Feuding allies

Published : Nov 04, 2011 00:00 IST

Disengaging with Pakistan is not an option for the U.S., which is trying to find a way out of the Afghan quagmire and the war on terror.

in Islamabad

SINCE the beginning of this year, the United States and Pakistan have seemingly worked overtime at living up to the reputation of being in a bad marriage. Probably it is the realisation that the two countries are in this relationship for better or for worse, as the marital vow goes, that makes both test the limits of each other's patience and tolerance time and again.

After all, what did the U.S. gain from the public rap on the knuckles that both its civil and military machinery delivered Pakistan in the second fortnight of September? If it was to name and shame Pakistan, what can be more mortifying than to have a foreign force kill and take away the body of the world's most wanted man, Osama bin Laden, from the heart of the country practically the backyard of the military academy of a country where the military still calls the shots?

Moreover, has not the U.S. parroted the Pakistan-must-do-more line way too often with little effect to know by now that such public arm-twisting does not get the desired results. If anything, it works to the contrary. For the second time in five months, Pakistan's political class rallied behind the security establishment and even those who posed tough questions to the Chief of Army Staff and the Director General of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) at the All Parties Conference (APC) ultimately signed on the dotted line when a resolution was drafted in response to the most severe indictment by Washington.

According to a Pakistan People's Party (PPP) official privy to the thinking that went into the resolution, what the U.S. managed to do with its allegations regarding Pakistan's institutional links with terrorist outfits was to force the government to reconsider its ownership of the war on terror. Former President Pervez Musharraf made Pakistan a front-line ally of the U.S. in its war on terror, but it was the PPP that took ownership of this war and asserted that it is our war' also, the official pointed out.

APC resolution

Though the government has not yet gone as far as to disown the war, the APC resolution was telling. There was not one mention of the words terrorism and militancy, which are the preferred words used to describe acts of terror except when security personnel are killed. John Lennon's anthem of the anti-Vietnam war movement, Give peace a chance, became the clarion call of the APC, with the political class deciding to offer talks first to terrorist outfits willing to decommission and take action only in case the dialogue option fails.

This has been received with a fair amount of scepticism. While Farhat Taj, author of Taliban and Anti-Taliban, wrote in Daily Times that this implies that there will be no fundamental shift in the foreign policy or national interests as perceived by the security establishment, the dominant apprehension has been that that this may go the way of past deals. In the past, when the state pursued peace deals, the militants took advantage of the space offered to them and strengthened their networks and extended their area of control, leaving a much fiercer fight to be fought later, said The Dawn's editorial.

So, on balance, what the U.S. got in hand for its diatribe against Pakistan was a politically backed decision to accommodate those who have been killing people on both sides of the Durand Line and pushing for the Talibanisation' of Afghanistan and Pakistan. The first to welcome the offer was Maulvi Faqir Muhammad, the deputy commander of the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, but on the condition that the Islamic Shariat be imposed in Pakistan, and Islamabad reconsider its links with Washington.

This confirmed the apprehensions of those sceptical of the Give peace a chance' line. Moreover, with Washington marginally toning down its rhetoric in a bid to assuage frayed Pakistani nerves while still playing the good-cop-bad-cop routine, the powers that be in Islamabad began claiming victory in what was billed by some sections of the media as a make-or-break situation. So much so that these media networks seemed to be baying for blood in anticipation of a war with the U.S., though security experts on both ends of the spectrum were unanimous that a direct confrontation was something neither country could afford. And that was no secret.

Bereft of choices

What became clear as the American recriminations peaked was that Washington was not exactly spoilt for choice. Moreover, former Joint Chiefs of Staff Mike Mullen who was the sharpest critic of Pakistan from the American side made it clear in his damning testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Afghanistan and Iraq that disengaging with Islamabad was not an option for Washington.

Despite deep personal disappointments in the decisions of the Pakistani military and government, I still believe that we must stay engaged. This is because while Pakistan is part of the problem in the region, it must also be part of the solution. A flawed and strained engagement with Pakistan is better than disengagement. We have completely disengaged in the past. That disengagement failed and brings us where we are today, Mullen said after naming the Haqqani network as the veritable arm of the ISI''. In the past, Washington only referred to elements in the security establishment as being supportive of terrorists, but this time it named the ISI in no uncertain terms.

Smarting over the accusations, Prime Minister Syed Yusuf Raza Gilani threw back the do-more phrase at the U.S.; he pointed out that Pakistan had done a lot in the war on terror and it was now the turn of the U.S. to make sacrifices. His Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar she was in the U.S. through the week of high rhetoric to attend the United Nations General Assembly sessions sought to remind Washington that it was partly responsible for the creation of the Haqqani network. The sum and substance of the Pakistani response to the U.S. accusations was that Islamabad could not be held responsible for the American failure to bring a semblance of normalcy in Afghanistan.

