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Pakistan and Centre Stage at the NATO Summit

Tom Kirk - 22nd May 2012
Pakistan and centre stage at the NATO summit

After much speculation over his country’s inclusion, Pakistan’s president Asif Ali Zardari attended the recent NATO summit in Chicago. His last minute appearance acknowledged that NATO can neither sustain the fight nor continue to plan the retreat from Afghanistan without Pakistan’s cooperation. It also confirmed that, whether they come from multinational organisations or bilaterally from nations such as the US, Pakistan cannot afford to ignore the international community’s overtures. Although there are many reasons for both sides’ positions, it is arguably Pakistan’s ongoing reliance on the international community’s financial assistance that deserved to be centre stage at Chicago.

The reasons for the will-they-won’t-they manoeuvring on Pakistan’s inclusion at the summit reportedly lay in ongoing talks over the opening of NATO supply lines following their closure late last year. According to Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar the closure allowed her government to make ‘a point’ after the killing of twenty four soldiers in Salala in the North Western border regions by US warplanes. Although not openly admitted, the decision was also likely to have been a response to repeated embarrassments for Pakistan - including last year’s unopposed US mission targeting Osama bin Laden’s hideout in Abbottabad and the repatriation of CIA contractor Raymond Davis before he could stand trial for shooting two men in Lahore. However, after the creation of new guidelines for bi-lateral agreements with the US, NATO’s supply trucks have slowly begun to resume their haul over the Khyber Pass and the organisation’s spokesmen are once again describing Pakistan as having an ‘important role to play’ in Afghanistan’s future.

Along with wishing to use Pakistan’s roads to continue their withdrawal, NATO member countries are acutely aware that many of Afghanistan’s diverse insurgent groups find refuge in Pakistan’s vast border regions and sprawling metropolises. As individual member states arguably distance themselves from any pretensions to be engaged in state-building in Afghanistan, the only justification for keeping troops in the region beyond 2014 will be the elimination of these elements before they can plan attacks locally or further afield. However, destabilising insurgent bases and arresting international jihadists requires locating them among a population of 180 million; a complex task that can only be achieved with the close coordination of Pakistan’s security establishment. It also necessitates the acquiescence of the largely autonomous and, in some instances, heavily armed people of Pakistan, many of whom tacitly support insurgents in Afghanistan and would be willing to interdependently take up arms against any US presence in their own country. Thus, NATO member states realise that Pakistan is likely to remain on their radars long after the West’s most recent military intervention in Afghanistan has become a historical episode.

For their part, Pakistan’s elite understand that they benefit from the financial assistance that periodically floods into the country. Indeed, Pakistan watchers are increasingly pointing to the effects of international aid on Pakistan’s political economy. They suggest that, whether as members of democratic governments or officers of the military-bureaucratic oligarchy, Pakistan’s elites have long been able to use foreign assistance to maintain the economic and political status quo. They highlight that although Pakistan has received more than $60 billion in direct aid from the US alone since 1948, it remains one of the most heavily militarised and impoverished countries on the planet. Furthermore, with only 1.7 million people currently registered to pay income tax, Pakistan recently posted a worrying tax to GDP ratio of 8.6, lower even than Afghanistan. These figures have prompted analysts to describe Pakistan as a rentier state, deriving income from inefficient state run companies and generous foreign assistance programmes rather than a sustainable tax base. This status enables successive ruling oligarchies to shun democratic accountability, buy votes and maintain their domestic patronage networks. The latter is perhaps best illustrated by reports that Pakistan’s two largest contemporary social safety net programmes, the partially foreign funded Benazir Income Support Programme and the Zakat Programme, are perceived by ordinary Pakistanis to be slush funds for domestic patronage politics and, in the case of the former, an instrument of international imperialism.

From 2001 to 2010 US aid to Pakistan amounted to over $18 billion. Furthermore, through the ‘Enhanced Partnership with Pakistan Act’ of 2009 the US has pledged another $7 billion over five years. Although this figure is relatively low, amounting to less than 1 % of Pakistan’s GDP or around two thirds of US spending on the Afghan army a year, the inflow of money arguably entrenches Pakistan’s political economy of patronage and power, and continues a trend in which Pakistan’s elite are buttressed by foreign funds in times of flux and crisis. Albeit mostly covert, the last time foreign assistance was channelled into Pakistan on such a scale was during the Soviet’s occupation of Afghanistan. This not only served the West’s geo-strategic ambitions vis-à-vis the spread of communism, but also allowed General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq’s Islamist regime to retain power through patronage and coercion. The General used foreign money to militarise large swathes of Pakistan’s border regions and pursue a nationwide programme of Islamisation that included the infamous Hudood Ordinance; legislation which has since been criticised by Western observers for encouraging the rape and stoning of women. The episode also led to Pakistan’s use of jihadist groups in Afghanistan long after the Soviet’s fled in 1989 and in Kashmir from 1987. Thus, it was one of the formative moments of the global jihadist movement that continues to allow outfits such as Al-Qaeda to find an ideological and material home in Pakistan today.

