Islamabad: Even as mainstream political forces “liberated” by the recent elections seek to stabilise the polity, Pakistan lurches towards newer crises. Inflationary pressures, manifest in the skyrocketing prices of atta, and power shortages, could lead to mass protests. But the more fundamental problem seems to be arising in the relationship of the country with the United States and what is called the global war on terror.
Pakistan has been a lead partner of the US in that war. It has received massive military and economic aid, some $10.5 billion in the last seven years, that has helped its armed forces to modernise themselves. But the current problems arise out of the Pakistani decision to negotiate a settlement with the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan — a loose conglomeration of tribal insurgents spread from Swat to South Waziristan — who have been fighting the government for the last couple of years.
Since the new government came to power in February, an informal ceasefire has been in place. There have been several reports of agreements between the Pakistani government officials, who run the Federally Administered Tribal Areas from Islamabad, and the local insurgents. Though the newly elected Awami National Party of Asfandyar Ali Khan is committed to negotiating a settlement with the insurgents, and is attempting to do so in Swat, reports suggest that they have been kept out of the negotiations in the FATA area. Even now the negotiations are precariously poised. While Rehman Malik, the internal security adviser to Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gillani, is close to a deal with the Mehsud tribesmen in North Waziristan, there are no signs as yet of any arrangement with the more problematic Baitullah Mehsud whose base in South Waziristan was overwhelmed by the Pakistan Army in January.
The situation in parts of the Bajaur Agency and Darra Adam Khel remains tense. Last week's US air strike at Damdola village led to the death of eleven people, some of them militants. Given the limited ground forces, the US and NATO tend to use air power which leads to a lot of collateral casualties, which in turn feeds into the already high-levels of anti-American feelings in the area.
After two months of uneasy silence, the US has finally spoken. In a written testimony to a US congressional panel on Tuesday, Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte said that Islamabad had not consulted the US on the issue and Washington had learnt of them from the media and had as a consequence expressed concerns about the negotiations to the Pakistani leaders. On the same day, Afghan Foreign Minister Rangeen Dafadar Spanta criticised what he said was Pakistan's policy of “appeasing” the Taliban. Recalling the failed peace deal of 2006 that led to increased attacks across the border on Afghanistan, he said that Islamabad's current course was “wrong and dangerous policy”.
Depite claimed successes, in July 2007, the US National Intelligence Estimate on “The Terrorist Threat to the US Homeland” noted that the task of securing the FATA area, a key goal of the US intervention, had not been completed. Indeed, the Al Qaeda had actually “protected or regenerated key elements of its homeland attack capability”. All this had happened despite the fact that the US had supplied some $10.5 billion worth of security and economic aid to Pakistan as well as some $1 billion per annum as reimbursement that accounts for 96 per cent of the costs incurred by Islamabad in the FATA.
To top this, in April 2008, the US Government Accountability Office issued a report, “Combating terrorism”, which noted that the US still lacked a comprehensive plan to destroy the terrorist threat, especially its safe haven in Pakistan's FATA. The GAO pointed out that a comprehensive plan had been mooted by the US National Strategy to Combat Terrorism in 2003; it had been called for by the Nine Eleven Commission and the Intelligence Reform Act of 2004 passed thereafter by the Congress. Yet, neither the National Security Council, nor the National Counterterrorism Center nor other branches of government “have a plan that includes all elements of national power — diplomatic, military, intelligence, development assistance, economic and law enforcement support.”
The criticism is not that the state department, the Pentagon, the CIA or USAID don't have plans, but there is no comprehensive strategy in place. As of now it is not clear as to whether Pakistan has such a plan either, though it has fought the tribal uprising. But one thing is clear, Pakistan still views the situation through strategic and geopolitical lenses. They view terrorist groups operating against India as a useful instrument of prosecuting their subconventional war against India. These are the same calculations that make up Islamabad's strategy with regard to the Taliban. India's role in Afghanistan, the possibility of a US/NATO pullout from Afghanistan are issues that Islamabad is carefully weighing. This dual policy was, after all, shaped by Musharraf as commander-in-chief and President of the country.
Perhaps the most negative aspect of the US dependence on Musharraf has been the extent to which the US has lost the battle of hearts and minds in Pakistan itself. The US now confronts a paradoxical situation where civil society in Pakistan is keen to prosecute the battle against radicals at home, but do not see the US as an ally of any kind in the process. Indeed, they are profoundly suspicious of US motives and actions. As of now, the Pakistan army under Pervez Ashfaq Kayani has declared its intentions to steer clear from politics. Musharraf has lost a great deal of prestige and faces the real prospect of having his powers trimmed drastically.
There is a great desire in the Pakistani establishment to negotiate a settlement with the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan leaders. They hope that the process of dialogue will halt the relentless march of the fundamentalists who have expanded from their original base in South Waziristan up north beyond Bajaur into Swat. In the past five years, the very nature of the FATA leadership has changed. The old tribal leaders who functioned in an autonomous fashion have been replaced by a younger leadership that openly acknowledges its links to the Taliban. They have proved themselves to be adept fighters and tacticians. Since 2004, they have used the tactic of ceasefires to consolidate their own hold and expand the area of their operations. This is the issue which Afghanistan and the US are raising, especially after the experience of the previous ceasefire in 2006 that led to a spike in attacks in Afghanistan.
By May 2008, it was clear that the relationship is at a breakdown point with Pakistan and the US no longer on the same plane with regard to the war on terrorism. The US is particularly exercised about reports that the latest ceasefire between the Pakistani forces and the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan leader Baitullah Mehsud is no longer conditioned on the latter stopping attacks on Afghanistan, or ending the presence of foreigners — Uzbeks, Chechens or Arabs — in their midst. This would actually indicate an unraveling of US policy in Pakistan whose primary aim was to end the sanctuary that the Al Qaeda got in the region. According to reports, Owari Ghani, the governor of North-West Frontier Province, who is also Musharraf's representative for FATA, told US officials that “Pakistan will take care of its own problems, you take care of Afghanistan on your side”. He is being assisted in the process by Rehman Malik who is the internal security adviser to Prime Minister Gillani. The US is clearly caught between a rock and a hard place.
This article appeared first in Mail Today May 23, 2008