Referring to the terrorist attacks on its border posts from Afghanistan, Islamabad argued that even if the U.S. accusations regarding safe havens in Pakistan were true, that still did not explain how terrorists managed to get right up to Kabul or Wardak, where five Afghans were killed and 77 U.S. soldiers wounded in a truck bomb attack on September 10 despite a sizable troop presence all along the way.

Pakistan's Ambassador to the U.S., Hussain Haqqani, has been quoted as saying to the American media that the problem is of two competing narratives both simplistic and one-sided. He said: The Pakistani narrative is American betrayals. The American narrative is Pakistan's untrustworthiness. One has to see what one can do to reconcile the narratives.

Porous border

Both sides also overplay their indispensability to the other: Washington the aid it gives to Pakistan plus the leverage it has with the international community, including many of the Arab governments, and Islamabad the geographical location of Pakistan. The porous nature of the Durand Line through which divided tribes and their families have been allowed the right to move back and forth under the legal rubric of easement rights' means that there is always the lurking fear in the U.S. mindscape of a non-cooperative Pakistan pushing terrorists into Afghanistan through the 2,640-kilometre-long border that divides the two countries.

A card that Pakistan tends to overplay is the land route it offers to non-military supplies for the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan. In the summer of 2010, nearly 70 per cent of such supplies used to be ferried over land in trucks from Karachi to the Durand Line. But a series of attacks by militants on these trucks during repeated stand-offs between Islamabad and Washington forced the U.S. and its allies to look for alternative routes. Today, the bulk of the supplies is being moved in to Afghanistan through the Northern Distribution Network a series of commercially based logistical arrangements connecting the Baltic and Caspian ports with Afghanistan through Russia, Central Asia and the Caucasus. Now only 35 per cent of supplies to U.S. troops in Afghanistan go through Pakistan and this is expected to be scaled down further by the year-end.

If Pakistan has been found wanting in taking action against the Haqqani network and can be accused of speaking with a forked tongue on terrorism, Washington's policy also shows no clarity. That comes out not just in what former U.S. special envoy and Ambassador to Afghanistan Peter Tomsen referred to as the George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations' soft policy of persuasion mixed with bountiful aid but also in the failure to place the three main Afghan Taliban groups Quetta Shura, Haqqani network and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar's Hezb-i-Islami on the U.S. State Department's official list of foreign terrorist organisations.

As of now only Mullah Omar of Quetta Shura and Sirajuddin Haqqani of the Haqqani network have been placed on the Department's Rewards for Justice list, with the former carrying a prize of up to $10 million on his head and the latter up to $5 million. Now, in the wake of the recent spate of high optics attacks in Afghanistan including the 20-hour-long siege of the U.S. Embassy and headquarters of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation in Kabul on September 13 the U.S. has set in motion the process of listing the Haqqani network. Pakistan also questions the U.S. policy of wanting it to go after the Haqqani network while helping out in the reconciliation process. Islamabad's stated contention is that the Haqqani network has never trained its guns on Pakistan and so it would rather not open up another front. Besides, Islamabad's fear is that the U.S. by wanting to eliminate the Haqqani network is actually trying to elbow Pakistan out of the negotiations to decide on the governance equation in Kabul after 2014.

Involving the Taliban

The opinion of the foreign policy elite of Pakistan is that only a truly inclusive government in Kabul can usher in an era of relatively efficient and stable governance in Afghanistan. This was articulated in a recent joint study titled Pakistan, the United States and the End Game in Afghanistan conducted by the Jinnah Institute and the United States Institute of Peace (USIP) on the perceptions of Pakistan's foreign policy elite.

According to this study, some in the foreign policy elite were of the view that a sustainable arrangement in Kabul would necessarily require the main Taliban factions particularly Quetta Shura and the Haqqani network to be part of the new political arrangement. The preference for an inclusive government in Kabul, they pointed out, was reflective of the fact that the Pakistani security establishment had given up its policy of the late 1990s when it saw the Taliban as an instrument of Pakistan's regional agenda.

While the two governments spar, analysts in both countries agree that the reconciliation process is going to be a long haul; not only because the Taliban is yet to reveal its hand but because the prolonged military operations in Afghanistan have resulted in the splintering of the Taliban to the extent that there is no one voice representing all the factions. It has become all the more difficult to negotiate because no one is clear on whom to talk to. This is going to require us to keep our wits about us, said Brian Katulis, a senior fellow at the Centre for American Progress.

Given the ground realities and the political compulsions on the domestic front in each country, the USIP's Moeed Yusuf is of the view that it is time both governments acknowledged that they are operating in an environment marked by duplicity for all and then work their way together through the quagmire that is Afghanistan. Presenting an either-or situation in The Dawn, he wrote: A breakdown in ties will be followed by inevitable proxy conflicts among the interested regional actors a perfect recipe to send Afghanistan into the abyss.

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