Thursday, April 8, 2010

A Skeptic’s View Of U.S–Pakistan ‘Strategic Dialogue’

Before we take another strategic U-turn on Afghanistan, Pakistan’s Policymakers must read this:

  • Pakistan is conceptualized as a theater of war in American operational plans as the term Af-Pak suggests so strategic dialog under the presence of such perception is nothing more than an illusion

  • One option for Pakistan is to work on isolating the extra-regional powers [countries not bordering Afghanistan] and then pitch the extra-regional powers against one another by manipulating the rifts between major EU countries (which are already wary of prolonged Afghan mission) and the U.S.

  • This strategic dialog is an important component of an overall military strategy led by Gen. Petraeus in which enhancing U.S image and closing the trust deficit both in COIN operations at tactical level in Afghanistan and at strategic level in Pakistan.

  • The idea of offering Pakistan the carrot of a prolonged negotiations for a civilian nuclear deal was floated as far back as April 2009 with the aim of aligning US and Pakistani interests


Thursday, 8 April 2010.


An Assessment


Recent days have seen a deceptive shift in U.S policy towards Pakistan. In a stated aim to ‘redefine’ its relationship with Pakistan a process of strategic dialog has been orchestrated by the United States creating much buzz in Pakistan over the issue. This brief essay will examine the real purpose of this strategic dialog, American plans for the region, strategic implications for Pakistan’s continued alliance with the US, and the formulation of alternative policy options for Pakistan.

Main Arguments

  • Strategic dialog is a futile exercise because United States cannot be trusted as a reliable partner due to its track record and asymmetry in bilateral relationship.
  • Pakistan is conceptualized as a theater of war in American operational plans as the term Af-Pak suggests so strategic dialog under the presence of such perception is nothing more than an illusion.
  • Pakistan will continue to receive ‘aid’ through Kerry-Lugar act which completely encapsulates U.S influence over all non military sectors of Pakistan.
  • The construction of so called Reconstruction Opportunity Zones [ROZs] in war torn regions in Pakistan will increase the influence of the U.S manifold in tribal areas and would be used as leverage against Pakistan any time in future.
  • Strategic dialog and specifically civil nuclear deal negotiations will meet the same fate as the ‘Friends of Democratic Pakistan’ summits, being merely nice photo opportunities. And even if the US seriously considers negotiations over a civil nuclear agreement with Pakistan, the quid pro quo would be a nonstarter, which could include asking Pakistan to compromise its position over Fissile Material Cutoff Treaty [FMCT] negotiations, nuclear safety and security issues and possibly ratify Non Proliferation Treaty [NPT]. The orchestrated hints of a possible offer of a civil nuclear deal are meant to give credibility to the so called strategic dialog process.
  • The fundamental aim of this strategic dialog is to win the battle of perception in the Af-Pak Theater.
  • The discussion on Afghanistan will remain the centerpiece of this dialog process which means more cooperation (political and military) by Pakistan against what is by all counts a legitimate Afghan resistance.

Policy Options

  • Formulation of an independent strategic framework by Pakistan for the region after a thorough review of the regional environment rather than looking towards Washington to protect Pakistan’s interests in the region.
  • Pakistan needs to open new venues for cooperation as an alternative. This could facilitate achieving peace and security for the entire region. One strategy to achieve this objective can be isolating the extra-regional powers [countries not bordering Afghanistan] and then pitch extra regional powers against one another by manipulating the rifts between major EU countries (which are already wary of prolonged Afghan mission) and the U.S.
  • The solution to the war in Afghanistan does not lie within the national boundaries of that country due to proxy wars on Afghan soil. So a transnational setup comprising of Afghanistan and its immediate neighbors [minus extra-regional powers that do no border Afghanistan] can bring a revolutionary change in economic development of the region
  • Strategic dialog with the U.S should be shunned.
  • Pakistan should explore and develop on war footing its immense natural resources to break the shackles of foreign demands and fulfill the energy requirement for short- and long-term industrialization.
  • No relaxation of any sort should be given by Pakistan on its stance regarding FMCT and NPT as a quid pro quo for a civil nuclear deal offer.

