Convened for the first time by the Canadian Ministry of National Defense and the German Marshall Fund – a think tank established by the German government in honor of Gen. George Marshall and the plan for European recovery that bore his name – the Halifax International Security Forum met over the weekend.
The purpose was to discuss trans-Atlantic security in the broadest sense.
Attendees included distinguished members of the U.S. Congress and European parliaments; a number of ministers of defense and serving four-star military officers; well-known businessmen; academics; and members of the media.
Afghanistan clearly dominated the proceedings followed by the situation in Pakistan, and the panel with Sen. John McCain and former Canadian Chief of Defense Staff retired Army Gen. Rick Hillier as prominent members attracted the greatest attention. The question I put in play during that panel was direct. Is the United States serious about Pakistan and, if so, is it prepared to act decisively in providing the necessary tools for Pakistan to prevail in the struggle against its life-threatening insurgency?
Those steps included relieving textile tariffs (noted in last week’s column); providing the Pakistan army the equipment it needs; transferring Predators to Pakistani control; and persuading India to seek a military de-escalation to permit Pakistan to focus its forces on its western borders. The likelihood of any of those steps being taken is slim. Yet each could be a quid for an American quo.
That compromise rests in whether Pakistan is prepared to take the United States seriously and become a full partner in the conflict that continues to grip Pakistan and Afghanistan in waves of violence and danger. This is THE question Pakistan’s senior political and military leadership must resolve. Unfortunately, history and the accumulated scar tissue make any decision not merely difficult but filled with political risk.
The army has been the dominant and decisive force in Pakistani politics. Nearly half of that nation’s existence has been under military rule since the bloody separation from India took place in 1947. Suspicion and mistrust have been common partners in the relationship between civilian politicians and the generals.
Sept. 11, 2001, and the war on terror, coupled with Gen. Pervez Musharraf’s standing as president and army chief of staff, partially closed the traditional gap between heads of government and the army.
But nearly a decade later, the region is far more dangerous, and the Obama administration must deal with the legacies of the Bush administration in Afghanistan including making that war Obama’s. In simple English, the Obama administration has bet its future on making good on Afghanistan.
In this process, while not as blatantly as George W. Bush declared “you are either with us or against us,” in kinder and gentler terms, the Obama administration is asking the Pakistanis to partner up or seek a different, more distant relationship. This was the message that national security adviser James Jones conveyed in his recent trip to Islamabad and was repeated by CIA Director Leon Panetta’s visit last week. And the letter from President Obama to Pakistani President Asif Zardari made this choice clearer.
The heart of the disconnects between Pakistan and America are well understood. The United States wants far more support against the Afghan Taliban and insurgents operating safely inside Pakistan. The Pakistanis argue that the army lacks the capacity to carry out those tasks AND deal with the real threat as seen from Islamabad in the form of the Pakistani Taliban. Many in both countries see that as the reason or a diversion to keep control over Afghan Taliban as an insurance policy either in the case of a U.S. withdrawal Pakistanis fear or as a hedge to exercise influence in Afghanistan.
Furthermore, the trust deficit between the respective militaries and intelligence agencies is growing as tempers and emotions smolder as the battles in both Afghanistan and Pakistan become fiercer. So now is the time for both sides to make up their minds over how serious each regards its relationship with the other and take real steps to make this a true partnership with quids and quos made by America and Pakistan.
Zardari knows where he wants his nation headed – towards a democracy with civilian control over the military and a military dedicated to winning this struggle against the insurgents. But the generals are divided. History and culture are difficult to overcome.
Yet, if we are to succeed collectively in the region, Pakistan must now act and accommodate some of America’s needs. And America must give iron commitments for long-term support to Pakistan. The best means for this partnership to be struck is through a summit between the two presidents to lay out what can and will be done. That will require Zardari to convince his generals of this necessity. And Obama must likewise convince Pakistan that America will stay the course.
Harlan Ullman is a member of the Atlantic Council’s Strategic Advisors Group and a Distinguished Senior Fellow at the National Defense University. This essay was previously published as “Is Pakistan really serious about America?” in UPI.