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1Is Pakistan Too Big to Fail?(An Eye Opener) Empty Is Pakistan Too Big to Fail?(An Eye Opener) on Tue Sep 27, 2011 9:35 pm


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Can Pakistan be weaned off its addiction to exporting violence? Unusually blunt comments to the Senate last week by Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen have spurred the latest round of soul-searching on this perennial question.

Adm. Mullen, long regarded as Pakistan's best friend in the Obama administration, accused Islamabad of using violent extremism as "an instrument of policy." He also blamed the Pakistani army's spy agency, Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), of directly supporting insurgents who killed 25 people in an audacious attack on the U.S. Embassy and NATO headquarters in Kabul Sept. 13, and a truck bombing of a NATO outpost three days earlier that wounded 77 soldiers. "With ISI support, Haqqani operatives planned and conducted that truck bomb attack, as well as the assault on our embassy," he said.

According to the admiral, the Haqqani network, a Pakistan-based militant group believed by U.S. authorities to be responsible for those high-profile attacks as well as a string of others, "acts as a veritable arm of Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence agency." This new and surprising frankness from Washington is an implicit warning to Islamabad that patience is running out.
So far, the warning has fallen on deaf ears. Pakistani Army Chief Gen. Ashfaq Kayani called the allegations "not based on facts." Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar warned that the U.S. can't afford to jeopardize its relationship with Pakistan.

To the average onlooker, such bluster from a country with an economy about the size of Romania's may be baffling. To understand it, one has to see how Pakistan's ruling elites, in particular the generals who call the shots on foreign policy and national security, have come to view their country: as the geopolitical equivalent of a giant bank that's too big to fail.

After all, which other country houses 180 million Muslims, the world's fastest-growing nuclear arsenal, a plethora of jihadist groups in proximity to those weapons, an "all-weather" friendship with China, and a choke-hold on supplies to NATO forces in Afghanistan? By this logic, the U.S., scarred by its experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan, can do little more than mouth disapproval and threaten to cut off aid.

The generals might have a point in seeing the world this way. There's little reason to believe that Washington would have shown such forbearance toward its putative ally—the ISI's relationships with the Haqqanis and the Afghan Taliban have hardly been secret—if Pakistan didn't have nuclear weapons or control major supply lines into Afghanistan. As long as they possess this leverage, they think they can keep up their brinksmanship.

But Pakistan is leaving itself behind if it continues to think in old ways. To begin with, thanks to the so-called Northern Distribution Network through Central Asia, only about half of NATO's nonlethal supplies pass through Pakistan now, down from 80% two years ago. The elimination of Osama bin Laden in May, and the decline of his rump al Qaeda Central, make counterterrorism cooperation less pressing than before. And Islamabad's Beijing boosters grossly exaggerate China's ability or willingness to step in and fill the diplomatic and financial void a sustained confrontation with the U.S. would create.

Now, for the U.S. to prevail in this game of chicken, it will have to accept two basic premises that it has shied away from thus far. First, which the Pakistani army is an adversary, if not an enemy. Second, which the U.S. can only win if the generals at army headquarters in Rawalpindi cease to believe that America will always blink first.

If Washington acquiesces to these two aspects of reality, it can successfully ramp up pressure on Pakistan's army and force the generals to loosen their grip on the country. This will not be easy, but neither is it as daunting a task as the generals would like the world to believe.

Despite its claim of representing the nation, the Pakistani army recruits about 80% of its soldiers from just 15% of the population concentrated in northern Punjab and adjoining areas of Khyber-Pakhtunwa province. The 600,000-strong army represents a fraction of the country's population but commands a defense budget larger than Islamabad's outlays for health and education combined.

The army may influence much of Pakistan's media—quick to whip itself into a patriotic frenzy at the slightest excuse. But these structural factors make Rawalpindi's legitimacy with its own people less secure than generally believed.

The ability to erode the army's standing in Pakistani society is a potent weapon for the U.S. if Washington wants to use it. Stepped-up drone strikes, or a successful Abbottabad-style raid on another high-value terrorist target in Pakistan, would deal a huge blow to military prestige and its claim of safeguarding the country's frontiers.

The U.S., meanwhile, would reinforce the notion that nations that allow their territory to be used to export terrorism forfeit their sovereignty. Down the line, travel bans on generals implicated in terrorism and possible sanctions against the vast businesses that the army runs would diminish the military's prestige and hurt its pocketbook.

To be sure, these steps should not be taken precipitously, but nor should they be taken off the table merely for fear of causing offense. Pakistan may threaten to retaliate by clamping down on NATO supplies, but its capacity to sustain a confrontation, financially or diplomatically, remains extremely limited. As for the too-big-to-fail bluff, the U.S. should calmly inform Islamabad that nobody will be hurt more by a potential jihadist takeover than the army itself.

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