Strategic Dialog And The Battle Of Perceptions

United States President Barrack Obama in his speech at West Point Military Academy in December 2009 linked the success of coalition mission in Afghanistan with Pakistan’s cooperation which effectively meant that Pakistan has to rein in its principle allies the Afghan Taliban both politically and militarily. However there was a realization among policy makers in Washington that with the prevailing strong anti-Americanism both within the population and the wider ruling establishment it is near to impossible to move Pakistan against Afghan Taliban in the FATA region. So a cosmetic change on Washington’s behavior was necessary in order to win the battle of perception in the Af-Pak battle field. So this strategic dialog is an important component of an overall military strategy led by Gen. Petraeus in which enhancing U.S image and closing the trust deficit both in COIN operations at tactical level in Afghanistan and at strategic level in Pakistan.

C. Christine Fair, a senior political scientist with the RAND Corporation and an expert on security relations between India and Pakistan, U.S. strategic interests in South Asia and Pakistan’s internal security in her policy paper published in Washington Quarterly in April 2009 said in plain terms:

“Pakistan watchers generally agree that the United States will fail to secure greater alignment between Pakistani and U.S. interests unless and until it can mitigate the “trust deficit (…) For its part, Islamabad has numerous complaints against Washington which also span decades. Washington’s ‘original sins’ include providing arms to India during its war with China in 1962 and cutting off arms to India and Pakistan during their wars in 1965 and 1971. As Pakistan was reliant on U.S. weapons systems, arms cutoffs hurt Pakistan considerably more than it did India, which was more reliant on Soviet systems (…) Pakistan’s security elite and citizenry therefore consider the United States an unreliable partner and believe that the United States will abandon Pakistan again when Washington’s security interests change”

Ironically, Christine Fair was the one who floated the idea of offering Pakistan a civilian nuclear deal so as to build ‘credibility’ in the future of US–Pakistan partnership.

Daniel Markey a senior fellow for India, Pakistan and South Asia at the Council of Foreign Relations in his policy paper at NBR analysis center in November 2009 also focused on improving US image inside Pakistan to achieve American strategic objectives in the region. In his conclusion he writes:

“US can pursue a variety of alternative strategies to meets its counter terror and counter insurgency objectives in South Asia, ranging from unilateral US military and intelligence operations to coercive diplomacy to containment. All of these approaches have significant shortcomings and cultivating strong and effective allies within Pakistan’s political, military, and civic communities may be the best way to secure US strategic objectives over the short, medium and long term. Improving Pakistan’s image of United States is a long term and complex endeavor that would require high profile efforts, including humanitarian relief and non military assistance.”

So it is abundantly clear that U.S–Pakistan strategic dialog is overrated. It may not be more than a photo-op ending, a lot of listening and then a declaration of that contains no commitments whose only objective appears to be to mislead Pakistan’s policymakers, the strategic community and the masses at large in Pakistan and push the country in taking a yet another disastrous U-turn on Afghanistan.

Anatomy Of Civil Nuclear Deal

Much fuss has been created within Pakistani intelligentsia about the proposed civil nuclear deal by US to Pakistan on the pattern of the Indo-US nuclear deal. Before going into the question of relevance of civil nuclear deal and the seriousness of US intentions it must be understood that the notion of civil nuclear deal is added just to make the strategic dialog appear credible or in other words create a deliberate deception and illusion for ‘image building’ inside Pakistan and secondly to extract flexibility from Pakistan’s rightful stance on FMCT, possibly NPT and more intrusion into Pakistan’s nuclear program.

As far as American intentions are concerned US will not make a civil nuclear deal with Pakistan primarily because it does not want to damage its global image which is already tarnished due to unilateralism of Bush regime specifically related to civil nuclear deal with countries outside the nuclear non proliferation treaty (NPT). Quite the contrary officially United States considers Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal unsafe and different tactics are used to rein in Pakistan’s nuclear program and one such latest tactics was the Kerry–Lugar act. Secondly, materializing the civil nuclear deal would mean more indigenously produced fissile material available for Pakistan which would significantly turn the strategic balance in favor of Pakistan which would jeopardize U.S–India strategic relationship. It would be fair to say that such a result is the last thing U.S would want to happen. Thirdly, it would take the air out of Obama’s global image and U.S ‘moral standing’ in the upcoming NPT review conference next month.

