Ever since the US occupation of Afghanistan began almost 10 years ago two fictions, common in nuclear families, have dominated the discussion on American-Pakistan relations. The first is that neither side is fully aware of what the other is doing; the second is that a total breakdown of the relationship is imminent.
As long as the Pentagon bankrolls the Pakistan army to fight its wars and NATO troops remain in Afghanistan there will be quarrels, charges of infidelity, a reduction in the household allowance, perhaps a separation – but a divorce? Never. The cash-arms nexus is crucial to this most recent phase of the AmPak relationship. In return, as WikiLeaks revealed, Washington defines the rules of the marriage. It drones the country, it violates its sovereignty, its agents kill citizens on public highways. International law is arbitrary and Pakistan’s latest response suitably mild: the expulsion of 100 US army special trainers.
It is in this context that the US government’s threat this week to reduce military aid by $800m (a third of the total annual payment) will hurt, but not too much. General Ashfaq Kayani, the military chief, has been contemptuous of the cuts in aid. Why not give the same amount for civilian purposes, he wondered aloud, knowing full well that any money on this scale given to the Zardari government would end up abroad.
Figures released by Transparency International claim a rise in corruption from 195bn rupees (£1.42bn) in 2009 to 223bn rupees (£1.62bn) last year, but these are an obvious understatement since most of the corrupt deals are conducted without paperwork and many involve the accumulation of valuable property at knockdown prices.
Cronyism and protection rackets have made Karachi, the country’s largest city, a war zone, with rival gangs affiliated to rival political groups. More people died in Karachi last year than in Waziristan or as a result of Afghan war-linked suicide terrorism. The social fabric of the country is being torn apart and an implosion is inevitable.
The AmPak marriage goes back to the 1950s, but was given an enormous boost when the Soviet Union occupied the country in the 1980s. The Pakistan army became a conduit for western support to the mujahideen. The Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate (ISI) expanded beyond its wildest dreams and acquired a relative autonomy by dealing directly with the US and the mujahideen. That is when every single group currently fighting AmPak was created to the hosannas of western governments and media. The Afghan war currently under way has not been a happy experience for either side. The Pakistan army was compelled after 9/11 to roll back its only military triumph: the capture of Kabul with the Taliban guerrillas it had trained. The links created over 20 years were less easily broken. It is simpler for powerful empires to execute a 180-degree turn than for the vassal state.
That there is real tension between large chunks of the Pakistan army and the US is indisputable. This has existed ever since the Pentagon called on its Pakistani friends to clear out the AfPak border zone of “militants and terrorists”, and came to a head with the Abbottabad incident and the video-recorded execution of Osama bin Laden.
At a stormy meeting of corp commanders younger generals reported that the high command was getting isolated within the army. If the US goes hunting again to kill more people in the country, tensions could reach breaking point. The fact that the command structures in the Pakistan army have held firm over the years should not be taken as a permanent guarantee. A quick NATO exit from Afghanistan is the only basis to stabilise Pakistan.