October issue 2011
Back to Brinkmanship
In the five months since the controversial raid on Osama bin Laden’s last abode in Abbottabad, the trajectory of Pak-US relations has nosedived, with both sides now trading allegations and bitter recriminations. In September, sabre-rattling intensified when it seemed that everyone from Admiral Mike Mullen, the chairman of the US joint chiefs of staff, and Leon Panetta, the US secretary of defense, to Senator Lindsey Graham were up in arms against what they believed was a defiant and dodgy Pakistani security establishment. Mullen’s was the first frontal attack on the ISI and by implication on the Pakistani army on which he had, in December 2009, showered praise for a successful military operation against Taliban militants in Swat/Malakand and South Waziristan. A Republican member of the Armed Services Committee, Graham’s outburst on Fox TV on September 25 summed up the American narrative and the reasons for the spillover of emotions: “We need to put Pakistan on notice…I am saying that the sovereign nation of Pakistan is engaging in hostile acts against the United States and our ally, Afghanistan,” he said. The insertion of strife-ridden Afghanistan in the narrative came on the heels of a high-profile assassination, that of former Afghan president Burhanuddin Rabbani, which the Afghan interior minister alleged was plotted in the Pakistani city of Quetta and where the assassin was a Pakistani citizen.
Pakistan, Graham warned, has to choose between helping the Haqqani network or helping the United States as an ally in the fight against the Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and the border regions of Pakistan. Graham cautioned that “the United States will have to consider all options, including defending our troops” in confronting Pakistani support for militant networks fighting US soldiers in the region, joining in the chorus of voices led by Mullen and Panetta. “The idea of Pakistan’s intelligence agencies supporting terrorism as a national strategy needs to come to an end. It destabilises Afghanistan. They’re killing American soldiers. If they continue to embrace terrorism as part of their national strategy, we’re going to have to put all options on the table, including defending our troops,” he continued. For a while a US attack on Pakistani soil seemed imminent but better sense prevailed subsequently with Obama tuning down the rhetoric by terming the relationship between ISI and the Haqqani network as unclear.
The friction, however, between Islamabad and Washington remains, with both governments pursuing their own self interests and being unable to find a middle ground. Election year is round the corner and faced with increasing criticism from the public, Washington is looking to bring back its troops from Afghanistan and wind up army operations. Pakistan meanwhile, is looking to secure its future strategic interests in Afghanistan, post-US withdrawal, and is unwilling to do anything that might jeopardise its relations with any future set-up in Afghanistan. Given its uneasy relations with India, it definitely wants a Pakistan-friendly administration.
Additionally, Pakistan is concerned about the US voicing its preference to work with India to help stabilise the situation in Afghanistan. Hence this narrative also influences — if not defines — Pakistan’s relations with the US. Common to this narrative are also North Waziristan, the ISI, the Haqqani Network, Lashkar-e-Taiba, Blackwater (CIA’s private security contractor), Pakistan-India relations, Pakistan’s Afghanistan policy, the Pak-Afghan acrimonious relationship. But the difference lies in how both view them.
For Washington, Pakistan remains an essential but deeply unreliable ally in the war on terror, especially with respect to the conflict in Afghanistan. The behaviour of the Pakistani military is suspect, and decision-makers in Washington consider it as being duplicitous, actively undermining US peace-making efforts in Afghanistan. It is generally believed that the Pakistani military is infiltrated by Islamist extremists who support the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban, if not Al-Qaeda itself. The ISI, or elements within, are also seriously compromised and co-opted by its pro-Islamist agenda and cannot be trusted in delicate operations, as was the obvious from the US army raid against Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad. Washington sees Pakistan’s security establishment — unlike India — as a destabilising force within South Asia, a geo-political liability, and consequently maintains that Pakistan as a country has forfeited the right to sustained US military aid. More recently, a resolution was moved in the US Congress to stop all aid apart from nuclear-safety assistance to Pakistan, heightening tensions. Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari cautioned that the allegations may, in fact, affect the fight against terrorism and clarified, “When Pakistan seeks support, we look for trade that will make us sustainable, not aid that will bind us in transactional ties.”
The Pakistani narrative is embedded in its pride, its Muslim ethos, its nuclear weapons and the fact that Pakistan helped the US defeat the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. Most Pakistanis are deeply distrustful of the US since it refused to help them during the 1971 war with India and turned its back on Pakistan after the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1989, leaving Pakistan to pick up the pieces. This was followed by a decade of economic sanctions on Islamabad when Pakistan carried out the nuclear tests in response to India’s nuclear blasts. The trouble in Afghanistan and its backwash in Pakistan are, therefore, largely seen as the direct result of foreign intervention in Afghanistan — first by the Soviet-Russians and the American response to it in the form of the CIA-sponsored jihad of which Pakistan itself was a critical part, and then the American-led intervention in the name of the “War against Terror,” in which Pakistan has, once again, served as a critical ally. The US, it is rumoured, threatened to bomb Pakistan back to the Stone Age, if it did not comply with US wishes.
