The UK's foreign policy approach to Afghanistan and Pakistan - Foreign Affairs Committee Contents

Written evidence on Pakistan from Professor Shaun Gregory, Pakistan Security Research Unit, University of Bradford


Pakistan is perhaps the most dangerous place on earth, where key security issues of concern to the UK and its western allies - regional and global terrorism, proliferation of nuclear weapons, and state instability - arguably intersect more consequentially than anywhere else. Getting Pakistan right is critical to our security going forward.


Somewhat simplified, the UK and its NATO allies are fighting three wars in the Afghanistan and Pakistan region: the war against al-Qaeda, the war against Pakistan Taliban, and the war against the Afghan Taliban. With the first two of these our interests and those of Pakistan intersect [though are not the same] and we have been able to co-operate to some degree; with respect to the Afghan Taliban our interests and our objectives in Afghanistan are at odds with Pakistan's and co-operation has been meagre. At best Pakistan has not significantly retarded the Afghan Taliban's return to dominance in the Afghan Pashtun belt from safe havens in Pakistan; at worst - and more plausibly in my view - it has aided that process.


It has been clear for some years, particularly since the Reidel review, that the centre of gravity of the US/western struggle with al-Qaeda has shifted to Pakistan and the drawdown in Afghanistan is being accompanied by a scaling up of US/western counter-terror and counter-insurgency capacity in Pakistan. The escalation of drone strikes in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) has succeeded in killing significant numbers of AQ figures operating from Pakistan, but this has come at a significant price in civilian casualties, and in terms of possible pathways of radicalisation in Pakistan [the evidence is not entirely consistent]. Drone strikes are likely to continue to escalate in number as US intel reach on the ground in Pakistan continues to improve. The US would like to expand its drone operations into northern Balochistan - and perhaps elsewhere in Pakistan - but this is likely to be resisted by the Pakistan Army/Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) and Government.


Drone strikes have also been successful in killing important leaders of the Pakistan Taliban - such as Baitullah Mehsud - and these have helped the Pakistan Army/ISI to turn the tide (at least temporarily) against the groups - Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and Tehreek-e-Nafaz-e-Shariat-e-Mohammadi (TNSM) - which most directly threatened the Pakistan state and which caused havoc in many of Pakistan's cities in 2007 and 2008 before major Pakistan military operations in the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP) [as was] and the eastern part of South Waziristan in April/May and October 2009.


By contrast there has been almost no attrition of Afghan Taliban leaderships or foot-soldiers on the Pakistan side of the border. Indeed there is much evidence that Pakistan has supported the return of the Afghan Taliban from Pakistan in order to have a strong hand in Afghanistan post-NATO, to seek to avoid the kind of chaos into which Afghanistan was plunged when the Soviets withdrew in 1989 and the US abandoned the region [which had appalling consequences for Pakistan], and to keep Indian influence in Afghanistan to a minimum and away from the Af-Pak border.


Over the past nine years - despite billions of dollars of military and civilian aid and much diplomatic attention - the US/UK and NATO have been unable to pressure Pakistan into serious downward pressure on the Afghan Taliban, something General Petraeus has said would be critical to NATO success in Afghanistan. Aside from Pakistani stubbornness to resist diplomatic pressure [witness the Pressler sanctions] and the pernicious way in which Pakistan has resisted sanctions [witness the use of Islamic militancy 1989-2001], the main reason we cannot force Pakistan to act in our interests is because of the counter-leverage they hold over us. These are four-fold:

  1. Up to 80% of NATO's main logistics lines [materiel and fuel] flow through Pakistan and we are dependent on these routes. Their disruption or interdiction poses a strategic threat to NATO objectives in Pakistan. The recent 10-day closure of Torkham and the express linkage of that closure to the NATO cross-border incursions into Pakistan illustrate the point.
  2. We rely on Pakistan for base infrastructure and over-flights to prosecute the war in Afghanistan.
  3. We rely on Pakistan for intelligence in Pakistan particularly on al-Qaeda. Without this our counter-terrorism efforts would be seriously degraded.
  4. Finally we rely on Pakistan's Army and ISI to keep Pakistan's estimated 60-100 nuclear weapons out of terrorist hands. This is arguably the ultimate threat the Pakistan Army/ISI can make.

In other words we are too dependent on Pakistan in too many grave security areas to seriously question their Army/ISI. We know Pakistan are - from our point of view - duplicitous with respect to the Afghan Taliban, but there is little or nothing we can do about that and we should not expect Pakistan to work against what it perceives to be its own interests. Moreover Pakistan has coercive options which are truly frightening.


