High stakes

Published : Jun 05, 2009 00:00 IST

President Barack Obama, flanked by Afghan President Hamid Karzai and Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari, in the Cabinet Room of the White House in Washington on May 6.-GERALD HERBERT/AP

President Barack Obama, flanked by Afghan President Hamid Karzai and Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari, in the Cabinet Room of the White House in Washington on May 6.-GERALD HERBERT/AP

THE Afghanistan-Pakistan (Af-Pak) summit hosted by United States President Barack Obama in early May started on an ominous note. As soon as Afghan President Hamid Karzai and his Pakistani counterpart Asif Ali Zardari reached Washington, the news of the worst ever massacre of civilians by U.S. forces in Afghanistan started trickling in. The onslaught by Pakistans F-16 fighter planes in the restive tribal areas, currently under the sway of Taliban militants, resulted in many civilian deaths.

Both Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton were quick to express their deep sadness at the loss of civilian lives in Afghanistans western Farah province as they kick-started the tripartite conference. It was estimated that at least 200 people, most of them women and children, died in the missile attack on the village. Karzai, unlike on previous occasions when he minced no words in condemning attacks on civilian targets, was in a forgiving mood. He told the media in Washington that everybody in the U.S. had expressed regrets over the massacre.

In the preceding week, Kabul was rocked by video footage released by Al Jazeera showing U.S. soldiers proselytising Muslims. The channel broadcast pictures showing U.S. soldiers at the Bagram military base being told by the militarys top chaplain in the country to hunt people for Jesus. Specially printed Pashtu versions of the New Testament were shipped to the country. The U.S. military officially forbids proselytising of any religion, faith or practice. According to the Afghan Constitution, trying to convert Muslims into any other faith is a crime. Senior Afghan politicians, including former Prime Minister Ahmed Shah Ahmedzai, said that the incident would have an adverse impact on the ongoing fight against the Taliban and Al Qaeda.

The main focus of the Af-Pak summit was on projecting an image of unity among the three major actors in the war against the Taliban and its allies. The other important goal was to convince a sceptical American public and Congress to support the military surge ordered by Obama and help bail out the beleaguered governments in Kabul and Islamabad financially. The Obama administration has asked Congress to approve billions of dollars of additional aid for its two allies. Many influential Congressmen have aired their reluctance to throw more taxpayers money into what many view as a military quagmire. They have criticised the rampant corruption in Afghanistan and the shadowy links sections of the Pakistani establishment have with the extremists.

Those Congressmen supportive of the Af-Pak strategy are, however, keen to put new conditions. The Obama administration set aside a $1 billion emergency aid package to Pakistan, of which $400 million is earmarked for its military. However, soon after the conclusion of the Af-Pak summit, Congress approved a $1.9-billion aid package to Pakistan, significantly more than that officially requested by the administration. This amount includes aid for the million people displaced in counter-insurgency operations in the Swat valley.

The Obama administration has also proposed an additional $7.5 billion in economic aid for the next five years for Pakistan. It has told Congress that the aid will go to the civilian government and not to the military as was the case earlier. However, the Pakistan military will not be starved of U.S. largesse. The U.S. has signalled that it will go ahead with its proposal to disburse $3 billion to strengthen the counter-insurgency capacities of the Pakistan Army over the next five years. Defence Secretary Robert Gates said in late April that the administration would use its war-time powers to disburse the aid if legislative roadblocks cropped up. Obama, speaking to the media at the end of the three-day summit, stressed that the U.S. remained fully committed to supporting Afghanistan and Pakistan in their fight against their common enemy.

In a speech delivered during his trip, Karzai said that he would tell the Afghan people about the countrys renewed partnership with the U.S. Karzai, who will be contesting the presidential election scheduled to be held in August, said with remarkable candour that he stands for strengthened relationship with America, which means more money from America. Zardari was more diplomatic. He told the media that increased American aid would help consolidate democracy in the country and at the same time eradicate the scourge of terrorism. Pakistani democracy will deliver, the terrorists will be defeated by our joint struggle, he said.

