Australia's Unhappy Marriage to Pakistan

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By Greg Sheridan

One of John Howard's greatest strengths as a national security prime minister was that he was the ultimate hardhead. He had no illusions. Instead he had an almost Lee Kuan Yew-like distrust of flamboyance of any kind. But there was one partial exception. Howard fell for the oleaginous Pakistani dictator Pervez Musharraf. They had a kind of Sam Browne belt connection. Musharraf played on all the right heartstrings for Howard: the commonwealth, cricket, Howard's under-remarked love of the subcontinent and tough talk on the war on terror.

But Musharraf was a double dealer. To mix the metaphors, he walked both sides of the street. He pretended to be an ally of the US, and Australia, in the war on terror, and to some extent he was. But elements of his military kept facilitating terrorist attacks on India and, covertly, kept offering a degree of support to the Taliban in Afghanistan. I was several times staggered that Howard could sit through a litany of Musharraf's lies and come out the other end praising him for his courage in the fight against terror.

Ultimately, reality imposed itself. Australian soldiers died in Afghanistan because of the sanctuary the Taliban got in Musharraf's Pakistan. So Howard wrote to Musharraf asking for better co-operation on the border. Our senior uniformed people made those same requests to their Pakistani counterparts.

I shouldn't be too hard on Howard, however, because really there was not much alternative.

Pakistan presents almost the classical ideal of the divided state, where part of the state is against the terrorists and part of it is in league with the terrorists. The West's bind is that it can't let go of the part of the state that co-operates, for fear of the even worse guys taking full power.

The Rudd Government is now reprising the failed policies of the Howard government towards Pakistan. In saying that, I am not particularly criticising the Rudd Government because I don't think it has any real alternative. Pakistan is like marriage: there is no solution.

Foreign Minister Stephen Smith is just back from Pakistan and this week made an important ministerial statement about Australian policy towards Islamabad. We are increasing virtually all forms of civil and even military aid. We are bringing more Pakistani officers to train, not least in counterinsurgency, in Australia.

In his statement, Smith calls on Pakistan to make sure it doesn't sponsor terrorism against India, to shut down Lashkar-e-Toiba terrorist networks that operate in the country, to make a better effort against the Taliban and to improve its security across the Pakistani-Afghan border.

These are absolutely the right things for Smith to say and the right policies for Australia to pursue.

When discussing the very vexed issue of nuclear proliferation, Smith makes this key judgment: "As on other difficult issues, close engagement with Pakistan on counter-proliferation is, in Australia's view, the best way of making progress."

There Smith is expressing the Howard conundrum: if we don't work with the Government of Pakistan, then who do we work with?

Another judgment of Smith's is less clear. He stated: "(Pakistani) President (Asif) Zardari made it clear that the threat of militancy in the border region (with Afghanistan) is not just a danger to Afghanistan but a threat to Pakistan itself, which threatens the existence of the Pakistani state."

I've no doubt Zardari said that to Smith and no doubt that in some perverse way Zardari means it. And I don't want to misrepresent Smith, who certainly didn't gush about his Pakistani interlocutors in the way Howard sometimes gushed about Musharraf.

But those of us not required to observe the diplomatic niceties of government enjoy the great liberty of being able to look at the facts.

What are the facts about Pakistan at the same time as we are increasing our aid to it and hoping, once more, that this time it is really, really serious about countering the extremism, incompetence and corruption that is eating its own society? First, the Pakistan Government has made a deal, in part with the Taliban, to allow the imposition of full sharia law in the Swat Valley, which is very near to the capital, Islamabad. That should at least reduce Pakistan's education bill, as one of the Taliban's chief grievances with the world is girls going to school. In the Swat Valley, the Pakistani army will no longer contest control with extremists and in turn the extremists will not kill members of the Pakistani army.

As Smith noted in his ministerial statement, these deals have not worked in the past. They have always unravelled but only after allowing the extremists a good chance to consolidate, to enjoy rest and recreation, to rearm and reorganise themselves. Meanwhile, the hapless Pakistani army, dreaming of tank battles against India, does not know whether it is fighting the Taliban or embracing it.

At the same time, Zardari's Government has released from the ludicrously unrestrictive house arrest he formerly enjoyed one A.Q. Khan. Khan is the former boss of Pakistan's nuclear efforts. He is without question the single greatest proliferator of nuclear weapons technology to rogue states in the history of the human race. He sold nuclear weapons technology to allcomers.

Part of the implausible story Musharraf used to tell was that Khan did this without the knowledge of the Pakistani military. Now Zardari has formalised Khan's status not as the most shameful and globally destructive criminal Pakistan has produced but as the hero of thenation. At the same time Zardari's Government, champion of democracy, has convinced the Supreme Court to rule its most forceful democratic opponent, Nawaz Sharif, ineligible to stand for election because of previous criminal convictions, a rule that could apply just as well to Zardari himself.

Similarly, Pakistan has done no more than round up the usual suspects after India provided it with incontrovertible proof of Pakistani complicity in November's Mumbai terrorist massacres.

The real relationship between the Pakistani military and the civilian Government was demonstrated when Islamabad offered to send the head of its Inter-Services Intelligence to India for consultations on fighting terrorism, only to have that trip overruled by the military, which decided it would be beneath its dignity to engage in such consultations.

One of the real tragedies of the Musharraf interlude was not just that he was a dictator but that he was an incompetent dictator. He didn't deliver anything to Pakistan in exchange for subverting its democracy. He took $12 billion in US aid to fight the terrorists and god alone knows what happened to that money.

Now Pakistan's democrats are demonstrating all over again just why the military intervened in the first place.

Australian government policy towards Pakistan is probably the only policy Canberra could pursue: engagement, assistance and blind hope. Almost certainly, however, it won't work.

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