Pakistan: A passion for selling ourselves cheaply - by Ayaz Amir Back   Home  
It is a moot point which crumbled faster: the twin towers of the World Trade Centre or the imposing ramparts of Pakistani pride? Just a few threatening statements from President Bush and Gen Powell and Pakistan's military government, usually so tough at home, conceded everything the Americans were asking for.

We did not say, as forgivably we might have, that we would look into the US demands. We did not say that we would consult public opinion before formulating our response. To some extraordinary outbursts of arrogance from Washington we succumbed first and only later was a show made of consulting leaders of public opinion.

We buckled under pressure. Alas, no other construction fits our swift capitulation. Perhaps, as General Musharraf has been at pains to explain, we had no other choice. But must we have bent that swiftly? Even if only for form's sake, couldn't we have paused to take breath before agreeing to every last item on America's imperious list of demands?

And, pray, what precisely were we afraid of? That the US in its blind anger would make an example of us, flattening our airfields, destroying our installations, taking out our 'nuclear strategic assets'? These wretched assets were supposed to be our ultimate defence. Now they turn out to be our biggest weakness, useless against the crude blackmail to which we have been subjected.

Sadly, it's all in character. After India's nuclear tests in May 1998, a few threatening statements from that side threw us into a panic and made us carry out our own tests. Restraint would have won us international kudos and put India in a spot. But out of paranoia we frittered away an historic opportunity. It makes one wonder as to the kind of people we are. Listening to our bombast anyone would take us to be Greeks of the Homeric period. Anyone examining closely our national record would be struck by our pusillanimity. And our ability to shoot ourselves in the foot.

But I bet the Americans who have a fair measure of Pakistan's capacity to withstand stress are not surprised. We have always been eager to serve their interests, often at great cost to ourselves and mostly without getting much in return. Once again we are gearing up for the same role despite bitter experience of having been repeatedly used and repeatedly abandoned.

What handsome revenge for America's debacle in Vietnam was the savaging of the Soviet bear in Afghanistan. A handful of Pakistani generals enriched themselves during that momentous struggle. But what did the country get? Guns, violence, drugs and a sea of refugees. All the glory America's, all the recurring costs Pakistan's. Anyone could be forgiven for thinking that history is being repeated.

Surely, a measure of self-serving calculation is involved in the decision General Musharraf has taken on behalf of the nation: a vision of gratitude dollars pouring in, of our debt burden easing, of India being outsmarted, and of Pakistan being treated as honoured ally instead of a country down on its luck. But what did we get before that we are hoping for the wheel to turn this time?

We don't know what the US eventually decides. Afghanistan is not the easiest of battlefields and sending in ground troops carries enormous risks. But we do know that Pakistani territory and facilities will be used for any strike on Afghanistan. Such a concession, if at all to be given, should have come at the end of a process of mutual discussion and consultations, not right at the outset as we have done, hoping that the US out of the goodness of its heart will reward us later. We don't even know who'll take care of the refugees pouring into Pakistan. Should we then have pressed the panic button so quickly?

Granted that it was our support for the Taliban which brought us into the focus of American pressure. But who was pushing the support-Taliban policy? The military, the ISI, the national security establishment. The people of Pakistan are now paying the price of this folly.

There was no shortage of voices questioning the wisdom of our Taliban policy: that it was fanning the flames of religious extremism at home and proving a source of disquiet for our friends abroad. The notion of 'strategic depth', so beloved of GHQ, also made no sense because blind support of the Taliban meant not enhanced defence but importing another set of problems into our midst. But the experts remained unfazed. Now under duress we are doing what should have been done long ago: distancing ourselves from the Taliban. At long last the right policy but for the wrong reasons.

We are being told, however, that if we had not acted first India, which was rolling out the red carpet for the US, offering it every last facility, would have stolen a march on us, leaving us out in the cold to face American anger alone.

What nonsense is this? Must we see ourselves in India's mirror always? True, in order to paint Pakistan into a corner, India has tried to pander to American sensibilities (to its chagrin without much success). We had a duty to protect our flanks. But we could have paused for a moment.

From which bases in the Rajasthan desert can a ground assault be mounted on Afghanistan? The key to any land action against Afghanistan is Pakistan and if the Americans are serious about any such action they have perforce to use Pakistani facilities. Had our nerve held we could have played for time in order to see what the US was willing to give in return. Admittedly, Pakistan is not Vietnam or Cuba. Our leaders do not take Ho Chi Minh as their model. Still, must we have caved in so quickly?

How would the Lion of Damascus, Hafez Al-Assad, have played his cards in such a crisis? He would have spoken no unnecessary word, would have guarded his silence like the Sphinx and made the paladins of the State Department and the Pentagon come to Islamabad, refusing only to meet the American official (was it Armitage?) who said it was for Pakistan to decide whether it wanted to live in the 21st century or the Stone Age. Credible threats Assad would have weighed carefully. Arrogance he would have treated with contempt. Above all, he would not have displayed his hand prematurely.

This is not a summons to arms or any misplaced arrogance of our own. The winds blowing across our country may be too strong for us to deflect. But there is no reason for us to sully national honour by behaving in too supine a manner. In any case we are confusing two separate issues: support for the Taliban and bowing before American demands. Our Taliban policy was a prescription for folly. Even if we have friendly feelings for the people of Afghanistan, Pakistan cannot be sacrificed for the sake of any other country. But this is one thing, offering Pakistani territory for use against Afghanistan quite another. Have we carefully pondered the consequences of this move? How will our people take it? And what will be the cost to our already battered pride as a nation?

We are being told to be wise. Wisdom does not lie in acting cravenly. What good is our half-a-million man army and our famous nuclear deterrent if in every crisis we are to crack under the first strain? This does not mean we take on the Americans.

There is no need to tempt the gods or please our enemies by doing that. It only means that we let the Americans know, politely but firmly, that while we are only too ready to do the right thing, preferably under United Nations auspices, we are not willing to be pushed around or sell ourselves cheaply.

Was it a sense of opportunity lost which made General Musharraf look so tense when he addressed the nation? It was not one of his best performances and certainly was a far cry from his conquest of Agra. He asked the nation to trust him. The nation has no choice: he is the captain on deck and it is he who must take the ship of state into safer waters.

It would help, however, if even at this stage he opens the shut portals of his regime a bit to let in some fresh air so that decisions affecting the country's future are taken in a setting slightly broader than the cloistered world of the corps commanders.
This article first published in Dawn, Pakistan and later published in many international magazines and newspapers.