Richard Holbrooke, Obamas special emissary to the region, told Congress ahead of the Af-Pak summit that U.S. help was absolutely crucial for Pakistan at this juncture. In his testimony to Congress, Holbrooke emphasised that Pakistan was not a failed state. He said it was a state under extreme threat from enemies, who are also our enemies. But American lawmakers are still to be fully convinced about the sincerity of the Pakistani security establishment. Before the Af-Pak summit, senior Pentagon officials openly discussed the unhelpful linkages between the Pakistan Army and the extremists in Afghanistan as well as in their own country.

At the same time, senior U.S. officials seem to have realistically concluded that the Pakistani security establishment does not view the Taliban as its major enemy. Many independent commentators are of the view that despite the ongoing events in the Swat valley, the Taliban does not pose a serious threat to the Pakistan Army, one of the strongest in the region. Hillary Clinton told Fox television that there was even a threat of the Taliban getting control of the keys to the nuclear arsenal of Pakistan. The Pakistan Army chief, General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, otherwise known for his reticence, issued a public statement criticising pronouncements by outside powers raising doubts about the future of the country.

The primary focus of the initial Af-Pak strategy was to stabilise Afghanistan militarily with greater political and military cooperation from Pakistan. But with insurgency mounting in Pakistan itself, Washington is re-evaluating the priorities. Before the Af-Pak summit, the U.S. National Security Council held a full-fledged meeting devoted to Pakistan in the last week of April. Obama held a separate meeting with his senior security officials to discuss the situation in Pakistan.

Senior U.S. officials are talking about reviving a proposal that would allow the U.S. to impart counter-insurgency training to Pakistani troops. Pakistan, so far, has not officially allowed U.S. soldiers to operate from its soil. According to reports in the American media, U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen, returning from his 11th trip to Pakistan in late April, told senior State Department officials that he was alarmed by the prevailing situation in that country.

Washington also wants Pakistan to move the bulk of its troops on the border with India and redeploy them on its border with Afghanistan where Taliban and Al Qaeda militants have their bases. The recent statement of Obama that the Pakistan Army has begun to realise that the Taliban posed a bigger threat to Pakistan than neighbouring India should be seen in this context.

You are starting to see some recognition that the obsession with India as the mortal threat to Pakistan has been misguided. The biggest threat now comes internally, he said.

The Pakistan Army has so far shifted only 6,000 troops from its borders with India out of the half a million stationed there. It still does not consider the Pashtun-dominated Taliban much of a threat. The Punjabi population far outnumbers the Pashtun minority in Pakistan. Islamabad came up near the Pashtun tribal areas. In the last week of April, the Chief of the Pakistan Air Staff, Marshal Rao Qamar Suleiman, said that his forces would continue to maintain its optimum readiness to undertake all missions against all internal and external threats. This was a clear reference to the threat from India.

Meanwhile, the U.S. administration has been trying to persuade India to resume the dialogue process with Pakistan. New Delhi has stuck to its position that the talks with Islamabad can be resumed only after Pakistan takes concerted action against the groups that engineered the deadly terror attacks in Mumbai in November. Holbrooke, during his last visit to New Delhi, acknowledged Indias difficulties but stressed that the U.S. cant settle issues like Afghanistan and many other issues without Indias full involvement. After talks between Hillary Clinton and the Afghan and Pakistani Presidents in Washington, it was announced that Islamabad would allow Indian goods to be exported through its territory.

Former U.S. Ambassador to India Robert Blackwill, during a visit to New Delhi, warned the Indian government to expect more pressure from Washington on the Kashmir issue in the wake of the recent development. According to Blackwill, who was a lobbyist for the Indian government in Washington, the Obama administrations preoccupation with Pakistan could re-hyphenate the U.S.-India relationship. He pointed out that Islamabad had been arguing that the Kashmir dispute was preventing it from focussing exclusively on the threats from the Islamist terrorists. Blackwill was of the view that the U.S. had downgraded India in its strategic calculations and was giving more importance to China.

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