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Not a week goes by without a fresh round of hyper-ventilation over the future of Pakistan. If America's operation to kill Osama bin Laden put a question mark on the role and preparedness of the Pakistan military, an equally daring but more disturbing attack on its naval assets by Taliban/al-Qaida this week shook the very foundations of that country's strongest institution. On May 22, Pakistan Taliban announced they had sent in 15 jihadi attackers into the high-security Mehran naval airbase in Karachi. After a bloody 18-hour gun-battle in which terrorists destroyed two new P-3 C Orion maritime surveillance aircraft and apparently took some Chinese engineers hostage for a while, it became clear this was no ordinary terror strike. For a Pakistan military suffering its worst crisis of confidence after the Osama killing, this was a devastating blow. The Mehran attack sent a chill down the spine because it showed more than anything how deep the al-Qaida-Taliban infiltration of Pakistan's defence services was. And how dangerous. An expert on Pakistan, Farzana Shaikh of Chatham House, London, says, "The army is in the grip of a near-unprecedented crisis (1971 is the closest parallel). Not only has its image been tarnished by allegations of complicity in protecting bin Laden, it now faces for the first time real questions about its much-vaunted capabilities to defend the country and its key assets. "
ABBOTTABAD AND AFTER
The Abbottabad raid raised some uncomfortable questions within Pakistan about its military prowess. The military establishment, after all, has been its most enduring power centre, steering the country's strategic direction, controlling its foreign policy - its biggest economic stakeholder. Pakistan may have been bleeding under an al-Qaida-Taliban assault for some time, but the military had managed to lull the nation into believing in their infallibility, including their doublespeak on US drones picking terrorists off from the skies.
Pakistan may have been knocking at doors, hat in hand, for more aid as its economy has faltered, but the army beguiled the nation into believing they would be secure with more nuclear weapons, putting them ahead of India. It was to be the best deterrence against India's conventional superiority, US interference and a cover for low intensity war against New Delhi. Then US stealth helicopters entered Pakistani airspace, killed Osama and returned, making a mockery of its defences as well as the efficacy of its nuclear weapons. Surely, if the Americans could do this today, would India follow suit in future?
The Mehran attack also highlighted a related vulnerability. If terrorists could get into a secured naval base and destroy prized military assets, how long would it be before they entered the portals of Pakistan's nuclear establishments to make away with some fissile material for a "dirty bomb?"
Pakistan is in the midst of a civil war, but while the militants are motivated, armed and dangerous, the military-intelligence establishment is refusing to join the fight. As Vali Nasr, formerly with the US State Department, says, "Pakistan made a decision to go after some extremists while allowing others to operate. The decision has been costly and is overwhelming their capabilities."
SO, WHAT HAPPENS IN PAKISTAN?
Nothing, really. The military may just continue to maintain the fiction of control, manage the PR fallout and go on without having to take difficult decisions. Professor Shaun Gregory of the University of Bradford says, "The Pakistan army/ISI . . . is arrogant and self-serving and I do not think it will change its practices significantly. Nor do I think it will rethink its relationship with militant groups. " While this is the most likely scenario, its problem is that with every successive attack, the carefully constructed fiction is fraying. As Washington hunts for its next target, Haqqani, Ayman Zawahiri or Ilyas Kashmiri, Pakistan could see its sovereignty being violated repeatedly by the US or the Taliban. Sources say the army/ISI is moving Taliban and al-Qaida leaders to Afghanistan. A recent report on Mullah Omar's death (still unconfirmed) suggested he was being shifted to Afghanistan. Pakistan is moving its militant assets over the border, so if they fall prey to a drone, Islamabad does not have to bear the cost.
Pakistan could buy peace with the Taliban/al-Qaida and let them have the run of the place in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa and FATA. That would be tempting, but very short-lived. The Taliban/al-Qaida has clearly decided to target the Pakistani state as a way of getting to the US. According to Syed Saleem Shahzad and Amir Mir, well-informed Pakistani journalists, the Mehran attack happened under the aegis of al-Qaida leaders Saif al Adel and Ilyas Kashmiri in retaliation for an exercise by the navy to weed out al-Qaida infiltrators. There was an eerie similarity with the Taliban's 'Operation Janbaaz' at the Pakistan GHQ, Rawalpindi, on October 10, 2009 and it sent one message: contrary to General Ashfaq Kayani's contention that they had "broken the back of the militants", the TTP was alive and well and able to strike at will at the heart of the defence establishment. A peace deal would allow freedom to deadly terrorists and unleash more drone attacks, and perhaps counter-terror special ops by the US - which, in turn, will pit the Taliban even more virulently against the military establishment.
