Somehow, in trying to respond to the United States, we are missing the essential point in the present crisis that has the potential to spiral. So far, we have indignantly challenged the veracity of Admiral Mike Mullen’s accusations and rejected them. That was important but has been done. We now need to go beyond that and to beyond belong some hard facts and choices.
Fact 1: The US is accusing Pakistan of waging a proxy war on it and is putting on a full court press to get the latter to fall in line. This is different from merely alleging that the Network is killing GIs or that its activities are preventing the US from stabilising Afghanistan. Those are the effects; the cause is Pakistan’s support to the Network and, by extrapolation, Islamabad’s active effort to defeat Washington’s interests in Afghanistan. The ally is in fact, according to this narrative, working against the US and is the enemy.
Fact 2: Having done so, Washington has locked itself in a commitment trap — i.e., it cannot simply sit back and let the crisis deescalate unless Pakistan is visibly seen to be doing something to address the US concerns.
Fact 3: By accusing Pakistan of directly supporting the Haqqani Network, the contention over an operation in North Waziristan acquires a different meaning; it is not just about physically occupying that area — though in terms of visibility that is now more urgent than ever — but withdrawing the alleged support to the Haqqanis and accepting Washington’s demands in line with the latter’s interests in Afghanistan and the region.
This narrative can be challenged at many levels and rejected, as has been done, and is being done. But it should be clear that it is not enough to say that this is bollocks. That doesn’t make policy, especially if we are convinced, as it appears from our narrative, that the US is wounded and needs to scapegoat someone. That would in fact mean the dice is loaded against Pakistan anyway.
So, is it a simple choice between escalating and capitulating? No. Those who are suggesting this either/or approach should get out of this business and start doing something more useful.
Pakistan needs to coolly appreciate the options available to the US and to herself. The situation is far more complex for both sides to embark on a direct confrontation without calculating the risks. Quite often, intransigence on issue X is deception because an actor is actually playing for gains on issue Y.
Even allowing for asymmetry, going up on the escalatory ladder by the stronger side is not a neat job. The further up the ladder any side would go, the less likely the chances of success because of what Herman Kahn called a “‘spasm war’ in which both sides would lose all” even as “sufficient asymmetry of capabilities at lower levels would ensure that an intolerable burden would be put on the side forced to raise the stakes”.
This is what Kahn described as escalation dominance: “[The]… capacity, other things being equal, to enable the side possessing it to enjoy marked advantages in given regions of the escalation ladder.” But once escalation begins, there is likely to be “the jet effect of the competing capabilities on the rung being occupied, the estimate by each side of what would happen if the confrontation moved to these other rungs, and the means each side has to shift the confrontation to these other rungs”.
Straightforward? No. “The major difficulty with this approach in operational terms was [and remains] that the escalation ladder was [is] unable to appear as clearly in practice as in theory.”
There are competing capabilities on both sides and both know that. The US also knows that in any confrontation involving military options, Pakistan has options to respond. The calculation for the US would not be how much punishment it can mete out to Pakistan, which can be enormous, but how much of it she can take. That can be a sobering thought.
Given this, it would rely more on non-military punishment, at least in the days to come — combining it with military actions that may not test Pakistan’s red lines overtly — to compel Pakistan to at least do some, if not all, of its bidding. It is important to note that despite the accusations, Mullen told the US lawmakers that a “flawed and strained engagement with Pakistan is better than disengagement”. The relationship cannot be broken because of US constraints. So, how does the US balance its strategy of compellence with its limitations?
The answer should determine Pakistan’s responses. The space relates to the knowledge that Pakistan cannot afford escalation but equally that the US cannot go up the ladder without the risk of jet effect.
This is where non-military means come in. The US could stop bilateral aid to Pakistan. But it also knows that that is unlikely to hurt Pakistan too much. In fact, some economists have argued that such an act may well be to the advantage of Pakistan. However, that is not the only lever. The US can influence other financial support — the IMF, World Bank, other IFIs, state donors that run various projects, etc. There are also other programmes in the development, health and education sectors.
Beyond that lie export quotas, both bilateral and others: if the US declares Pakistan a state sponsoring ‘terrorism’, that would unleash a sanctions regime which will severely impact Pakistan’s access to capital. They have done this with many states, including Iran and Sudan (both are better placed because of oil to take the brunt).
If money flows are terribly hit, Pakistan’s economy, already tottering, could begin to unravel. This coupled with selective military actions that seek to avoid direct confrontation with Pakistani troops could be a plausible scenario.
But what is important to note is the paradox: by killing the fiction of a strategic partnership with Pakistan and upping the ante, the US has also lost the leverage it had when, for instance, it mounted the Abbottabad raid. And if Pakistan begins to unravel, that could pose its own dangers to US interests. So, we now have a Pakistan that doesn’t want escalation but is more prone to reacting to US actions. That means a lesser ability by the US to compel Pakistan to change its behaviour through overt actions that could beget a response.
Other actors like India, China, Saudi Arabia and Iran thrown into the equation make the calculus even more complex. Both sides are therefore faced with the tremendous challenge of managing risks associated with any spiralling effect at a time when they are getting locked into commitment traps.
Corollary: Let’s get rid of either/or analyses and begin to formulate a strategy informed by the terrible complexity of the situation.
Published in The Express Tribune, September 28th, 2011.