After every major terror strike, an oft heard lament in India is why it cannot take a lead from the US and hit back at the source of terror. The answer invariably is: because India is not America. Well, guess what? The US is as helpless and frustrated as India is in tackling its Pakistan problem. That this is so, despite the sole superpower having at its disposal enormous military, economic and diplomatic tools and instruments to compel Pakistan, is testimony to Pakistan's remarkable ability for using bluster and braggadocio and bluffing its way out of a sticky situation. The only problem is that while Pakistan's chutzpah might have saved it so far from serious punishment, it hasn’t contributed at all to making Pakistan a better, safer and happier place to live in. If anything, Pakistan’s defiance, deceit and duplicity conjures a dreadful image of a country fast sliding towards state and societal failure and transforming it into what was evocatively described by Madeline Albright as an ‘international migraine’.
Over the years, Pakistan has perfected the art of using its weaknesses (a bankrupt and unviable economy, crumbling social infrastructure, dysfunctional administration, a general atrophying of state institutions, a fractious polity dominated by an Islamised military, a society fast getting radicalised) to project its potential nuisance value (a nuclear armed, jihad-infused ‘failed’ state) as a negotiating tactic. Although Pakistan’s negotiation strategy often invites derision from its interlocutors, it is difficult not to admire Pakistan's ability to stay in the game despite holding such a weak hand. This is partly the result of leveraging anything and everything possible – floods, power crisis, dengue virus, earthquake, and most of all, playing upon the international community’s fear of the ever-present danger of an Islamic revolution – to try and extract sympathy and of course money from the international community.
Half-truths are an essential part of Pakistan’s negotiating strategy. Take for instance all the talk of Pakistan’s sacrifices in the War on Terror. The fact of the matter is that almost all the casualties suffered by Pakistan in fighting terrorism have been the result of its fight with those Taliban terrorists who are attacking Pakistan and not, as is often falsely propagated, any sacrifice rendered by Pakistan for the safety of the rest of the world. While many Pakistanis react with self-righteous indignation when this reality is pointed out, they conveniently ignore the ‘deals’ struck by the Pakistani authorities with terrorist groups to focus on fighting the ISAF in Afghanistan and not turn their guns on Pakistan. It is these very groups that double up as Pakistan's ‘strategic assets’, hence the extreme reluctance of the Pakistan army to launch any significant operation against these ‘veritable arms of the ISI’.
Parallel to the weakness tack runs the war talk. Every time Pakistan is caught with its hand in the till it responds in a fairly predictable manner. The ‘deep state’ uses its ‘embedded’ journalists, politicians, TV anchors, ‘strategic analysts’ and dubious civil society activists to whip up war hysteria in the country. This comes handy in bandying the threat of being left with no choice but responding to any hostile action by the aggrieved party. That Pakistan is running on empty and is in no position to respond effectively often gets lost in the cacophonous grand-standing on the issue of national self-respect and prestige. Needless to say, this is one big puppet show the strings of which are pulled by the ‘deep state’. The idea is to let the civilian underlings of the ‘deep state’ make a clamour and become the bad guys, and juxtapose against this lot the military establishment which deals with the emerging situation with equanimity and sobriety. This then cements the perception in the international community that Pakistan is a country on the edge and the only thing that stands between anarchy and loose nukes is the Pakistan army and any action to undermine the army or put it in an untenable position will result in an apocalyptic situation that nobody wants.
It is not as if the Americans are unaware of Pakistan’s reality or are taken in by Pakistan's act of injured innocence, or for that matter the manufactured outrage expressed on TV talk shows. This much at least is clear from the Wikileaks expose of US embassy cables. But knowing the games that Pakistanis play is one thing, ending these games is altogether another matter. Americans face a Hobson’s choice: if they don’t act on their threats to take out terrorist safe havens and sanctuaries in Pakistan, it will have serious implications not the least of which is Pakistan's continued use of terrorism and ‘extremism as an instrument of policy’. This in turn will make the international efforts to stabilise Afghanistan end in utter failure and not only give a massive fillip to Islamist terror movements globally but also sweep through Pakistan and make the spectre of a Talibanised Pakistan a self-fulfilling prophecy. On the other hand, if the Americans do make good on their threats, it could have consequences that might make things worse and more unmanageable than they currently are.
What is probably holding back the United States is not so much the logistics route that runs through Pakistan or even the possession of nuclear arms by Pakistan, but the larger question of what to do with Pakistan, how to reform it, detoxify it and how to handle the situation if Pakistan indeed starts collapsing either under the weight of its own contradictions and follies or as a result of any precipitate action. Shifting the NATO supply lines to the Northern route might free the US of an important leverage currently being exercised by Pakistan. But it won’t solve the problem in Afghanistan. Remember, the Russians never depended on Pakistan for the logistics lines and yet it was their failure to tackle Pakistan that made them lose the war. Nuclear weapons too are not likely to be a restraining factor for the US. It is one thing for the Pakistanis to use nuclear blackmail to keep India at bay and a completely different ball game to use the same ploy against the US. But yes, the prospect of loose nukes as a result of either state failure in Pakistan or a rogue operation to hand over some of these weapons to terrorists to get even with the ISAF countries is something that will have to be taken into account.
Clearly then, until the Americans figure out an answer to the question of the larger Pakistan problem, like India they too will have to swallow their anger and resist the temptation of responding with use of either calibrated or even overwhelming force to endless provocation from Pakistan. But while they might restrain themselves, they have no love lost for the Pakistanis. Just as anti-Americanism is sweeping through Pakistan, anti-Pakistan sentiment is sweeping through the US. Pakistan is now a four letter word in the US and the day the Americans either lose patience or figure out their game plan on what to do with Pakistan, the four letter word will transform from a noun into a verb.