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Major Shift in U.S. Policy to South Asia: Democracy in Pakistan More Critical Than F 16s

Commodore C. Uday Bhaskar is former officiating Director of Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi.
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  • April 05, 2005

    The visit of US Secretary of State Ms. Condi Rice to Delhi on March 16 had generated considerable optimism about where India-US ties are headed and this was highlighted in my last column (March 24). However events over the last week have been even more promising and the telephone conversation between US President Mr. Bush and the Indian PM Dr Manmohan Singh on March 25 and the subsequent background briefing by the US State Department indicate that the Bush team has outlined an ambitious policy towards South Asia.

    For the first time Washington has identified the region as being "vital to the future of the US" and more importantly it has asserted that the US will help India become a major world power in the 21st century. The scope of the proposed re-orientation of current US policy towards the region is ambitious and when implemented, the implications of this US new policy could be very radical and has the potential to alter the very basis of the India – US relationship.

    The initial focus of the March 25th White House announcement dwelt more on the F 16s being supplied to Pakistan and the 'disappointment' generated in India but as the full contours of the new US policy became more clear, it is now evident that notwithstanding certain contradictions, the US has for the first time crafted a comprehensive policy towards the region that is cognizant of the past and the mismatch between the short term goals and long term objectives that Washington has pursued. This contradiction is most vividly reflected in the fact that the White House is staunchly supporting a military ruler in Islamabad even while being committed to the return of democracy in Pakistan by 2007 and is willing to live with the AQ Khan iceberg even though nuclear transgressions are on top of the Bush priority list.

    While the F 16 has become the more visible issue, it would be misleading to associate the March 25th initiative only with the resumption of arms supplies to Pakistan by the US. The F 16 deal has been in the pipeline for almost 15 years and has been withheld for various nuclear and other transgressions including a military coup by the Pakistani military. It is true that there has been no change of circumstances or behavioral pattern by Islamabad in that the military is still in power, the AQ Khan episode remains to be investigated and Islamabad's support to religious radicalism and jehadi terrorism continues in a selective manner – albeit against India.

    Thus it is valid to ask if Pakistan is being rewarded despite its deviations from the core principles now being pursued by the White House – more so when the past track record suggests that the Pakistan military leadership has always acted in an adventurist and belligerent manner when it has been enabled by Washington by way of military equipment – and the 1965 Indo-Pak war is case in point. However it appears that this time Washington is following a very carefully crafted policy of carrot and stick by way of dealing with Islamabad.

    The US administration is fully aware of the many 9-11 related terrorist leads that point to Pakistan and the current turbulence in that society and its deep anti –US orientation. The roots of the current terrorist activity are deeply embedded in the Pak polity and the US had noted this in December last when they had passed a law that requires the US executive to report to Congress the progress made in the transformation of Pakistan. As part of the 9-11 Recommendations Implementation Act passed by the US Congress in December last, sections 4082 and 4083 are Pakistan specific. The former refers to the US Commitment to the Future of Pakistan and the latter is regarding authorization to the US President to exercise waivers in respect of earlier sanctions imposed on Pakistan. Section 4082 is wide in scope and seeks to 'de-jehadise' Pakistan and encourage the emergence of a moderate Pakistan. This in many ways corresponds with the Indian long-term objective as well but there are divergences in the means adopted by the US.

    As of now 4082 states that it is the sense of Congress that the US should "over a long-term period, help to ensure a promising, stable and secure future for Pakistan" and in particular provide assistance to Islamabad in eight areas that include inter alia: commitment to combating extremists; resolving outstanding difficulties with neighbors; fully control its territory and borders; become a more effective and participatory democracy; modernize its economy; halt the spread of WMD; reform the education system; and implement a strategy of moderation.

    More importantly the law requires the US President to transmit to Congress a detailed strategy within 180 days about the nuts and bolts of how the objectives in 4082 will be achieved. Thus by about mid June 2005, the US executive branch will have to inform the Congress about the progress made in this regard and from all accounts the Bush-Rice team are determined to keep the focus on democracy and genuinely representative governance as a core principle for compliance by Pakistan. There is little dissent that this will finally enable the beleaguered Pakistani civil society to reclaim the political space appropriated by the Pak military and the strengthening of the moderate, civilian political constituency will be in the true long terms interests of the Pakistani people.

    Thus while the F 16 has become the lightning rod in the Indian public perception about a shift in US policies, it is in many ways the less important issue. The more strategic and long term policy assertion by Washington is about the transformation of Pakistan to becoming a more moderate state and society. This is an ambitious goal and history tells us that no military that has seized power has ever returned to the barracks in a voluntary manner. Whether General Musharraf will be the exception thanks to the Bush-Rice prescription remains to be seen and the future of the composite dialogue with India will be linked with the choice made by the Pakistani military leadership. The core issue essentially is the orientation of the GHQ in Rawalpindi and how they respond to the new US policy about democracy in Pakistan.

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