Friday, April 17, 2009

THE TASTE OF GRASS

By

SUSHANT SAREEN

    Many years ago, when the Americans tried to dissuade the Pakistanis from developing a nuclear bomb, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto declared that Pakistanis will eat grass but have the bomb. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan overnight transformed Pakistan into a frontline state against communist expansionism. The US found it expedient to turn a blind eye to Pakistan's nuclear program in return for using Pakistan as the staging post for setting up a bear trap for the Soviets in Afghanistan. This allowed Pakistan to become a nuclear weapon state without having to develop a taste for grass.

Today, once again, many strategists in Pakistan are convinced that they indispensible for the US in its War on Terror. They advocate that Pakistan needs to use its pivotal position to not only dictate terms to the US but also squeeze the Americans to cough up the billions of dollars needed to keep Pakistan afloat. According to these people, Pakistan should negotiate with the US from a position of strength and not as a supplicant. Pakistan they feel is ideally placed to extract concessions from the US on Kashmir, on a civilian nuclear deal similar to the one signed with India, on a Marshall plan type economic reconstruction program, on consulting with Pakistan on the future political setup in Afghanistan, on limiting the Indian presence in Afghanistan, and on providing Pakistan with the latest in military technology. The Pakistanis even want a say on the manner in which the US is conducting its war efforts, more so when it comes to US drone strikes on terrorist targets inside Pakistani territory.

    Propelling this list of demands is the conviction that the US is in such dire straits in the Af-Pak region that it will concede to most, if not all, of Pakistan's demands. All that is required is a bit of tough bargaining backed by a little brinkmanship which includes stopping US logistics supply through Pakistan, withdrawal of air bases and other facilities like over-flight rights and if necessary, shooting down the US drones. And the biggest trump card that Pakistan holds, or so they believe, is the threat to disengage from the US-led war.

    Clearly, by trying to play hardball on its continued cooperation in the War on Terror, Pakistan is playing a dangerous game of poker and that too with a country that invented this game. But what the Pakistanis have not calculated are the consequences of the US calling its bluff? What if the US actually decides to withdraw from the region and tackle the Islamist menace in a more indirect, and insidious manner?

Contrary to what most Pakistanis think, a US pullout from the region will not restore peace and order in the region. Unless the Pakistanis are looking forward to the Taliban type of peace (of the graveyard!), the reality is that if the Americans leave, Pakistan will collapse like a house of cards. To be sure, terrorism, or if you will, talibanisation will not end with US withdrawal. Instead a US withdrawal will embolden the Islamists into going all out to capture control of the Pakistani state. After all, after having forced two superpowers to concede defeat, the Islamists will naturally see Pakistan as ripe for the picking, especially since the Pakistan army seems to have no stomach for fighting the Taliban. What are the chances of the Pakistanis being able to withstand the onslaught of the Taliban? Or will they simply fold up and allow the Taliban to take control of the country?

Even if the Pakistanis succeed in keeping the Taliban at bay, what will become of the Pakistani economy without the American aid? Can Pakistan realistically expect to stay afloat without American and, by extension, Western assistance? And what are the chances that the Americans, after being forced out of the region by Pakistan and nursing the wounds of a war gone wrong in part because of real and/or imagined Pakistani perfidy, will not turn the economic screws real tight on Pakistan? In the event, are the Pakistanis ready to develop a taste for grass? Or is it the case that the Pakistani strategists advocating defiance of the US are hallucinating under the effects of grass (of the smoking variety) and are therefore unable to distinguish between smoking grass and eating grass.

Perhaps the Pakistanis are banking upon their all weather friend China taking care of them. May be they are depending on the Islamic bloc, especially Saudi Arabia, to bail them out. But can hand-outs from the Chinese and Saudis mitigate the pain that a break with the US will inflict on Pakistan? It is important not to forget that while the Chinese have never denied the Pakistanis anything, they have always charged a price for everything. What is more, these days the Chinese have been pretty tight-fisted in giving budgetary support to Pakistan.

The Saudis, on the other hand have ostensibly given lunch after free lunch to the Pakistanis either in the form of free oil, or by supplying oil on deferred payment which is the same as giving free oil since the deferred payments weren't expected to be ever realised. In addition, the Saudis often underwrote Pakistan's budget. But being great tradesmen, surely the Saudis must expect something in return. It couldn't have been just Islamic solidarity that made the Saudis open their coffers to the Pakistanis. Dark, but unsubstantiated, rumours suggest a nuke angle to the Pakistan-Saudi relationship. In any case, today even the Saudis appear cut up with the ruling dispensation in Pakistan. Some suggest that this is because the Saudis don't want to bail out President Asif Zardari because he is a Shia, and would like to see him replaced by the Sunni Nawaz Sharif. Whatever the reason, the Saudi refusal to come to Pakistan's assistance means that the US has become indispensible for Pakistan's economic survival.

While preaching defiance in newspaper columns, public speeches and TV talk shows is very popular, indeed sexy, practising defiance is a totally different ball game. Defiance becomes even more difficult for a people who not only are used to living beyond their means, but also wear it as a badge of honour. Talk of defiance doesn't sit well with hand-stitched Armani suits, Rolex watches, Bally shoes, imported cigarettes, bullet-proof BMWs, expensive SUVs, holidays in Europe, sending children to universities in US, UK, and Australia, keeping apartments in London's Park Lane, villas in the French Riviera, shopping in Dubai and Singapore, the list is endless.

Other than the Taliban, who have a very low level of living, very little requirements, and an almost primitive lifestyle, how many well-heeled Pakistanis are ready to surrender all their creature comforts and undergo the hardship and make the sacrifices that defiance inevitably entails. Perhaps the Pakistani ashrafia (elite) is taking comfort from the Iranian example where the Bazaris who supported the ayatollahs defiance of the US did not see much of a change in their life-styles. But Iran had oil. What does Pakistan have except its nuclear arsenal? And if the Pakistanis try to use this as a negotiating tool, will the international community bite?

Unless the Pakistanis realise the horrendous repercussions of defiance, and take all the measures that they should be taking to slay the monsters of fanaticism that they have themselves created, they will probably end up eating grass. There are no easy options left. Pakistan can either extend unflinching cooperation to the US, or else develop a taste for grass.

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    <1250 Words>                    17th April, 2009

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