from The Economist

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