Column: Dispatches From the Edge: The United States and Pakistan: Whacking Musharraf?

By Conn Hallinan
Friday July 07, 2006

There is a whiff of “regime change” in the air these days, but not where you might expect it. Not in Iraq, where the conservative United States-backed Shiites are already in power. Not in Iran, where White House threats have served to unite, rather than divide, that country. But in Pakistan, and for reasons that go back to a 1992 document that maps out a strategy for a new Cold War. 

Consider the following developments: 

The Bush administration’s Man in Kabul, Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai, recently fingered Pakistan as the source of the current fighting in the southern part of his country. “The world should go where terrorism is nourished, where it is provided money and ideology,” he told a Kabul press conference this past June, “The war in Afghanistan should not be limited to Afghanistan.” 

When President Bush visited Pakistan in March, he lectured President Pervez Musharraf about the need to be more aggressive in the “war on terrorism”—Pakistan has lost more soldiers fighting the Taliban in its northwestern tribal areas than the entire NATO coalition has lost in Afghanistan—and refused to discuss the issue of Kashmir, the major flashpoint in Pakistan-India relations, one that has brought the two nuclear armed powers to the brink of war on several occasions. 

Indeed, when Musharraf asked for the same nuclear agreement that Washington had just handed New Delhi, Bush openly insulted his Islamabad hosts. With the Pakistani President standing stiffly beside him, the U.S. president told the press, “I explained that Pakistan and India are different countries with different needs and hi`stories.” 

The nuclear deal—which was favorably voted out of House and Senate committees—would let India bypass Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty sanctions slapped on it for secretly developing atomic weapons, thus allowing it to buy uranium for its civilian reactors. That in turn would let the Indians divert their meager domestic uranium supplies into constructing more nuclear weapons.  

The Bush administration also cut $350 million in civilian and military aid to Pakistan because of a “failure” to improve democracy and human rights.  

And according to Syad Saleem Shahzad, Pakistan bureau chief for the Asia Times, “Western intelligence” has helped funnel money through Oman, the United Arab Emirates, and London to insurgents in Pakistan’s Baluchistan Province. 

So if the Pakistanis are starting to feel like they are in someone’s crosshairs, one can hardly blame them. The question is why? Musharraf has basically done everything the White House wanted him to do, including breaking with the Taliban and sending 90,000 troops to seal the border with Afghanistan. 

The answer is not that Pakistan has fallen out of favor, but that it is a pawn that has outlived its usefulness in a global chess match aimed at China.  

Back in 1992 the Clinton administration drew up a Defense Planning Guidance document that laid out a blueprint for a post-Cold War world: “The United States will attempt to dissuade any military competitor from developing disruptive or other capabilities that could enable regional hegemony or hostile action against the United States,” the document read, continuing, “Of the major and emerging powers, China has the greatest potential to compete militarily with the United States.” 

Jump ahead to the year 2000 and a Foreign Affairs article by soon-to-be National Security Advisor, Condoleezza Rice: “China is not a ‘status quo’ power, but one that would like to alter Asia’s balance of power in its own favor…The United States must deepen its cooperation with Japan and South Korea and maintain its commitment to a robust military presence in the region,” she wrote, adding that the United States had to “pay close attention to India’s role in the regional balance” if the latter was to be recruited into an anti-China alliance. 

While Sept. 11 and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq derailed this grand scheme, recent developments suggest it is back on track. 

The anti-China alliance is already well underway. 

Japan and Australia have agreed to field U.S.-supplied anti-ballistic missiles, and the Administration is wooing India to do the same. While the rationale for the ABMs is North Korea, the real target in China’s 20 intercontinental ballistic missiles. 

Japan—which has one of the largest navies in the world—is stepping up its military coordination with the United States, and has agreed to support the United States in case it intervenes in a war between China and Taiwan. 

In the meantime, the United States is pouring men and materials into Asia and beefing up bases in Japan and Guam. It is also conducting war games with India, and jointly patrolling the Malacca Straits with the Indian Navy. 

Add to this the U.S. bases in Central Asia—Afghanistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan—plus recent attacks by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld on China’s military (using some of the same language as in the 1992 document) and one can only conclude that the Defense Guidance Plan is alive and well. 

But while chess is a supremely logical game, diplomacy is considerably messier, and the grand scheme to corner the dragon is stirring up some dangerous regional furies. 

For instance, to get Japan on board, the United States has encouraged a more muscular foreign policy by Tokyo, including sending troops to Iraq and dumping Article Nine of the Japanese constitution renouncing war as a “sovereign right of the nation.”  

But this resurgent Japanese nationalism has angered and frightened nations in the region, many of which have vivid memories of World War II. South Korea, which suffered through more than three decades of brutal Japanese occupation, is barely on speaking terms with Tokyo, and has come close to blows with Japan over the Tokodo Islands claimed by both nations.  

This is hardly the atmosphere for a grand alliance. 

The law of unintended consequences may be playing itself out with Indian and Pakistan as well. 

India’s central strategy has always been to insure control of Kashmir and to weaken the Pakistani Army, two goals that the Bush Administration seems to share. 

According to the Asia Times, a CIA official told the Indians that weakening the Pakistani Army was central to the United States’ goal of bringing “democracy” to Pakistan, though the lack of it never bothered Washington in the past. The Times also reports that the CIA has been meeting with exiled former prime ministers Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif, who recently formed the Alliance for the Restoration of Democracy. 

General Hamid Gul, former head of the Pakistani InterService Intelligence organization, told the PakTribune that he thought the U.S. was aiming to replace Musharraf. 

If the United States sides with India on Kashmir, Pakistan could be looking at a strategic defeat in the long-running dispute that would not only weaken the army, but might destabilize the country.  

Are the nuclear deal and the Kashmir policy a quid pro quo for India joining the anti-China alliance? It is hard to fathom what else might explain Washington’s relentless criticism of Pakistan for not doing enough in the “war on terrorism,” or the recent cut in aid. 

Washington’s obsession with China is unleashing some particularly malevolent forms of nationalism that threaten to destabilize a broad swath of the region from South Asia to the north Pacific. In this chess match, India, with its enormous population and economic potential, is a major piece on the board. Pakistan, with a sixth the population and a tenth the economic potential, is a pawn.  

An expendable one it would appear.