Bashar al-Assad for president … of Pakistan

Pakistan is in a crisis because its leadership is unable to control its, or Afghanistan’s militant groups.

Pakistan has accused the US of breaching their sovereignty in the raid that killed Osama bin Laden, and the US has accused Pakistan of not doing enough to keep militant groups under control [GALLO/GETTY]

Once again, Pakistan and the United States are in crisis mode. 

Admiral Mike Mullen, the outgoing US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has publicly accused the Pakistani intelligence service, the ISI, of acting in league with the so-called Haqqani Network, which the US deems responsible for the recent attack on its embassy compound in Kabul, merely the latest of a string of alleged outrages. 

This has precipitated the usual round of recriminations, with the US threatening to take unilateral action against the Haqqanis on the Pakistani side of the Durand Line, the Pakistanis vowing to defend their sovereignty, and the American Congress making the usual noises about curtailing and further conditioning grants of aid to its duplicitous Pakistani ally. 

Indeed, relations between the two countries, having suffered a recent series of successive declines, now threaten to enter a tailspin from which they cannot recover.

All of this was eminently predictable, of course, for the simple reason that the US and Pakistan are pursuing diametrically opposing policies in an area of critical importance to each. The US is feverishly trying to reinforce a parlous Afghan regime in the increasingly vain hope that, through a combination of military and political means, it can be made capable of subduing the Taliban insurgency and permanently denying safe haven to international militants in advance of a self-imposed timetable for a substantial American withdrawal. 

The Pakistanis, on the other hand, distrustful of the Kabul regime, fearful of its close relations with their mortal Indian enemy, and highly doubtful of the staying power of a moderating American presence, are hedging their bets and preserving a potent means of exerting pressure on the Afghan government by providing aid and comfort to the Haqqanis and other elements of the Afghan Taliban insurgency. 

Where one can and must fault the Pakistanis is not in their policy, but in its execution. The truth is that they are disastrously bad at this.

Add to this the inconvenient fact that these same insurgents are actively engaged in attacking the forces of Pakistan’s American and NATO allies, and you have a prescription for serious, recurring trouble, if not a complete rupture in relations.

There is nothing new here. Pakistan has long sponsored Islamic militant groups with which it maintains wary and distrustful relations as a means of exerting pressure and influence against its immediate neighbours to the east and the west. Such a policy line requires a high degree of cynicism and duplicity. I do not mean this as a criticism. Given their perception of their national interests and the lack of effective alternative methods to pursue them, one can readily see why the Pakistanis behave as they do. I may disapprove as an American, but as a political realist I cannot fault them.   

Where one can and must fault the Pakistanis is not in their policy, but in its execution. The truth is that they are disastrously bad at this. If one is to pursue a ruthlessly cynical policy such as Pakistan is pursuing in Afghanistan, one must be equally ruthless and exacting in carrying it out. There must be no ambiguity about who is the manipulator, and who the manipulated. 

In state dealings with radical proxies, there must be no question, at the end of the day, as to who is in charge. With Pakistan, this has never been the case. The post-Zia history of Pakistan is one of soft and uncertain leadership in pursuit of a hard policy. The results are there for everyone to see. Pakistan’s supposed puppets create external crises which their putative masters cannot control, while simultaneously undermining the domestic security of the state.

Picture the godfather version

Pakistan seems unwilling to confront the strong militant leaders within its borders [GALLO/GETTY]

This is not to suggest that the Pakistanis are incapable of brutality. Thousands of forced disappearances of suspected militants, many ending in extrajudicial killings, indicate otherwise. But these are hardly acts of courage and resolve. It requires little fortitude to spirit away the defenseless in the middle of the night.  Indeed, these are another manifestation of the same syndrome, as Pakistan victimises the weak to compensate for its unwillingness to confront the strong.

Let us consider an analogous case. For many years, Syria’s Hafiz al-Assad played host to a veritable alphabet soup of armed secular Palestinian militant and terrorist groups. While he may have expressed solidarity with the Palestinian people, his prime motivation always revolved around purely Syrian interests. He was happy to see these groups in engage in operations – so long as their timing and their nature suited Syria. 

Woe betide the Syrian-based Palestinian whose unapproved actions invited Israeli reprisals or otherwise contravened Syria’s interests. Crossing Hafiz al-Assad’s red lines was to invite Hama-like consequences, and everyone knew it.

Now imagine, for a moment, the reaction of a Pakistani version of the Syrian dictator in November of 2008, when multiple attacks in Mumbai perpetrated by Lashkar-e Taiba (LET) nearly plunged his nation into a disastrous and ill-timed war with India. Imagine as well the reaction to the Haqqanis’ Kabul embassy attack on the Americans, Pakistan’s prime benefactor. 

Compare, then, those reactions to the Pakistanis’ comparatively kid-glove post-Mumbai treatment of LET and its leader, Hafiz Saeed, and the impunity with which the Haqqanis operate, and you begin to get an idea of how much better things would be for the Americans, the Indians, and the Pakistanis themselves if Pakistanis, who insist on pursuing Syrian-like policies, could be more like Syrians in implementing them.