As during Zia’s regime, contemporary foreign assistance is offered to Pakistan as an incentive to pursue the West’s interests. However, it arguably encourages Pakistan’s elites to view party politics as a game of probability and state institutions as tools with which to reward clients and punish rivals. Accordingly, Anatol Lieven’s recent book suggests that elites are left with few incentives to engage in meaningful social reforms or to pay and collect taxes. Foreign assistance may also help them to ignore the violent and domestically focussed Islamist groups which are gaining popularity within their vastly unequal and polarised society. Although it is unlikely that Al-Qeada or its affiliates could ever inspire large numbers of Pakistanis to join their cause, these newer alliances of domestic militant Islamist organisations are a potent political force; holding well attended political rallies that the central government appears reluctant to oppose. At these events the groups feed off the elite’s ignorance of the widespread discontent among their own clients and speak the political language of the man on the street. This includes portraying elites as compliant with the war in Afghanistan and stooges of foreign powers. In sum, democratic governance is delegitimised for being un-Islamic. The groups are also able to promote a brand of localised justice that mixes Islamic and tribal laws into a particularly exclusionary and violent jurisprudence that further threatens the rights of women and minority groups. These worrying developments are compounded by a number of domestic and international factors.

At home, Pakistan faces a rapidly expanding population with roughly 63% of people below the age of 25. Largely unemployed, they are increasingly aware of the social inequality that has long characterised their country. Furthermore, given increased access to media and education they appear unwilling to accept the lives of semi-servitude that their fathers are likely to have lived. Unsurprisingly, many are attracted to political, criminal and militant organisations that promise everything from a vote and a livelihood, to a gun, swift Islamic justice and an alternative to the current exclusive political system. While this can manifest itself in support for ‘new’ political pretenders such as Imran Khan, it also arguably feeds support for the murder of politicians such as Salmaan Taseer, provides recruits for Karachi’s violent criminal gangs and drives incidents such as 2009’s takeover of the Swat Valley by home grown militant movements. These are trends that are unlikely to subside unless ordinary people believe they have a stake in Pakistan’s economic and political systems. However, there is little evidence that Pakistan’s elites are willing to give up the political privileges, vast wealth and access to opportunities that they enjoy.

Internationally, Western nations facing austerity are rethinking the way they conduct foreign policy. In particular, they are searching for inexpensive methods of engaging fragile states that they view as simultaneously in need of development and as posing a international security threat. On the one hand, this is likely to mean less money will simply be handed to domestic elites to spend as they see fit and conditional assistance will become commonplace. This can already be seen in the British prime minister’s controversial 2011 outburst over Department of International Development spending in Pakistan and in the US’s recent decision to withdraw military aid to encourage Pakistan to tackle insurgent groups more aggressively. On the other hand, it suggests that countries such as the US will look to maintain and even extend the use of weaponised drones in regions they cannot politically or financially afford to enter. If this happens, which early reporting from the NATO summit seems to indicate, Pakistan will have to find a way to satisfy the US that it can eliminate insurgents itself or persuade its agitated population that the US attacks are in their interest, which, once again, will only be possible if ordinary people believe that they have a stake in the country’s future.

However, while Pakistan can make the case that aggressively tackling insurgents is impossible given the border region’s history of failed military ventures, the second option of pursuing widespread political, social and fiscal reforms seems to have escaped the comprehension of Pakistani and international policymakers. This is worrying given both the country’s recent turn towards militancy and the West’s newfound enthusiasm for what can be described as inexpensive and impersonal foreign policy. However, as has been shown elsewhere, events such as that recently held in Chicago offer opportunities for international organisations, individual countries and recipient governments to discuss their relations in private, with each able to use their various leverages to hash out alternatives to failing trajectories. In the case of Pakistan, we can only hope that the political posturing that foreshadowed their inclusion at Chicago did not continue inside the convention centre.

Tom Kirk is a researcher with the Human Security and Civil Society Research Unit at the LSE.