Most Indian analysts believe this to be the most likely scenario. Traditionally, Pakistan has created diversion from its domestic problems by rallying the nation against India. Shaikh says, "The only way for the military to salvage the situation and to ensure that its resources are not compromised is by upping the ante against India. I would suspect that if the going gets really rough for the military at home, we can expect the first casualty to be peace talks with India. " Peace talks we can deal with, but what if Mumbai II happens? That would open up a whole new front, which may not be such a bad thing for a beleaguered Pakistani army looking to save its skin. India will be under pressure to retaliate and Pakistan will be tempted to escalate. Then we're all in a real pickle.
There is understandable anger in Washington over what they see as Pakistan's duplicity. There is talk about the US cutting aid to Pakistan, or at least putting more stringent conditions on their use - for instance, channelling them more to the civilian sectors. That would be very difficult for a military that sniffed at the conditions on a Kerry-Lugar aid package in 2009. If the US cuts aid, Pakistan would be tempted to take retaliatory action against what they see as America's dependence on them vis-a-vis Afghanistan. This could entail not allowing NATO convoys through Pakistan into Afghanistan, or just more attacks on them. Pakistan, like the US, is adept at playing a high-risk game, and as it heads down a slippery slope, the temptation to take further steps against the US would be high.
On the other hand, the US will probably continue with the aid. Pakistan will correctly reckon that it would be too much of a risk for the US when presented with the fear of a nuclear-armed, unstable Pakistan. With Wikileaks revealing that Pervez Musharraf's government used only $250 million of the US military aid of $6. 6 billion and that Gen Kayani concealed $370 m in military aid from the civilian government - along with America's concern of inflated bills from Pakistan ($70 million for barbed wire) - this tap, though, is likely to be restructured soon. This would reduce Pakistan's "discretionary" leeway.
Pakistan likes to dangle the China carrot, and Beijing has taken the bait. Pakistan has been pushing its "all-weather" friendship with China and the latter has responded in kind, asking the world to be nice to Pakistan. Prime minister Yousuf Raza Gilani went to Beijing last week and asked the Chinese to build a naval base at Gwadar, knowing full well that the US and India would be mad at the idea. Recently, Gilani and Kayani reportedly asked Afghan president Hamid Karzai to dump the Americans and Indians and go with Pakistan and China.
While China has so far supported Pakistan because it needed to contain India, the question is, how far will Beijing go? Shaikh says, "Whenever this friendship has been really tested, the Chinese have failed to deliver. In 1971, it wasn't China that flexed its muscles to protect Pakistan against India, but the US Seventh Fleet. Nor could China's contribution to flood-afflicted Pakistan be described as anything but modest. We do, of course, benefit from Chinese military hardware, nuclear and missile technology, and are the grateful beneficiary of Chinese economic investment. But I believe that relations with all great powers have their own dynamics and it would be naive for Pakistan to think that its relations with China will escape those dynamics. As such, I would suggest that when the chips are down Pakistan is likely to be low on the list of China's priorities, and that in the long term it is India, not Pakistan, that is likely to emerge as China's most serious interlocutor in the region."
THE OTHER VARIABLES
But there are also variables that could skew the chessboard. First, there are signs of ferment within the Pakistan system that might point to internal changes. Abbottabad gave the Zardari government a unique opportunity to improve its control over the military. They preferred to do petty deals with the ISI instead, and lost that round. There are, however, signs of realignment within the army hierarchy. Kayani reportedly failed to convince younger officers when they asked why the Americans were let off without a fight during that operation. There are rumblings of dissatisfaction against both Kayani and ISI chief Shuja Pasha.
Others in the queue, like chairman, joint chiefs of staff, General Khalid Shamim Wynne, have been positioning themselves accordingly. Wynne refused a meeting with Mike Mullen after Abbottabad. Others like Javed Zia (Quetta corps commander ) and Shafqaat Ahmed (Multan) might want their moment. Analysts say Abbottabad weakened Kayani significantly because he had personally signed up to the US strategy in Af-Pak. The Osama raid was seen as a breach of that relationship. The Pakistan army has been able to control these dissonances before and may do it again. But if radicalisation is indeed seeping into the military establishment, it won't be long before the grip loosens.
Second, Pakistan is unlikely to change its strategic calculus unless it can be assured of a place in an Afghan settlement. Pakistan is simultaneously a controller and a victim of the Afghan war. Analysts say Pakistan may have lowered its ambitions of controlling Kabul, but they want a piece of the pie. They want to control the reconciliation process, but the US is unwilling to let them in.
Third, there are reports of dissatisfaction and rift among the Taliban themselves. There's also a growing opposition to the ISI's heavy-handed tactics. That too could change the outcome. Fourth, Pakistan's nuclear weapons remain an income-generating asset. As Kim Jong-il of North Korea has shown, they can be occasionally brandished for international aid. The Pakistan military certainly hasn't lost the ability to project itself as the most legitimate object of assistance. And it can actually continue like this for a long time.
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