A bill has already been introduced in the US Congress to cut aid to Pakistan, following the accusation that the Haqqani network has been functioning as a ‘veritable arm’ of the ISI in Afghanistan. Pakistan has retorted that such accusations will lead to the US losing Islamabad as an ally. What then if the alliance breaks up? What are the possible scenarios for US and Pakistan?
Question 1: Will Pakistan manage itself politically?
What would the break-up of US-Pakistan mean for Pakistan politically? Both the polity and the military have invested heavily in the US since 2001. Ever since Pakistan made a U-turn almost ten years ago (read Gen Musharraf’s memoirs), the present leadership has made substantial investments in US-Pakistan relations. While Nawaz Sharif and the leaders of religious political parties have opposed the US, the PPP initially led by Benazir Bhutto and now her husband Zardari have leaned completely towards the US.
If the US-Pakistan relationship breaks now, it will be a disaster for the PPP in particular. Facing the next general elections shortly, both the PML-N and the religious parties will target the PPP for taking Pakistan down a suicidal path along with the US. Given the prevalent anti-American sentiments in Pakistan, Nawaz Sharif, Imran Khan and the religious political parties should have a field day.
Will the PPP also join the bandwagon and sloganeer about being back-stabbed by the US? Perhaps. It would be a better strategy for the PPP to use the back-stabbing slogan than trying to defend its actions for going along with the US.
Question 2: Will the military shift the blame on the civilian government?
Pakistan’s military will be the worst hit if there is a break-up in US-Pakistan relations. Traditionally, the military derived its external support from the Pentagon and the White House, which was used by Rawalpindi to keep the political leadership inside Pakistan under its thumb. Today, this traditional support by the Pentagon and White House is fast evaporating. In fact, they are likely to be the primary reasons for the break-up.
The killing of Osama bin Laden and the anti-terrorist efforts by the Pakistani military has made many within Pakistan unhappy. The daring American raid well in Abbottabad, well within Pakistani territory, has made Pakistan’s military the most vulnerable in terms of public opinion. If there is complete public anger against the US within Pakistan, a substantial segment is angry against their own military as well, for colluding with the Americans and not protecting their own interests.
The military may well shift the blame on political leadership, and perhaps make Zardari and Gilani into scapegoats.
Question 3: Will Pakistan lean towards China?
While China may not want a failed Pakistan, it may not want to back its ally beyond a certain level either. Sino-US and Sino-Indian relations will certainly play a crucial role in determining the extent of Chinese support to Pakistan. Besides, the Chinese are also apprehensive of growing jihadi threats in the region, centered in Af-Pak.
While a section strongly believes China will come to Pakistan’s rescue, this sentiment needs to be probed. In what ways will the Chinese come to help Pakistan, and for what objectives? One, Sino-Pak nuclear relations may continue as Indo-US relations grow further, especially in the nuclear field. The growing Sino-Indian economic relations may perhaps dent the above collusion. On the economic side, Sino-Pak relations are unlikely to grow beyond a certain level. Bilateral trade between the two countries is insignificant. While China has invested substantially in Pakistan’s infrastructural projects, there is not much aid in hard cash. If Pakistan’s economy dovetails, how much Chinese support will keep it afloat? At the international level, the Chinese support to Pakistan may be issue-based.
Question 4: If cornered, will Pakistan turn against India?
If the US support is declining, along with that of the rest of the international community, and if Pakistan is facing increasing internal instability, will the strategic community blow up the Indian threat to keep the country united and revive global interest?
What will the non-state actors – of the Taliban and Lashkar varieties, do if Pakistan is unstable? Will the TTP see it as an opportunity and step up its attacks? Will the Lashkar get more space and revive its terror activities against India?
Question 5: Will the US place its boots on Pakistani soil?
If Pakistan becomes unstable or if there is a threat to regional stability (for Afghanistan and the American security forces from groups with bases east of the Durand) what will the US do? While the US has on many occasions threatened to send troops across into Pakistani soil, it is unlikely to be an easy option.
However the bigger question is what the US will do if there are dangers of Pakistan’s nuclear assets falling into the wrong hands, in the event of an unstable Pakistan. For precisely this reason, the US can be expected to muddle through.