‘Pakistan: on the horns of a dilemma’

On Saturday 10 March 2012, The Democracy Forum hosted a day-long seminar at the London School of Economics, entitled ‘Pakistan: on the horns of a dilemma’. Based on the recent BBC documentary ‘Secret Pakistan’ – which alleges that, despite its public role as America’s ally, Pakistan is involved in training and harbouring Taliban militants in Afghanistan, and lacks commitment to the war against terror – the aim of the seminar was to analyse the current political/military situation in Pakistan with a view to offering encouragement to liberal forces in that country.

The event opened with a screening of the documentary, after which Mr Stephen Hammond MP – Chairman of The Democracy Forum and secretary of the All Party Parliamentary Group on India–introduced the Forum and offered a few words on the complex and difficult situation in Pakistan, and its relationship with India. Mr Hammond said the seminar would examine why Pakistan’s current dilemma has grown, why the West has continued to believe Pakistan is on its side, and why Western powers have struggled to counter terrorism.

He drew attention to what he saw as some of the major reasons behindPakistan’s failure to develop a coherent counter-terrorism policy, including the mistrust that affects Pakistan and the West’s mutual need for security, Pakistan’s divergent civilian and military objectives, and the country’s relationship with India.

Dr William Crawley from the Institute of Commonwealth Studies then addressed the audience in his role as seminar Chair. The ‘dilemma’ in question, he reminded listeners, was not only Pakistan’s but also the international community’s. Dr Crawley then introduced the first of the four distinguished speakers, Dr Christine Fair of Georgetown University’s Security Studies Program.

Dr Fair sought to trace Pakistan’s dangerous descent over the last decade and its implications for US and Pakistani interests, regional security and peace.  She addressed the important policy decisions onIndia and Pakistan prior to 9/11 and critical US decisions in the early years of the war on terror, as well as several mis-steps in the wake of 9/11 that shaped the future of stability in the region. She discussed the antecedents of Pakistan’s current crisis, rooted in Pakistan’s long-standing reliance on Islamist militancy in Afghanistan and India, and Pakistan’s regional calculus as theUnited States considers its endgame in Afghanistan.

She concluded by saying that, after ten years of the war on terror, Pakistan is more reckless and unsafe than it was on September 10, 2001; and despite Pakistan’s historic contributions to the US-led war effort in Afghanistan, Pakistan’s continued reliance upon the Afghan Taliban, the Haqqani Network and groups like Lashkar-e-Taiba has placed the country at increasing odds with the international community.

Dr Crawley praised Dr Fair’s lively presentation and provocative arguments. The Counsellor of the Pakistan High Commission, Khalid Majid, called the BBC documentary a ‘half-baked’ account of events and said that any dialogue with the Taliban should be participated in by all Pakistani factions. Mr Majid also queried why Dr Fair believed Pakistan was such a menacing nation, to which she replied that ‘every terrorist organisation since 9/11 has had its footprints in Pakistan’.  She claimed Pakistan was unwilling to go after the roots of the networks and the Pakistani diaspora was also involved in recruitment. One audience member called jihad a ‘gift that Pakistan got from theUS’, and a heated argument in Urdu followed between Dr Fair, Mr Majid and one of the audience.

After lunch, Nigel Inkster of the International Institute for Strategic Studies spoke of the misunderstanding s and ‘mismatch of expectations’ between Pakistan and the West.  He discussed theUSA and Pakistan’s long history of episodic collaboration based on a readiness to ignore the extent to which their strategic objectives actually diverge. This tendency had been exacerbated by the propensity of US and other western policy-makers to consistently underestimate Pakistan’s capacity for ‘duplicitous behaviour’.

The problem is further made worse by the fact that while Pakistan now has a civilian government with whom western policy-makers are obliged to deal, the Army maintains a lien on foreign, defence and security policy, and the ISI has a relationship with terror groups such as L-e-T.

Mr Inkster said that for the past decade Pakistan has been playing ‘a game of high-stakes poker’ with theUSA and it appears to be winning, at least in the short term.  Pakistan has calculated correctly that while the NATO/ISAF engagement in Afghanistan continues, theUSand its allies cannot do without Pakistan and cannot afford to have an overtly hostile relationship with it. This calculation will look less convincing once the Afghan draw-down has taken place.   At the same time, a reduced US security footprint in the region may make it easier for Pakistan to manage down the problem of jihadism. So there is a case to be made for coping with the current situation in the expectation of something better to come.

In response to questions from Dr Crawley, Mr Inkster said that whatever dialogue may take place between theUSandPakistanbefore 2014, it would be unlikely to lead to a resolution by then. To a question on India and Pakistan’s relationship, Mr Inkster said that Pakistan remains ‘consumed by the notion ofIndia as a threat’, though it has no real cause to feel this way.

The danger of oversimplification was a theme for Professor Yunas Samad of Bradford University, who said that the War on Terror is a reductionist paradigm that simplifies complex processes and collapses a number of different actors into the enemy. It was a common mistake to think that the Taliban and al-Qaeda are the same, as they are very dissimilar. A more nuanced understanding of events is necessary. He looked at the different factors that have drawn people into the insurgency, considered how disparate the groups can be, and queried where the funding and guns came from.

Professor Samad also reflected on the dilemmas and paradoxes raised by Pakistan’s present security paradigm, which simultaneously impact on foreign relations and on internal political and social processes at a time of transition from authoritarianism to democracy.  He spoke about the challenges posed to the consolidation of democracy and rule of law and considered how the democratic process and peace in the region could be best promoted. Kashmir, he noted, remained a problem between Pakistan and India, and there were deliberate attempts by various extremist groups to hijack the two countries’ relationship. It was key that civilian rule remain inPakistan, despite efforts to undermine it.

Professor Athar Hussain of the LSE’s Asia Research Centre began by quoting the cliché that ‘all news from Pakistan is bad news’.  While Pakistanis generally accepted to be a failed state, he said, there are indicators that it is not a failed state, with a civic society showing signs of vitality and activity.

Regarding the allegations of Pakistan’s duplicity, Professor Hussain said that the term disguises the deeper problem of Pakistan’s whole strategy in Afghanistan being ‘deeply flawed’. He considered the US-Pak relationship, based onPakistan’s ‘visceral fear of India’, against which friendship with the US would provide ballast, and America’s impatient desire for short-term success, which is inconsistent with long-term security. Yet, despite its internal problems,Pakistan would not break up, believed Prof Hussain, as the world situation was not favourable to this.

Pakistan’s record in human development was another problem considered by the professor, with huge problems of youth unemployment causing extreme uncertainty, which could lead to a ‘power vacuum’ and the people ofPakistan‘settling for’ a Sharia state. Whatever happens in the country, democracy must come through political stages.  Professor Hussain concluded with the hope that the next elections inPakistanwould bring a civilian not military government, adding that three changes of civilian government were usually necessary before stability was reached.

Questions and comments from the floor concerned China’s support for Pakistan, which Professor Hussain dismissed, saying Chinais cautious of Pakistanand keen to maintain a discreet distance. Others questions and comments included Pakistan’s proxy war against Indiain Afghanistan; the role of the drug trade on Pakistani politics; and the idea of the ISI as a rogue organisation. When the panel was asked about what should be made of serious charges in the BBC documentary against the ISI, Mr Inkster said that the evidence of the ISI’s involvement in the 2008 suicide bomb attack on the Indian embassy in Kabul was ‘clear cut’.

The seminar drew to a close with William Crawley giving a few words of thanks to The Democracy Forum and all the speakers and audience members, and expressing his hopes for more cycles of democracy inPakistan.