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U.S. Misreads Pakistan’s Antifragility

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Pakistan thrives on disorder and adversity, pursuing Nassim Taleb’s notion of antifragility. In India, Pakistan is bemoaned as a failed terrorist state.  In Washington D.C., Pakistan is smeared as a duplicitous state, a posturing friend in the guise of a surreptitious foe. In Europe, Pakistan is hailed as one of the smartest countries in the world. In the Muslim world, Pakistan is acclaimed as a protective nuclear-state that would safeguard the holy cities of Makkah and Medina. Despite chronic energy shortage, Pakistan’s stock market is a top performer in the world. Pakistan’s cricket team has risen from slimy rigging scandals to win the 2017 international championship.

Pakistan, this land of Osama bin Laden and Malala Yousafzai, harbors both predators and preys with open hearts and clear conscience, baffling rectilinear moralists, orthodox policymakers, and nations as strong as the United States.

U.S.-Pakistan Entanglement

The U.S. policymakers consistently fail to understand Pakistan’s antifragility. For example, for over twenty years (1976-1998), the U.S. made every effort to prevent Pakistan from developing the nuclear weapons technology. President Jimmy Carter used “carrots and sticks” to pressure Pakistan to abandon its nuclear program. On cues from Carter, Prime Minister Morarji Desai threatened to smash by force Pakistan’s first nuclear bomb in the silo.

In 1979, the quantum mechanics of US-Pakistan entanglement shifted. When the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, President Carter offered a huge aid package to seek Pakistan’s assistance, which Pakistan rejected as “peanuts.”  The U.S. had little option but to downsize its sticks and increase the quantum of carrots.  When price was right, Pakistan came on board to train the “freedom fighters” repelling the Soviet occupation.

On the nuclear issue, the U.S. Congress followed a legislative track to force Pakistan into submission. In 1985, Congress passed the Pressler Amendment to withhold military and economic assistance if Pakistan was found to be manufacturing a nuclear device. In 1998, Pakistan exploded six underground nuclear devices as a tit-for-tat reaction to the Indian nuclear tests. President Bill Clinton imposed economic sanctions under the 1994 Glenn Amendment and the 1961 Symington Amendment formulated to deter nuclear proliferation. Despite these sanctions, subsequent U.S. Presidents found ways to waive sanctions. In fact, Pakistan’s antifragility improved even further.

In 2001, the 9/11 terrorist attacks deepened the U.S. entanglement with Pakistan. The U.S. could not invade Afghanistan, then the home of Al Qaeda, without Pakistani assistance. Shrewd Pakistan ditched the Taliban government and allowed its territory and airspace to be used for transporting the U.S. military equipment and forces to invade Afghanistan. Thus, Pakistan mined a golden opportunity to have the economic sanctions lifted and furthermore have its nuclear-weapons recognized. The Pressler Amendment, the Glen Amendment, and the Symington Amendment, indeed the entire legislative track of economic sanctions fell flat on its nose. The U.S. money began to flow into Pakistan, like never before.

Now for more than fifteen years (2001-2017), the U.S. is fighting a failed war in Afghanistan, wasting billions of tax dollars. During this time, Pakistan has accelerated its nuclear weapons program, fast approaching the rank of a formidable nuclear power with efficacious short range and long rage delivery systems. Officially, Pakistan’s nuclear defense rhetoric highlights possible attacks from India, but its nuclear program has profound international implications for Asia and the Middle East.

To further fortify its antifragility, Pakistan has initiated a chaotic political shift from military rule to democracy. Unlike Arab nations, Pakistan has realized that Muslim dictatorships (Saddam, Gadhafi, Assad, and Iranian theocracy) have been easy Western military targets and that electoral democracy (even if limited to a few families) is a better sociological and geopolitical defense against possible Western invasions.

China-Pakistan Relationship

When the U.S. policymakers and Congressmen visit Islamabad to complain about the Haqqani network operating from Pakistan, they confront a pack of Aflatoons (Platonic philosophers), some in military uniforms, some in pinstriped suits, and a few in shalwar-kameez, prattling hypotheses on the density and intractability of the Afghan conflict. These Aflatoons contend that the Americans see a clouded reality that deviates from the pure forms of understanding. After listening to softly-delivered Pakistani reservations against destroying the Haqqani network, the U.S. Senators return home saying ““If they don’t change their behavior, maybe we should change our behavior towards Pakistan as a nation.”

While the U.S. policy makers are still tied to the dysfunctional “carrots and sticks” policy toward Pakistan, the rise of China as a superpower has dramatically altered the geopolitical dynamics in the world, particularly South Asia. A deepening relationship between China and Pakistan, touted as “taller than the mountains and deeper than the oceans,” is releasing Pakistan from the economic and military dependency on the U.S.

For Pakistan, shifting toward China has been an ascending hypotenuse. China is a contiguous neighboring state while the U.S. is a distant outsider. China has veto power in the Security Council to protect Pakistan from any India-prompted or Western coordinated aggressive policy. For example, China blocks resolutions in the UN Sanctions Committee to ban Pakistani “terrorist groups” tormenting India. Most importantly, China is able and willing to spend loads of money in Pakistan that the U.S could never do.

Yet Pakistan woos the U.S. as a potential ally. This is a remarkable piece of geopolitical antifragility. Pakistan does not think in binary terms. Picking either the U.S. or China is never a serious option. After the 9/11 attacks, President George W. Bush’s unforgettable command “you’re either with us or against us” was principally aimed at Pakistan. Pakistan heard the command, sided with the U.S. in the invasion of Afghanistan, but quickly backtracked to its non-binary mindset.

Pakistan provides logistical support to the U.S. armed forces but stubbornly refuses to fight the American war in Afghanistan. This indeed is the Haqqani network paradox.

Now, China, Pakistan, Russia, and the Taliban are determined to force the U.S. out of Afghanistan. The U.S. is relying on India’s Modi to beat the odds of the Taliban regaining control of Afghanistan. Unfortunately, India cannot deliver what the U.S. needs in Afghanistan – a victory.

While the Afghanistan war lingers, the Chinese diplomats and government executives visit Islamabad and meet the Aflatoons. The ambiguity, the complexity, and the intractability that the Americans routinely face in Pakistan, all disappear leaving behind a clear-headed Confucian aphorism that the relationship is superior to transactions. In all these Chinese visits, Pakistan declares its unwavering commitment to the notion of One China, reaffirms China’s sovereignty over the South China Sea, and offers complete control of the Gwadar seaport for transporting the Chinese goods to Africa and the Middle East.

Amid chaos, political upheavals, energy shortage, domestic terrorism, and cross-border firings with India, Pakistan disregards the U.S. Pavlovian strategy of behavior modification and reinforces its own antifragility.

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L. Ali Khan is the founder of Legal Scholar Academy and a professor of law at Washburn University, Kansas.

CounterPunch Magazine


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