Renting a state?

Published : Apr 23, 2004 00:00 IST

Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf with U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell in Rawalpindi on March 18. - REUTERS

Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf with U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell in Rawalpindi on March 18. - REUTERS

There is a growing realisation among Pakistanis that by conferring Major Non-NATO Ally status on their country the United States is once again using it to advance its short-term strategic interests in the region.

PAKISTAN is all set to join an exclusive club of 37 nations, designated as special allies of the United States, assuming that the move will not face any roadblocks in the U.S. Congress. The `special allies' include the 26 members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) and the 11 countries designated as Major Non-NATO Allies (MNNA).

The dramatic announcement to this effect made by U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell during his visit to Islamabad in the third week of March has become a topic of animated debate in Pakistan's civil society and media. Strangely, nobody is celebrating. In fact, the announcement has triggered anxiety about the real motives of Washington.

There are good reasons for Islamabad to be sceptical about what the new status is likely to entail for Pakistan. Since 1954, successive rulers of Pakistan have boasted of the country's special relations with the U.S. But thanks to America's habit of using allies who will serve its short- or medium-term strategic interests, people in Pakistan view the latest offer with deep mistrust.

As things stand, there is little clarity about the benefits that are likely to accrue to Pakistan. Powell's comments, made just hours after he took off from Pakistan, that some gestures are "more symbolic than substantive" have not helped clear doubts. He went to the extent of saying that he was not sure how far Pakistan would benefit as an MNNA.

Another reason why the gesture has evoked little enthusiasm is because of the circumstances under which it has come about. Anti-Americanism is at its peak in Pakistan because of the manner in which the U.S. is going about its military operations in Afghanistan and the pressure that the country has brought to bear on Islamabad to cleanse Pakistani society of extremism and militancy. For the first time since 1971, Pakistani forces are engaged in one of the grimmest battles in the pursuit of Al Qaeda and Taliban fugitives.

An overwhelming majority of people in Pakistan have no affiliation or even sympathy for Al Qaeda but they do believe that it is the job of the U.S. to take on the fundamentalists it had raised and nurtured to wage jehad in Afghanistan against the erstwhile Soviet Union. They believe that their armed forces are being compelled to do the dirty job of the Americans.

There is also the larger question of the U.S.' relations with Pakistan over the past 50 years. Pakistanis have a serious grouse that the U.S. has been interested only in a patron-client relationship, in line with the latter's `rent-a-nation' theory. The perception is that the U.S. has been enlisting Pakistan's services for short-term gains. Successive military and civil governments have only been too happy to dance to the tunes of Washington. Democracy and the larger interests of the people have not mattered.

Is history repeating itself? Afzal Mahmood, a former Pakistani Ambassador and writer, best summed up the general mood in relation to the U.S. proposal: "Our special ties with the Americans, beginning in 1954, led ultimately to the 1965 war with India. The enormous economic and military assistance that we obtained from the Americans, being their key partner in the struggle against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, again made us lose our bearings and we embarked on the dangerous adventure of `proxy war' in Kashmir to `bleed India white'. But in the end, it is the Kashmiris and the people of Pakistan who have suffered far more than the Indians."

On paper, the new status should put Pakistan in the company of key U.S. allies such as Israel, Egypt, Jordan, Bahrain, Japan and South Korea and provide Pakistan access to U.S.-owned military stockpiles on its territory, privileged rights to receive military training and priority of delivery for defence articles. The Philippines and Thailand, both of which were members of the now-defunct South-East Asia Treaty Organisation (SEATO), have had long and uninterrupted (despite the closure of the Subic Bay naval base) military cooperation with the U.S.

Theoretically, an enhancement of military cooperation with the U.S. on account of MNNA status will be a big boon to Pakistan. The invoking of the Pressler Amendment against Pakistan in 1990, consequent upon evidence of its acquiring nuclear weapons capability, led to a ban on all military sales to Pakistan and the termination of U.S.-Pakistan defence cooperation. A ban was imposed on the training of Pakistani military officers in the U.S., exchange of visits by military officers were curtailed, equipment in the pipeline (F-16s, three naval aircraft and so on) were frozen, and a ban was imposed even on the supply of spare parts for equipment sold to Pakistan before 1990. Pakistan ceased to be eligible for concessional military supplies. There was an unannounced ban on exchange of visits by scientists working in the nuclear and missile establishments. Advisories were issued to all U.S. educational institutions and research laboratories to exercise care and caution against Pakistani scientists seeking admissions or invitations in respect of subjects relating to nuclear and missile development.

Since 9/11, these sanctions have been eased gradually. The supply of spare parts for all the three services has been resumed. Free and concessional supply of new equipment has also resumed, but the Bush administration has been projecting them as equipment meant to strengthen Pakistan's counter-terrorism and counter-infiltration capabilities on the border with Afghanistan.

The Bush administration is conscious of the sentiments in Pakistan owing to the estrangement in the 1990s. This was evident in repeated references made by Powell at the news conference he addressed along with Pakistan Foreign Minister Khurshid Mehmud Kasuri. He pledged to maintain a long-term partnership with Pakistan and include it in a fairly exclusive club of non-NATO allies for "future military-to-military relations". Powell conceded that the elevation in status given to Pakistan was a reward for Islamabad's unstinting efforts to capture Al Qaeda suspects who had taken refuge in the country.

Praising Pakistan's contribution to the fight against terrorism, Powell said: "We must do together more if your region, and if indeed the whole world, is to live in peace." Will the new status enable Islamabad to acquire F-16s and other weaponry from the U.S., which it has so far been denied? Further, Pakistan is worried about America's expectations of it once it enters the group of MNNA countries. For example, will the U.S. expect Pakistan to send troops to Iraq to bolster peace-keeping efforts by American forces?

While no one is sure of the benefits of MNNA status for Pakistan, there is consensus that the move is motivated by strategic considerations.

Dr. Ayesha Siddiqa, well-known Pakistani defence analyst, noted: "Stopping militancy in Afghanistan and Pakistan and Islamabad's nuclear weapons capability are the two issues that force the U.S. to engage Pakistan. Both issues, however, signify the need for Washington to remain in the region longer, to formalise relations with a military that could be used to achieve particular American objectives."

She is of the view that if the U.S. wants to ensure that militancy is wiped out or that Pakistan does not engage in nuclear proliferation, it makes sense for it to formalise the alignment and bring Pakistan into the U.S. Central Command (CENTOM) network. Ayesha Siddiqa maintains that it would be foolhardy even to think about MNNA as relationship that binds the U.S. morally or otherwise to intervene in the resolution of the Kashmir issue.

A letter in a Pakistani English daily on the subject reflects the widespread pessimism in civil society over the move: "Mr. Powell's disclosure that Pakistan is to get Major Non-NATO status means that Mr. Bush has decided to use Pakistan as a U.S. military base to control our nuclear and missile arsenal, to contain our close friend China and also to contain Russia, in future. As in the past, some of the elite will be long-term beneficiaries, but for the people in general there will be no benefits."

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