Friday, April 29, 2011

A marriage made in hell has lessons for us all

What would you say of a relationship where the enemy of one partner is the ally of the other? Not much, I am sure. Well that’s the short description of the US-Pakistani marriage. Even as the Al Qaeda-Taliban alliance kill US soldiers in Afghanistan, Pakistan provides the former sanctuary, aid and even direction. And Islamabad remains, for the record, a major partner in what the Americans used to once call the Global War on Terror.
This twisted relationship is the burden of the latest tranche of Wikileaks documents published by The New York Times and The Guardian which relate to the 2004-2007 period. The more recent contretemps —where Islamabad has demanded a curtailment of drone strikes and CIA activities in Pakistan— have been about Pakistan’s insistence that the only condition under which it will continue its relationship with the US is within the bounds of this somewhat lethal ménage à trois.

Subsequent American decision-makers were not so shrewd. Under the influence of Cold War hawk John Foster Dulles, the US armed Pakistan to the point where superiority in armour, artillery and air force propelled Islamabad to make war with India in August-September 1965. And this was just the beginning.
In the second instance, in the 1980s, the US indulgence was more serious. Non-proliferation, a central tenet of US policy at the time, was simply ignored as Washington looked away when Pakistan stole and otherwise obtained nuclear weapons and missiles from a variety of sources.
In the third instance, the US, but for a brief period in 1992-3, ignored Pakistani state involvement with terrorist activity against India. It was only when the US was attacked in 2001 did Washington change its position. Even then, it displayed enormous forbearance, as has been brought out by the Guantanamo tranche of the Wikileaks documents, which indicate that the US has a great deal of evidence of official Pakistani complicity in terrorism.
And these documents only pertain to what passed through the Pentagon’s SiprNet system which was allegedly accessed by Bradley Manning who gave the documents to Julian Assange. The information available with the CIA and other US intelligence agencies could conceivably be much greater.
Yet, in the 2000-2007 period, the US again took an indulgent view of Pakistan, heaping aid and honours (grant of major non-NATO ally status in 2004) on Islamabad. But today the situation has changed.
But now Pakistan is no longer a factor that will make a difference between defeat and victory in Afghanistan—it is the factor that is contributing to what looks like an imminent American defeat, or retreat from Afghanistan.
Nothing concentrates the mind, like the guillotine or the prospect of defeat. American leaders are now talking a different language. Many observers think that the issue has come to head because of the drone campaign. That’s not true. The US has, with Pakistani permission and from Pakistani bases, been using drones to attack the Al Qaeda-Taliban militants in the tribal areas of Pakistan for several years. It is true, of course, that the drone issue is inextricably tangled with the mess that is the US-Pakistan relationship.
The principal US drone strikes have been in North Waziristan  which the Pakistan army has avoided entering because it is the place where its principal ally in its duplicitous Afghan game is located—the Haqqanis, father and son and proxies that can be used against India and the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan.
The US has avoided strikes in the Quetta region or elsewhere because of Pakistani sensitivities.   The Pakistanis are now using the threat to evict the US from the bases from which drone strikes are launched, to express their anger against the US’ counter-terrorism activities from Pakistani soil against targets that Islamabad cherishes, such as the Haqqanis, tribal allies like Hafiz Gul Bahadur and Mullah Nazir as well as the Lashkar-e-Tayyeba. Given this situation, the US has had little alternative but to bypass the ISI.
 What seems to have immediately got Islamabad’s goat is the American effort to check the activities of the LeT which in its reckoning has become a major danger to the US. The LeT was reportedly the target of the activities of Raymond Davis and several American CIA operatives.
What has worried the US are the cross connections between the Al Qaeda, Taliban and Pakistani militants like Ilyas Kashmiri as well as what could be rogue ISI personnel, or those who are acting on behalf of the outfit on the basis of plausible deniability.
For its part, Islamabad is simply not willing to let go of the Haqqanis and the LeT, entities in which it has invested so heavily.
The Pakistani attitude to the conflict in Afghanistan is somewhat curious. On one hand, it is a fact that the Pakistan Army has been fighting a tough campaign in the tribal areas of the country to defeat the Tehreek-e-Taliban. But, by staying out of North Waziristan, it is betraying the very sacrifices that Pakistani soldiers are making elsewhere. Because, it is well known that almost every kind of militant that opposes the Pakistani state is holed up in that area as well.
The Pakistanis do not want to act in that region because militant groups they consider vital for their policy of gaining control of Afghanistan in the post-US withdrawal scenario are located there.  In short, the national interests of the two allies in the war against terrorism are clashing head-on and there seems to be little room available for compromise.
The illusion Islamabad suffers from is that time stands still and a return of the Taliban would mean a country once again dominated by Pakistan. The last ten years of conflict have changed the Taliban’s composition and outlook. Taliban attitudes towards Pakistan vary from pragmatic opportunism to outright contempt. The Taliban need Pakistani sanctuary, but to expect them to be grateful for it after they win— presuming of course that they do— would be naivete of the highest order.
Recent statements suggest that the US has become more realistic in its assessment of what Islamabad can’t do, and what it can but won’t. But that does not alter the fact that the world’s foremost military power, the United States, is confronted with a ‘heads I win, tails you lose’ scenario. If it were not for the fact that the outcome of this relationship has a bearing on India’s well being, one could have been pardoned for a sense of schadenfreude.
Mail Today April 28, 2011

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