In her latest article in the influential Foreign policy magazine, Christine Fair confirmed the above analysis when she wrote that;

“Any civilian nuclear deal for Pakistan would have to be conditions-based. It would not be equivalent to India’s deal, which recognizes India’s nonproliferation commitments and enables India to compete strategically with China globally. A civilian nuclear deal with Pakistan has a different logic: to reset bilateral relations that are bedeviled with layers of mistrust on both sides (…) This deal should therefore be conditioned upon access to nuclear scientist A.Q. Khan and direct information about his nuclear black markets, as well as verifiable evidence that Pakistan is reversing its support for militant groups and taking active steps to dismantle the architecture for terrorism.”

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in her TV interview with Pakistani English Channel Express news responded to a question posed by the anchor on a possible civil nuclear deal by saying the following:

“The civil nuclear deal with India was a result of years of negotiations which is symbolic of strategic partnership between two states but Pakistan would continue to receive aid through Kerry-Lugar act”.

Pakistan’s Leaders Need An Alternative Model, And Not America

The record of nuclear energy globally and its relevance for Pakistan is a matter worth observing. Globally the quest for nuclear energy shows a fluctuating graph and on the contrary fossil fuel has been the prime source of energy for developing countries. The US generates twenty percent of its electricity from nuclear energy and since 1996 no new commercial reactors have come online, in 2002 Germany enacted legislation to phase out nuclear power plants until 2020 citing the unacceptable risks posed by potential accidents and nuclear waste. In Europe alone collectively there has been no “nuclear renaissance” even after mounting tensions when, after Georgia conflict, Russia blocked gas supplies to Europe. However, examples of the other side of the story exist, e.g. ambitious plans in China and India to produce energy through nuclear power. The point is that the unreliable trend towards achieving power through nuclear energy exists globally. Secondly, Pakistan has immense natural resources to not only overcome the existing manufactured energy crisis and future massive industrialization but can export surplus energy to Afghanistan, India and Central Asia. The only thing needed is an alternative economic model to ensure optimum utilization of more than enough energy resources and its fair distribution. So civil nuclear deal offer by the U.S is a ‘strategic setup’ and Pakistan’s policymakers should not fall for it.

Implication For Nurturing Partnership With U.S

Despite much fuss Pakistan’s cooperation with the US against a legitimate popular resistance in Afghanistan is the real agenda in the US-Pakistan Strategic Dialog. U.S will be reassured by representatives of Pakistani government that they will mount a full scale offensive operation against all seasoned allies of Pakistan in North Waziristan so as to facilitate US to negotiate with Taliban from a position of strength. Aligning with US in these past nine years has devastated Pakistan economically, strategically and militarily. Recent economic reports indicate that Pakistan has incurred a loss of more than US$ 45 billion and this terror crunch has uniformly and severely affected all sectors of economy. Furthermore, as if this were not enough the ‘development budget’ of the country has also been consumed in Pakistan’s so-called war against terrorism which is actually an American war inside Pakistan.

A country that engages itself in a protracted conflict is doomed to collapse under its own weight and in Pakistan US drone strikes and punitive military operations have set the scene for Pakistan for at least another decade of conflict within its borders. India has emerged as a powerful entity in the region because of US presence in Afghanistan which has made Pakistan economically and strategically weak. Moreover Pakistan is a nuclear weapon state and presence of hostile western troops under American leadership on its western borders should ring alarm bells in Islamabad rather than taking measures to strengthen the foreign presence. The arguments against Indian military and intelligence presence in Afghanistan and their destabilizing affect are also valid in the case if US military and intelligence operations in Afghanistan and their destabilizing effect on Pakistan and the region.


The strategic dialog aims to create an illusion amongst Pakistan’s policy makers in order to facilitate their U-turn on Afghanistan. The ‘change’ in US attitude in other words can be summarized as a strategic bribe for Pakistan to facilitate U.S interests in the region. Establishing two or three power plants inside Pakistan and donating substandard military hardware will not and should not be the price for compromising on the strategic interests of the Pakistani nation.

Mr. Mahmood is a security and defense analyst at one of the premier national security think tanks in Islamabad.