Wednesday 06 Oct 2021 | 13:39 | SYDNEY
Wednesday 06 Oct 2021 | 13:39 | SYDNEY

Pakistan: A conversation with Steve Coll

20 April 2012 10:16

Alicia Mollaun, a PhD candidate at the ANU, is based in Islamabad. For her research on US-Pakistan relations, she met with Pulitzer Prize winner Steve Coll, author of 'Ghost Wars' and 'The Bin Ladens'.

To say that Pakistan has problems is an understatement. A quick glance at any sector of Pakistan — economic, political, social, security, or foreign policy — reveals a plethora of challenges. According to Steve Coll (pictured), Pakistan needs to prioritise the consolidation of democracy to get out of the quagmire. 'Pakistan is not going to meet its challenges if it continues to vacillate between military rule and civilian rule'. 

One of the key criticisms of the civilian government is that it is corrupt, incompetent and has done little to better the lives of ordinary Pakistanis. Coll argues civilian government is never going to be a 'panacea' but that we should be satisfied with 'enough' in Pakistan. 'The country requires "enough" – it doesn't need great government, obviously, because it is getting along OK without it.' Pakistan just needs people and policy that is good enough for the country's social, political and economic situation. 

Many Pakistanis I have spoken with echo this sentiment with respect to government and leadership. They argue that they don't need someone perfect; they just need someone good enough. Coll thinks this is why Pakistanis are rallying behind Imran Khan. 'Not because they think he is a Nelson Mandela or a Barack Obama in terms of his understanding of politics or communication or policy...but because he is good enough. Lord knows it wouldn't take much to do better.'

While a doctrine of 'enough' is unlikely to see Pakistan's economic or security problems improve immediately, having better governance, stronger civil society and a civilian government that strives for a better Pakistan will see it start back on the path towards rebuilding and growth. For the US and the West, this is undoubtedly preferable to the muddling through that defines the current government.

What does the US want from Pakistan? Coll's response gets to the nub of the problem:

I am not sure the United States knows what it wants. It is in the process of trying to think through how to reset its priorities. Since 2001, American policy in Pakistan has been in the midst of transition – from a near total myopic focus on what the Bush Administration defined as the ‘war on terror’, to a policy in the Obama Administration, which never really broke the narrative because of the emphasis on the outcome of its investments in Afghanistan. So now there is a third phase, post-Afghanistan, that is evolving. Since we have had the illusion scraped from our eyes, a clean question emerges — what is our durable relationship? What do we now want to reset around?

This lack of clear purpose in Pakistan has arguably been one of Washington's biggest policy follies over the past decade. The Pakistanis have always been unclear what the US wants, and the lack of agreements in writing have allowed both sides to shirk responsibilities. A recent unanimously approved parliamentary review of relations with the US recommended that all verbal agreements regarding national security should cease to have effect.

Coll is critical of Washington's favouritism of military over civilian institutions:

The security crisis that Pakistan generates is so acute and so dangerous that they require deviation from the norms of American foreign policy. Investments in the Pakistan military have proven to be, rather than stabilizing, actually destabilizing...this habit and line of policy that is so easy to get into when you have a lot at stake, which is that 'only the military can deliver', we need to reexamine it.

The reset in the bilateral relationship brought about by Pakistan's parliamentary review may not dramatically change US-Pakistan relations in the lead-up to America's 2014 Afghanistan withdrawal. Pakistan has renewed momentum in the relationship and views itself as vital to any kind of political reconciliation in Afghanistan, which thus makes it vital to the US. 

Yet Pakistan's policy of playing both sides of the NATO-Taliban divide has not diminished as the US military draw-down nears. This dangerous hedge on the part of Pakistan's military establishment is designed to spread Pakistan's tentacles of influence and to contain Indian aspirations for a dominant role in a post-US Afghanistan. After Coll's latest trip to Pakistan in February 2012, he reflected that Pakistan was winning the war:

I don't know how much of it is side deals and paying people off and pointing people to kill Americans in Afghanistan, but they are managing it. It just happens that NATO is on the losing end of Pakistani counterinsurgency policy in ways that weren’t supposed to be when you are partners.

So where to from here? Coll considers that, over the next 10 to 20 years, both sides could find enough mutual understanding to restore a sense of normalcy or stability in what has always been a tense relationship. Above all, the US needs to stop caring about what Pakistanis think about it, because what Pakistan thinks about the US doesn't matter. 

It shouldn't be a priority of the US to win over Pakistani public opinion. It should be a priority that Pakistan succeeds. The United States needs Pakistan to not be wracked by internal violence, not be so insecure that it is building this crazy, 1950s style Dr Strangelove atomic machine that it is going to lose control of someday. The only way that nuclear machine is going to be stopped is if a civilian government takes power over the Army’s security policy and comes to its senses about where Pakistan’s true long-term security interests really lie.

And that comes back to the doctrine of 'enough'. America doesn't need Pakistan to transform overnight, but just to feel secure enough to concentrate on making better political, security and economic choices.

Photo by Flickr user CSIS