If you doubt that, consider this: One of the major reasons the Pakistanis are not being invited to participate in brokering a political settlement in Afghanistan is that there is no reason to believe they could deliver any of their Afghan clients to the table if they were.

Picture, however, the godfather-like conversation a Hafiz al-Assad or one of his minions might have with Siraj Haqqani. “Brother”, he might say, “None of us can have all he wants in this life. I have negotiated the best deal for you that I could, one which will provide you and the others with a political role in Afghanistan. It may not represent all you could have wanted. Nonetheless, we sincerely think it is in your best interest to accept it.” 

Siraj would know exactly what he meant, as would Mullah Omar, as would, especially, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, who has had extensive experience of dealing with the Iranians.

Can anyone imagine a senior Pakistani official having such a conversation with a well-armed Afghan militant leader? Not hardly. Yes, the Pakistanis have engaged in serious hostilities with home-grown insurgents, but they fear these Afghans, and especially their capacity for mischief if they should decide to join forces with their Pakistani brothers. 

[The Pakistanis] fear these Afghans, and especially their capacity for mischief if they should decide to join forces with their Pakistani brothers.

What Pakistan’s leaders, both military and civilian, seem unable to take into account, however, is that this consolidation is already beginning to happen. Pakistani militants are staging in Afghan safe havens, with local support, to attack across the border.

Pakistani officials may wish that these challenges would simply go away, but they will not.

Like it or not, they are engaged in an existential struggle with a growing phenomenon of religious militancy which threatens, sooner or later, to undermine their external position while devouring them from within.

They may chafe at the unfairness that much of their current situation results from the unintended consequences of US actions, but wishing this away will not help. Nor will Pakistan’s recurrent policy of preemptive capitulation to the strong and extra-legal suppression of the weak.

Pakistan has serious means at its disposal. It has professional standing forces of nearly a million men, and a reserve capacity of half a million more. There may be risks in making good on implied threats to militants to whom Pakistan provides safe haven, but given the will, they can always have their way. Sooner or later, it will come down to a matter of national survival. Pakistan’s current leaders may not understand this, but an Assad would.

Just a few months ago, this would have been a purely academic conversation. But now, there is a historic opportunity in the making for those with the boldness to see it.

Bashar al-Assad has shown himself in recent months to be every bit his father’s son, nearly as ruthless and as cleverly calculating. But the Assad methodology may have run its course in Syria; it has worn out its welcome.  The country is descending into a seemingly endless cycle of violence; defections from the Army are increasing, and soon the opposition may have the means to fight back with arms, while fear of the future increasingly polarises the country. 

And switch …

It may be difficult to find the formula necessary to provide the Syrian people the political freedoms they crave, while also giving social minorities the reassurance they need to avoid ethnic and sectarian civil war, but a quick departure of the Assads is a necessary component of any solution. Surely Bashar would refuse the ignominy of a forced retreat to a gilded prison in a foreign country; but Pakistan could offer him the perfect face-saving solution while saving itself in the bargain: Pakistan should offer to make Bashar its president.

Oh, the unimaginative might be inclined to dismiss this idea out of hand, but its logic is compelling. With a single stroke, it would solve many of Syria’s problems, while simultaneously providing a key to the solution of South Asia’s most pressing and intractable difficulties.  

It might require some time to work out the details of a provisional post-Assad political arrangement in Syria, but there are a number of neighbors who could provide expert assistance. And yes, there might be some constitutional details to be worked out at the Pakistani end, but Pakistanis have always been adept at the constitutional manipulation necessary to deal with compelling exigencies. 

How useful it would be to have Bashar al-Assad … do the unpleasant but necessary work to actually carry out Pakistan state policy.

Perhaps the current crisis in relations with the US, replete with threats of military confrontation, would suffice to impose a temporary state of emergency. And surely things could be worked out with Pakistan’s current President Zardari. He doesn’t appear to much like his job, and he could easily remain the head of his party. 

How useful it would be to have Bashar al-Assad take the heat for a change, to do the unpleasant but necessary work to actually carry out Pakistan state policy. Having no real political base in the country, he would pose a long-term threat to no one. And as for the military, they could maintain the veneer of civilian rule while dealing with the sort of strongman who would command their respect.

The Americans would no doubt react initially to this proposal with shock and outrage. They can be so tiresomely sanctimonious.

But they would soon come around to realise the value of a Pakistan which can actually control militant groups which otherwise threaten to plunge the region into a wider war, and which can back up its demands for inclusion in an Afghan settlement process with the ability to deliver its clients in the end.

Alas, it is unlikely that those involved will have the courage and perspicacity to implement this scheme. But if Pakistanis are unwilling or incapable of implementing their long-standing policies competently, they may just have to re-think the wisdom of their present course.

In the meantime, gentle readers, remember: You heard it here first.  

Robert Grenier is a retired, 27 year veteran of the CIA’s Clandestine Service. He was Director of the CIA’s Counter-Terrorism Center from 2004-2006.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.          


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