The Daily Times
August 18, 2007
By Arif Rafiq
Pakistan is emerging as a frontline state in yet another war: the battle for the presidency of the United States.
The firestorm caused by Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama’s roundly criticised pledge to violate Pakistani sovereignty should President Musharraf not respond to actionable intelligence concerning Al Qaeda has since subsided. But rather than letting out a sigh of relief, Islamabad should see Obama’s comments as an ominous sign of things to come.
The current US political environment makes Pakistan the ‘perfect culprit’ during high-stress periods in the American “war on terror” and is marked by increased levels of pessimism towards and opposition to the war in Iraq and an imminent, subverted, or successful terror plot against a Western country. A bi-partisan consensus on Iraq as an irreversible failure or a successful terrorist attack on European or US interests could put Pakistan in great difficulty.
There are two reasons for this push-Pakistan dynamic. First, it is easier to go after identifiable targets than an elusive adversary. Plus a thought is precipitating that the Taliban-Al Qaeda lifeline starts in Pakistan. If Pakistan is not effective in stemming the tide on its side, there is no point mopping up the floor in Afghanistan; the US should attempt to turn off the tap and that lies in Pakistan.
Second, it is election season in the US: partisan sentiments are high, terrorism is a major issue, and American voters prefer strength to weakness. Democrats largely favour a pullout from Iraq, but by no means will lay down their guns. They cannot be seen as pusillanimous, so they will replace ‘a war that cannot be won and should have never been fought’ (in Iraq) with the ‘real war Bush didn’t finish’ (in Pakistan-Afghanistan). The Pakistan card is the Democrats’ means to establish their national security credentials.
Republicans might have little choice but to join the chorus. This is an unlikely scenario and dependent on their abandoning Iraq and the easing of US-Iran tensions. The latter possibility would generate interest in and free up resources to focus on Pakistan and a ‘winnable war’.
But the most dangerous is the potential for unilateral action in Pakistan by the Bush administration. It is conceivable in two scenarios. In the first, a legacy-driven Bush administration in its last year in office is desperate to cap the war on terror and needs a ‘decisive’ achievement. It possesses what it believes trustworthy intelligence on the whereabouts of Osama bin Laden or Ayman al-Zawahiri in the northwest of Pakistan. Pakistan’s ruler at the time is politically, militarily, and psychologically unable to act upon the information. Seeing its potentially last opportunity to apprehend or eliminate one or both of Al Qaeda’s top two vanishing, Bush authorises one or more of the following against the high-value target(s): a US Predator strike, capture by teams of US Special Forces, or elimination by a not-so-surgical air strike.
In the second scenario, Al Qaeda successfully attacks the US again and a mix of intelligence, assumptions, and political convenience help Washington conclude that the plot emanated from Pakistan. Not only does the American president authorise actions from scenario one against Al Qaeda in Pakistan, but sees fit and is compelled by political allies, opponents, and public opinion to punish Islamabad diplomatically, economically, and even militarily.
The range of potential punitive actions against Pakistan is wide and the resulting damage even wider. At its worst, Pakistan could be cemented as an economically backward, socially fragmented, politically unstable, militarily weak international pariah for decades.
So what must be done to prevent such a dire outcome? Islamabad must first appreciate that a worst-case scenario is indeed possible. Next, it must take preventative measures to reverse the push on Pakistan trend before it fully takes hold.
At home, it must work to develop a broad political coalition sufficient to decisively eliminate or apprehend those in Pakistan engaged in or plotting terror both within and outside of the country. Additionally, it needs to convince its sceptical populace of the need to confront terrorists militarily. Finally, it should wean the indigenous population of Waziristan from foreign terrorists that have entrenched themselves among them.
In the United States, Islamabad must commit to a pro-active and wide-ranging communications and diplomatic programme to reshape and consolidate elite and popular opinion of Pakistan. More specifically, it should help shape an American political discourse in which calls for unilateral strikes in or punitive actions against Pakistan by credible individuals are inconceivable.
Pakistan’s diplomats work most effectively with their American executive branch counterparts, but are ill-equipped to deal with the broad spectrum of actors involved in a potential push-Pakistan policy. The Pakistan Foreign Office must select appropriate internal and external talent to liaise with leading Democratic and Republican presidential campaigns; relevant members of Congress and staffers; editorial boards, news and opinion writers for key newspapers and major mainstream and partisan magazines; Middle East and South Asia experts in the US think tanks; hosts of major cable news and talk radio programmes and elite bloggers.
Islamabad must figure out how to ensure that its perspective is processed through the vast political machinery in Washington — the vast community that makes things happen. It can no longer afford to simply speak to the man at the top, especially since he is close to leaving.
Islamabad can take heed from its counterparts in Riyadh and Tel Aviv, who in recent years each tasked a young, media-savvy diplomat (versed in American, not British English) with speaking before the US media. The Saudis’ rocky road post-9/11 was softened by the smooth-talking Adel al-Jubair.
Additionally, the Pakistani government should invite each major presidential candidate and their foreign policy advisors to meet with senior political and military leaders. Briefings with top Pakistani officials and secure tours of areas close to the Pak-Afghan border will also help greatly in making these candidates understand the complexity of the situation. This would be timely and critical as US politicians’ perspectives on Pakistan are remarkably undereducated and fluid.
Lastly, Islamabad should also consider periodically embedding major print and electronic American journalists with Pakistani military units along the border with Afghanistan. Firsthand glimpses of Pakistani forces in action, combined with meeting families of slain Pakistani soldiers, best display Islamabad’s commitment to combat terrorism.