The risks of confrontation

pakistan and usaA tense and potentially dangerous standoff is developing between Pakistan and the US. Tense, because the two sides have publicly taken polarised positions early on in the confrontation. Dangerous, because the asymmetry of power inherent in the situation can result in precipitating action by the bigger country that could destabilise the smaller country and begin a new momentum of violence whose end cannot be foreseen.

Senior officials in the US Defence establishment appear to believe that: (a) the terrorist attack on the US Embassy and ISAF Headquarters on 13 September was conducted by the Haqqani group based in North Waziristan, and (b) this was planned and executed with the support of Pakistan’s Inter Services Intelligence agency (ISI). The prevalent US government’s perception and their position that they reserve the right to take punitive action against the Haqqani group suggests that the US could take military action in North Waziristan.

By contrast, the Pakistan government and the military have: (a) vehemently denied that ISI provided support to the Haqqani group in the Kabul operation, (b) made it clear to Washington that if the US launched a military strike in Pakistan’s tribal areas, the defense forces of the country would retaliate.The factor that enhances the risk from the viewpoint of Pakistan’s interests and indeed those of the US is the problem of institutional instability in governance. The nascent democratic structure still has multiple centres of power. Consequently, there could be lack of coordination and inadequate ability to conduct reasoned and well-informed analysis in the decision making process.

A US military strike and retaliation by Pakistan could escalate hostilities whereby the situation could quickly spin out of control. The resultant conflagration might place such severe pressures on Pakistan’s state structure as to have incalculable consequences for the security of the country, the region and the US.A second trajectory of mounting risk could come into play if the US were to choose the weapon of economic pressure. This could vary from cessation of Western aid to imposition of sanctions. Let us briefly consider the current state of the economy and the consequences of stoppage of Western aid through coordinated action by the US: This means an annual loss of USD 4.6 billion for Pakistan.

Even though the gross State Bank foreign exchange reserves stand at an apparently comfortable USD 17.6 billion today, aid stoppage could trigger a panic outflow of capital by both individuals and private sector companies. This could quickly deplete reserves to a critical level. Consequently, a free fall in the exchange rate and rising inflation could begin feeding off each other to generate a three-digit hyper inflation. The foreign exchange constraint would mean critical shortages of fuel, electricity, cooking oil, fertiliser and in time, food grain; industry would come to a standstill; essential items of daily consumption would go beyond the purchasing power of most people; civilian transportation, both public and private would be paralysed; and emergency services in hospitals would be severely affected.

Pakistan is already under stress from widespread bomb and gun attacks by Taliban and Al-Qaeda network, recurrent spasms of ethnic violence in Karachi, and incipient militant nationalism in Balochistan. Under these circumstances, an economic collapse could intensify the stress on Pakistan’s state structure to a critical level. Amidst the extensive break down of order, the sovereignty of the state that the government seeks to defend against a possible US intrusion, could be internally undermined as the writ of the state is lost over large parts of Pakistan’s geographic domain. Who will benefit from such anarchy? Neither Pakistan’s power structure, nor the US, but the very Taliban and Al-Qaeda network which seek to control as large a part of Pakistan and Afghanistan as they can.

As far as the people of Pakistan are concerned, the Taliban and Al-Qaeda nexus constitutes a direct threat to national security. They are also a threat to the security of the US, albeit to a lesser extent. The political dynamics within Pakistan’s power structure have led to dangerous liaisons with some of the Taliban groups. Yet in spite of their current tensions and opposed perspectives, the security interests of the two countries coincide, to some extent. Given the fragility of Pakistan’s economy and its governance structure, Pakistan-US conflict could trigger an implosion which would threaten the interests of both while benefiting their common enemies.

The war is not between religion and US power. It is between barbarism and the shared universal values of all humane societies. Therefore, it is a time to heal, to rebuild trust. It is a time to find common ground to build a better future for Pakistan and the world, together. – PT