The first tragedy of our failure to find alternative ways to engage with Pakistan over the past nine years is that the Afghan Taliban are back in force and the main groups - Omar (Quetta Shura); Zakir (Gergi Jangal Shura); Mansoor (Peshawar Shura), and Haqqani (Miran Shah Shura) - together with Hekmatyar's HI, are to varying degrees being lined up by Pakistan to assert Pakistani interests in a transition Afghanistan. My view is that Pakistan will not be restrained in asserting its dominant hand in the country and that this is already beginning to lay the foundations for a renewed civil war in Afghanistan. The window for building a plural, stable, regionally inclusive dispensation in Afghanistan during transition is closing. [Prime Minister Cameron's recent remarks in India about Pakistan's Janus-faced attitude to terrorism was an important marker for Pakistan not to overplay its hand in Afghanistan.]


The second tragedy is that the Afghan War 2001-201X and the escalating war against AQ in Pakistan have fuelled the very dynamics of regional instability, radicalisation, and terrorism we have sought to address. Terrorism has risen sharply in Pakistan over the past decade; terrorist groups appear to be linking up, regional terrorist groups with some Pakistan state-backing (such as the Lashkar-e-Tayyiba (LeT)) appear to be developing global Jihad horizons, there are some significant trends in political Islamism as a number of Pakistan terrorist groups like the LeT and Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan (SSP) evolve into wider social/political actors (much as Hamas has), and - even without the floods - the situation of tens of millions of Pakistanis remains dire. Even the Pakistan Army/ISI has shown itself vulnerable to terrorist attacks and to forms of terrorist/insurgent penetration which could threaten the security of Pakistan's nuclear weapons.


Before we can even think about reframing debates in ways which might help us find alternative policy approaches to Pakistan - which keep the best of what we have and change the worst - we have to keep in mind some important political realities:

  1. The US is in the driving seat with respect to Pakistan, its civilian and military aid dwarfs ours, its security objectives override ours, and we matter only marginally to Pakistan;
  2. The UK policy-making process (as well as our "establishment") with respect to Pakistan is strongly influenced by a skilful and far-reaching Pakistani lobby;
  3. The UK is home to more than 900,000 UK citizens of Pakistani origin many of whom are wealthy and some of whom constitute an important - perhaps even decisive - political constituency in some marginals;
  4. The UK Foreign Office has operated a reasonably consistent Pakistan policy for decades and, like all bureaucracies, prefers minor and reversible adjustments of policy to more substantive, risky, and perhaps irrevocable changes.


The idea that a few lines in a brief of this kind can offer some serious policy suggestions is unrealistic. To the extent that the UK matters and has been influential in terms of what happens in Pakistan successive UK Governments need to accept their portion of the responsibility for the present state in which Pakistan finds itself. Pakistan has spent billions to become a nuclear weapons state, it has proliferated nuclear weapons technology to the most unsavoury regimes on earth; it has created, sustained, and empowered some of the worst terrorist and insurgent organisations in the world, and it has stumbled from crisis to coup d'état to corrupt kleptocracy and back again for much of its 60-year history. The price for all this has been paid by ordinary Pakistanis who return some of the worst statistics for security, wealth, health and social well-being in the world.

If there is a single thread to our role in this history it is the UK's consistent preference for Pakistan's ruling kleptocratic politico-military elite and our secondary concern for ordinary Pakistanis. What more disabling political signal could there be than the "crowning" of Bilawal Bhutto here in the UK? Every person struggling at the grassroots for meaningful political evolution in Pakistan cannot but read in that event the UK's commitment to another fifty years of engagement in Pakistan through the ruling neo-feudal elite. We might say the same of hosting (at the tax-payers expense) the former Pakistani dictator General Musharraf who launched his political "comeback" in London a few weeks ago, or the sheltering of Altaf Hussein, the Pakistani Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) leader, since 1992.

In the wake of the floods Pakistanis, despite some honourable exceptions, have seen their incompetent and indifferent civilian government and their self-serving and equally indifferent military. That the floods have not uncorked revolutionary change in Pakistan is down largely to the heterogeneity of the populous, the absence of a unifying idea or ideology, and the absence of a political actor or group which could harness the immense anger of ordinary Pakistanis. The most likely candidate for that role is political Islamism.

In looking for ways forward these have to be searched for in the needs and aspirations of ordinary Pakistanis, in the empowerment of ordinary Pakistanis and the expansion of a meritocratic middle-class (not least through English, the language through which the ruling elite monopolise power), in more just political dispensations [including federal], in connecting publics to political leaderships through the building of political legitimacy and through forms of neo-Westphalian state-making, and in regional processes which recognise the importance of Pakistan's neighbours. Our means to be effective in these areas, alone or with others, is limited.

18 October 2010

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