U.S. marriage of inconvenience with Pakistan threatens to unravel

In the context of the crumbling relationship between the U.S. and Pakistan, Andrew Bacevich writes: A larger reorientation of U.S. policy is underway. Occurring in two spheres — the Greater Middle East and East Asia — that reorientation reduces Pakistan in Washington’s eyes to the status of strategic afterthought.

In the Greater Middle East — the geographic expanse in which the global war on terrorism has been largely waged — the Obama administration has now abandoned any pretense of liberating or pacifying or dominating the Islamic world. Through a campaign of targeted assassination (supplemented in the case of Iran with cyber attacks) the aim is now merely to keep adversaries off-balance in a never-ending game of whack-a-mole. In that context, Pakistan serves chiefly as a target-rich environment.

In East Asia, the Obama administration touts its proposed strategic “pivot” as the emerging centerpiece of U.S. national security policy. In Washington, however, “pivot” is a code word, translated by those in the know as “containing China.” The imperative of thwarting China’s perceived (but as yet indecipherable and perhaps undetermined) ambitions elevates the importance of India. In the eyes of aspiring Kissingers, an India aligned with the United States will check Chinese power just as aligning China with the United States once served to check Soviet power. Here too the effect is necessarily to render Pakistan, which views India as its mortal enemy, redundant.

Yet while a certain logic informs the coming U.S. abandonment of Pakistan, there are massive risks as well.

Pakistan is the most dangerous country in the world. (Go ahead: Plug that sentence into your search engine.) Mired in poverty, burdened with a dysfunctional government and weak institutions, dominated by deeply fearful military and intelligence establishments that have little regard for civilian control or democratic practice, it possesses one trump card: a formidable nuclear arsenal. A potential willingness to use that arsenal is what ultimately makes Pakistan so dangerous — and should give U.S. policymakers pause before they give that country the back of their hand, as the United States has done so many times before.

To the extent that foreign policy ends up figuring in the upcoming presidential election, Iran’s putative nuclear weapons program will probably attract some attention. OK, but that’s a potential bomb, not a real one. The bomb that will keep the next president up late is not the one that Iran may be building but the one that Pakistan already holds in readiness to use.

Meanwhile, the New York Times reports: Pakistan’s combative top judge made his most audacious foray into judicial activism yet on Tuesday, firing Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani, emptying the cabinet and forcing President Asif Ali Zardari to reset his fragile governing coalition.

Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry’s order was the culmination of a three-year transformation that has injected the once supine Supreme Court into the heart of Pakistan’s power equation. Yet in doing so, Justice Chaudhry has ventured deeply into the political fray, drawing accusations of partisan, even grudge-driven, prosecutions.

“This is a court that is determined to establish itself as a player to be respected and feared,” said Cyril Almeida, a political analyst with Dawn newspaper. “First it was elbows out, now it’s come out swinging — and it’s knocked out the prime minister.”

The true target of Justice Chaudhry’s order, though, may have been President Zardari. The two men have been at odds since 2009, when Mr. Zardari opposed Justice Chaudhry’s reinstatement. They have engaged in proxy combat through the courts ever since — indeed, Mr. Gilani’s dismissal stemmed directly from his refusal to heed court orders to pursue a corruption inquiry against the president.

Tuesday’s decision presented a blunt challenge to the president’s authority; one critic, the human rights campaigner and lawyer Asma Jahangir called it a “soft coup.” And its disruptive effects on his governing Pakistan Peoples Party could lead to a new round of national elections well ahead of their scheduled date next spring.

For Justice Chaudhry, the action also offered a convenient diversion from an awkward affair: less than a week ago, the judge found himself explaining his personal finances in court after a billionaire property developer with close ties to both the P.P.P. and the military came out with explosive corruption allegations against his family.

Now, those accusations, which damaged the judge’s anticorruption credentials and may have tarnished his populist appeal, are likely to be sidelined amid the fresh political maneuvering over his ruling on Tuesday.

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