Pakistan has perhaps taken more risks than any other nation in America¡s war on terror. Yet it remains most insecure about its relations with Washington. In fact Pakistan’s extensive and risky cooperation with the US has done little to alleviate its own security dilemmas. Pakistan, even today remains exposed to the dangers of preemptive strikes from America’s other close allies in the war on terror: India and Israel. Even from the US Pakistan is not fully assured. Washington seems to maintain a complex strategy of coercive diplomacy combined with economic assistance towards Pakistan which rewards it economically for its cooperation but does not reduce its geopolitical threats. In a strange way Pakistan in spite of being a close ally of the world¡s most dominant power continues to live in a Hobbesian world.
Insecurity can lead nations to monumental irrationality. Notice how a heightened sense of vulnerability after September 11 attacks has led American foreign policy from one monumental blunder to another. As Pakistanis, especially the Islamists are made to feel that their nation is being bullied into working against its own interests and its own people and faith, their anger, resentment and fear is increasing. At seminar after seminar on South Asian security and on the war on terror, I hear Pakistanis expresses deep concern, confusion and suspicions about Washington¡s policies and in particular the emergence of a new anti-Pakistan axis —US, Israel and India.
Pakistan essentially identifies three dangers to its national security and they are:
* A conventional strike by India from the Kashmir border or a strategic strike by India against Pakistan¡s nuclear facilities.
* A preemptive strike by Israel at Pakistan¡s nuclear facilities with India¡s direct assistance or by using India as a base.
* A preemptive strike by the US against Pakistan¡s nuclear facilities to prevent them from becoming available to Islamists who could easily come to power in Pakistan.
Every nightmare scenario for Pakistan involves a threat to their nuclear capability form either one or all of the three states who are currently working very closely: India, Israel and the US. All three of these nations now identify–Islamic terrorism–as the main threat to their own security and their ultimate nightmare involves Jihadis armed with nukes.
Pakistan’s nuclear weapons, sought primarily for defense against a conventionally superior India, seem to have increased the possibility of Pakistan becoming a victim of attacks from more powerful nations far and near, rather than making it more secure. Perhaps there is a lesson in this for Iran.
The question however that Washington needs to address is a more complex one and needs more subtle geopolitical analysis than Washington has been indulging in lately. Can the world in general and India, Israel and the US in particular afford to make a nuclear armed nation feel confused and insecure about its relations with them? Pakistan’s defense strategy is based on a “first strike policy”. Very simple this means that when in danger the Pakistanis will trigger the nukes. Keep in mind that this is the policy of secular, rational generals and not some crazy Mullahs.
We do not have to wait for Pakistani nukes to fall in to the hands of Taliban types before we see them lighting the sky. All we need to do is scare the present administration sufficiently. Nothing can be scarier for the present military establishment in Pakistan than the threat to their nuclear weapons.
Is Washington scaring the Pakistanis? Yes it is. But things have not reached dangerous levels, but who knows what the threshold level of Pakistan is? How much pressure can it handle?
Washington continues to insinuate that Pakistan has been sharing its nuclear secrets with Iran and North Korea. Washington also continues to express its fears about the stability of Pakistan’s command and control structure and the possibility of their nukes falling in the hands of militant Muslims. Despite Pakistan¡s repeated reassurances on both counts, Washington continues to maintain its doubts.
Every time Indians meet with Israelis, the conversation is the same. Israelis ask, “What can you do for us?” And Indians ask “What are you going to do about Pakistan?” So far Israel has not expressed much concern over Pakistani nukes; it is more worried about the Iranian nuclear program. But the growing Indo-Israeli military and intelligence cooperation and the Indo-American military exercises in Kashmir are definitely raising the fear barometer in Islamabad.
The US must understand that it cannot enhance its own security by making others feel insecure. While it works to keep Taliban types out of power and out of range of the nuclear buttons in Pakistan it must also work to reduce the stress and uncertainty in the minds of those who now already have their fingers on the nuclear buttons in Islamabad.
Washington can take the following concrete steps to allay mutual fears. (While the neocons may not understand the word “mutual”, I am sure Ms. Rice or General Powell can decode it for them).
* Washington can use the war on terror to develop a semi-formal regional security institution involving US, India, Afghanistan and Pakistan. Starting with the basic limited goal, that is in the interest of all four nations, of keeping the Taliban types out of power in South-West Asia and maintaining regional stability, the US could reduce tensions and allay fears. This setup may also come in handy as a forum for future Indo-Pak peace process and for resolving the Kashmir issue through regional summits.
* The US continues to guarantee Israeli security. It must use this guarantee to keep Israel from destabilizing other regions in pursuit of real or imagined threats. An institutional American security interest in South-West Asia will also help to reduce Israeli fears about Pakistani nukes.
* Finally the US must learn that it cannot have an instrumentalist approach to other nations. It cannot force Pakistan to take risks with its domestic and international balances of power in US interests without the US also taking steps to ensure that Pakistan is not over exposed to strategic threats. A disregard for Pakistani domestic politics gave the Islamist parties a historically unprecedented victory in the last elections a contributing to current fears in Washington, Tel Aviv and New Delhi.
Before the nukes are triggered, Washington must learn to nurture its allies while nudging them to towards safer policies and pro-American postures.
Dr. MUQTEDAR KHAN is a Ford Fellow at Brookings Institution and a Fellow of the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding. He is also Director of International Studies at Adrian College and author of American Muslims: Bridging Faith and Freedom. His web address is http://www.ijtihad.org.