The US-allied intervention in Afghanistan, to a vast majority of Pakistanis, is tantamount to a cover for the protection and promotion of US global geo-strategic interests. They believe that both the United States and India, in league with a hostile Afghan security establishment, are encircling Pakistan with the objective of disintegrating it, and taking away its nuclear weapons.
The rise of the Pakistani Taliban and its takeover of whole sections of the country in the northwest, particularly in 2009, is partially seen as a result of US support for the mujahideen in the past, US mismanagement of the political situation in Afghanistan (favouring the Northern Alliance over the Pashtoon Afghans), with little apportionment of the blame on the domestic dynamics of the development, i.e. the military’s pre-dominance over the country’s foreign and defence policy. Hillary Clinton played to those sentiments exactly, in a bid to defuse tensions by acknowledging a picture of Jalaluddin Haqqani with former president Ronald Reagan on YouTube, signifying the American role in creating these pockets of militants. Incidentally, the man in that photograph is not Haqqani. She also acknowleged that the 30,000 Pakistani lives lost in the war on terror were exponentially more than American lives lost in Afghanistan.
In Pakistan, security woes are interpreted entirely as the responsibility of the US and its purported anti-Islamist agenda that also exacerbates Pakistan’s vulnerability to Indian “conspiracies,” which are supposedly aimed at imposing Indian hegemony on Pakistan. The nationalist insurgency in the southwestern Balochistan province is also seen as the handiwork of India, despite the acknowledgement of the fact that decades of neglect, denial of share in the province’s mineral wealth, and an undermining of political rights by successive civilian and military governments have created a situation in which most Balochis feel disenfranchised and fed up with the centre. The Pakistani narrative lacks critical analysis and is guided more by sentiment rather than by a deep introspection on the conditions that prevail in Pakistan.
Keeping in view these conflicting narratives, it is easy to assume that between Secretary of State Hilary Clinton’s visit to Islamabad on May 27, in the aftermath of Osama bin Laden’s assassination, and the statements by Mullen, Panetta and Senator Graham, nothing has changed, and the mistrust that kept both countries at a distance has touched new levels.
How does one interpret this sabre-rattling? Is it real brinkmanship arising out of genuine concerns, or a bluster to scapegoat Pakistan for its failures in Afghanistan, as the US and its allies feel the pinch of protracted engagement in a seemingly endless conflict? Is it a tripodal Afghan insurgency (Mullah Omar, Hekmatyar and the Haqqanis), or just the Haqqani network that the Americans would have us believe is the only evil attacking the American and Afghan interests with the ISI support? In an October 3 interview with the BBC, Sirajuddin Haqqani, son of Jalaluddin Haqqani, outrightly denied any links with the ISI or having a hand in Rabbani’s assassination.
Truth is always a casualty of war. Take for example the US-UK invasion of Iraq, where both powers used the ruse of weapons of mass destruction to walk in, occupy and tie Iraq in a decade-long bondage for dirt-cheap oil (in the name of war reparations). As for Afghanistan, the entire world thought that its invasion was legitimate with complete UN sanction for it. But popular British columnist, Brian Cloughley, a South Asian affairs analyst, in a recent article posted on www.beecluff.com shocked everyone by pointing out that there was no real UN Security Council resolution for the invasion of Afghanistan. “Two researchers in the British House of Commons have produced a paper titled ‘The Legal Basis for the Invasion of Afghanistan.’ And they wrote: “The military campaign in Afghanistan was not specifically mandated by the UN — there was no specific Security Council resolution authorising the invasion — but it was widely (although not universally) perceived to be a legitimate form of self-defence under the UN Charter.” A cursory look at the UN Documentation guide on the Security Council meetings/actions provides only two references to Afghanistan, or related resolutions. The first was a September 12 resolution, condemning the 9/11 attacks. The second was a September 28 resolution on “Peace and Security and Terrorist Acts,” which outlined measures member states were required to take to counter the terrorist threat — without any mention at all of an invasion of Afghanistan. That action, therefore, was also bereft as much of the UN approval as the attack on Iraq.
The only conclusion one can draw from this glaring anomaly is that “national interests” motivated both the US and the UK to launch those offensives and practically bypass the United Nations. And hence, in this war of words between the US and Pakistan, national interests again will take precedence over all other considerations in defining foreign policy on both sides.