Monday, November 24, 2008

Pakistanis Fear U.S. Collision with Neighboring Enemies

Pakistanis Fear U.S. Collision with Neighboring Enemies

By Jane Perlez

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A redrawn map of South Asia has been making the rounds among Pakistani elites. It shows their country truncated, reduced to an elongated sliver of land with the big bulk of India to the east, and an enlarged Afghanistan to the west.

That the map was first circulated as a theoretical exercise in some American neoconservative circles matters little here. It has fueled a belief among Pakistanis, including members of the armed forces, that what the United States really wants is the breakup of Pakistan, the only Muslim country with nuclear arms.

"One of the biggest fears of the Pakistani military planners is the collaboration between India and Afghanistan to destroy Pakistan," said a senior Pakistani government official involved in strategic planning, who insisted on anonymity as per diplomatic custom. "Some people feel the United States is colluding in this."

That notion may strike Americans as strange coming from an ally of 50 years. But as the incoming Obama administration tries to coax greater cooperation from Pakistan in the fight against militancy, it can hardly be ignored.

This is a country where years of weak governance have left ample room for conspiracy theories of every kind. But like much such thinking anywhere, what is said frequently reveals the tender spots of a nation's psyche. Educated Pakistanis sometimes say that they are paranoid, but add that they believe they have good reason.

Pakistan, a 61-year-old country marbled by ethnic fault lines, is a collection of just four provinces, which often seem to have little in common. Virtually every one of its borders, drawn almost arbitrarily in the last gasps of the British Empire, is disputed with its neighbors, not least Pakistan's bitter and much larger rival, India.

These facts and the insecurities that flow from them inform many of Pakistan's disagreements with the United States, including differences over the need to rein in militancy in the form of Al Qaeda and the Taliban.

The new democratically elected president, Asif Ali Zardari, has visited the United States twice since assuming power three months ago. He has been generous in his praise of the Bush administration. But that stance is criticized at home as fawning and wins him little popularity among a steadfastly anti-American public.

So how will the promise by President-elect Barack Obama for a new start between the United States and Pakistan be received here? How can it be begun?

One possibility could be some effort to ease Pakistani anxieties, even as the United States demands more from Pakistan. That will probably mean a regional approach to what, it is increasingly apparent, are regional problems. There, Pakistani and American interests may coincide.

American military commanders, including General David Petraeus, have started to argue forcefully that the solution to the conflict in Afghanistan, where the American war effort looks increasingly uncertain, must involve a wide array of neighbors.

Obama has said much the same. Several times in his campaign, he laid out the crux of his thinking. Reducing tensions between Pakistan and India would allow Pakistan to focus on the real threat the Qaeda and Taliban militants who are tearing at the very fabric of the country.

"If Pakistan can look towards the east with confidence, it will be less likely to believe its interests are best advanced through cooperation with the Taliban," Obama wrote in Foreign Affairs magazine last year.

But such an approach faces sizable obstacles, the biggest being the conflict over Kashmir. The Himalayan border area has been disputed since the partition of India and Pakistan in 1947, and remains divided between them.

Pakistan's army and intelligence agencies have long fought a proxy war with India by sponsoring militant groups to terrorize the Indian-administered part of the territory.

After the 9/11 attacks, Pakistan reined in those militants for a time, but this year the militants have renewed their incursions. Talks between the sides made some progress in recent years but have petered out.

Pakistanis warn that the United States should not appear too eager to mediate. First, they caution, India has always regarded Kashmir as a bilateral question. India, they note, also faces a general election early next year, an inappropriate moment to push such an explosive issue.

Second, some Pakistanis are concerned about the reliability of the United States as a fair mediator. "Given the United States' record on the Palestinian issue, where the Palestinians had to move 10 times backwards and the Israelis moved the goal posts, the same could happen here," said Zubair Khan, a former commerce minister who has watched Kashmir closely.

It was discouraging, Khan said, that the United States ignored the importance of the huge nonviolent protests by Muslims in Kashmir against Indian rule this summer. "Anywhere else, and they would have been hailed as an Orange Revolution," he said, referring to the wave of protests that led to a change in the Ukrainian government in 2004.

Such distrust has been exacerbated by what Pakistanis see as the Bush administration's tilt toward India.

Exhibit A for the Pakistanis is India's nuclear deal with the United States, which allows India to engage in nuclear trade even though it never joined the global Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. Pakistan, with its recent history of spreading nuclear technology, received no comparable bargain.

The nuclear deal was devised in Washington to position India as a strategic counterbalance to China. That is how it is seen in Pakistan, too, but with no enthusiasm.

"The United States has changed the whole nuclear order by this deal, and in doing so is containing China, the only friend Pakistan has in the region," said Talat Masood, a retired Pakistani army general.

Further, Pakistan is upset about the advances India is making in Afghanistan, with no checks from the United States, Masood said.

India has recently made big investments in Afghanistan, where Pakistan has been competing for influence. These include a road to the Iranian border that will eventually give India access to the Iranian port of Chabahar, circumventing Pakistan.

India has offered training for Afghanistan's military, given assistance for a new Parliament building in Kabul and has re-opened consulates along the border with Pakistan.

The consulates, the Pakistanis charge, are used by India as cover to lend support to a long-running separatist movement in Baluchistan Province. (Baluchistan was even made an independent state on the theoretical map, which accompanied an article by Ralph Peters titled "Blood Borders: How a Better Middle East Would Look," originally published in Armed Forces Journal.)

Both India and Pakistan in fact have a long and destructive history of, gently or not, putting in the knife. Exhibit A for the Indians is the bombing in July of its embassy in Afghanistan, which American and Indian officials say can be traced to groups linked to Pakistan's spy agency.

If the Obama administration is indeed to convince Pakistanis that militancy, not the Indian Army, presents the gravest threat, it will not be easy.

The commander of American forces in Afghanistan, General David McKiernan, got a taste of the challenge this month, when he visited Islamabad and sat down with a group of about 70 members of Pakistan's Parliament at the residence of the United States ambassador, Anne Patterson. Their attitude showed an almost total incomprehension of the reasons for American behavior in the region after Sept. 11, 2001.

"A couple of the questions I got were, 'Why did you Americans come to Afghanistan when it was so peaceful, before you got there?' " McKiernan recalled during an appearance at the Atlantic Council in Washington last week.

"Another one," he said, "was, 'We understand that you've invited a thousand Indian soldiers to serve in Afghanistan by Christmas.' "

There was no truth to the claim, he told the Pakistanis. "We have a lot of work to do," he told his audience in Washington.

Indeed, among ordinary Pakistanis, many still regard Al Qaeda more positively than the United States, polls find. Talk shows here often include arguments that the suicide bombings in Pakistan are payback for the Pakistani fighting an American war.

Some commentators suggest that the United States is actually financing the Taliban. The point is to tie down the Pakistani Army, they say, leaving the way open for the Americans to grab Pakistan's nuclear weapons.

Recently, in the officer's mess in Bajaur, the northern tribal region where the Pakistani Army is tied down fighting the militants, one officer offered his own theory: Osama bin Laden did not exist, he told a visiting journalist.

Rather, he was a creation of the Americans, who needed an excuse to invade Afghanistan and encroach on Pakistan.

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