April Issue 2007

By | News & Politics | Published 17 years ago

Stop any ordinary Pakistani on the street and ask him what is the most complex issue confronting Pakistan today, and chances are that he will say, “US-Pakistan relations.” It is very difficult to fathom the nature of the relations given that Washington is both critical of the present regime in Islamabad, as well as eulogistic of the Pakistan government’s efforts in fighting the war on terror. In addition, recently there have also been reports of the growing discomfort in certain segments of the Bush administration with President Pervez Musharraf, who is increasingly seen to lack the capacity to confront the Taliban and who has been adding to everyone’s problems by his questionable behaviour at home (read: incidents like the Bugti killing and the unpopular CJP dismissal).

US-Pakistan relations are important due to their direct impact on Pakistan’s domestic politics — for as the saying goes, “The country is run with the help of the three As: America, Army and Allah.” Historically, both civilian and military regimes have looked to the US for support, especially when confronted with reduced legitimacy at home. The guaranteed supply of economic and military aid from Washington has created dependency and a patron-client relationship. Because of this, Pakistan’s establishment is forced to manage a balancing act between its various and largely divergent constituencies at home and in the US.

The deal with Washington requires Islamabad to deliver on issues critical to America’s strategic interests. Although the earlier leadership of the country, wanted to establish military-strategic links with the US, the two states did not come together until the 1960s when there was somewhat of a convergence of strategic interests, i.e. fighting communism. The two countries again came together during the 1980s to fight communism. And together they did that quite successfully, resulting in the former Soviet Union losing a battle in Afghanistan and breaking up into several independent units.

A military-strategic relationship was sought again after 9/11 when Washington ‘forced’ the present regime in Pakistan to become a partner in the war on terror. In his memoirs, President Musharraf claims that the Bush administration threatened Islamabad that non-cooperation with the US would result in Pakistan being bombed back to the “Stone Age.” The relationship, which followed later, however, had a fairly cooperative framework. In fact, it was quite straightforward. The military regime of President Musharraf would cooperate with Washington not just out of fear but also due to its interest in re-establishing a patron-client relationship with the only super power in the world. Specifically, Islamabad would deliver in terms of cleaning up foreign terrorists and Al-Qaeda from the border areas with Afghanistan in return for Washington’s support for the Pakistani ruler and his cabal.

The understanding in Islamabad always was that they could make the Bush administration happy with its occasional capture of foreign terrorists and Al-Qaeda operatives. Pakistan’s track record of catching Al-Qaeda functionaries was satisfactory. In fact, since 9/11, Al-Qaeda was the main link that sustained the bilateral relationship between Pakistan and the US. The generally accepted notion is that Washington would remain engaged with Islamabad as long as the latter had something to offer, especially in terms of cooperation in the war on terror. Once during an informal discussion with a couple of military officers, soon after the arrest of Saddam Hussain in Iraq, the officers voiced their apprehension regarding the capture of bin Laden. They feared that the Americans would immediately disengage from the region, and from Pakistan in particular, once they found their key target.

Such an approach is not ideal for either party in the long run. Ensuring a slow and steady supply of apprehended terrorists to the US is not a complete crackdown. Hence, Pakistan seems to offer key Taliban or Al-Qaeda operatives to the Americans every time there is a visit by a Washington dignitary. One of the best examples occurred recently. Vice-President Dick Cheney’s visit was followed by the arrest of a top Taliban leader Mullah Obaidullah Akhund, who was reportedly caught by Pakistani forces.

Although such follow-up actions bring accolades for Pakistan’s military regime from Washington, it also raises questions regarding Pakistan’s intent to crack down on the Taliban. In fact, some sources believe that Mullah Akhund was actually caught by NATO forces and handed over to Islamabad to drive the point home that Islamabad was not doing enough in fighting the Taliban in the areas bordering Afghanistan.

A review of the American press shows that there is growing discontent with Pakistan’s performance in the war on terror. Washington last year, appeared critical of the deal signed with the tribal leaders in Northern Waziristan, claiming that such an agreement gave carte blanche to the militants. Islamabad’s perspective, however, is different and purports that it is essential to protect the army from becoming deeply embroiled in a conflict with the tribal people. Any conflict with the tribals could become critical due to the association of people in the Frontier province with those in the tribal areas. It is a fact that the American attack in Bajaur resulted in an equally violent attack on the Pakistan army in Dargai, which claimed 21 soldiers.

American diplomats view this as President Musharraf’s lack of capacity to fight the Taliban forces. The US ambassador to Pakistan, Ryan Crocker, testified before the Senate Intelligence Committee that Musharraf had the intent and not the capacity to fight the problem of militancy. Such an assessment pushes American policy-makers to support the strategy of direct intervention in the conflict and carrying out hot pursuits in Pakistan to target Taliban or Al-Qaeda forces. Reportedly, the assessment is that Al-Qaeda has strengthened itself in the tribal areas and in Balochistan.

However, Pakistani authorities view the hot pursuit option as a political landmine. In early March 2007, Pakistan’s ambassador to the US, Maj. General (retd) Mehmood Durrani, stated that additional pressure from America and insistence on the hot pursuit option is likely to destabilise the Musharraf regime. Allowing American and NATO forces to operate in Pakistan runs the risk of sending Musharraf’s popularity into a tailspin within the army. In fact, there are many within the military ranks who are already unhappy with his tilt towards the US. His officers, especially at the junior and mid-ranking level, who generally appreciate his strong and macho image, are unhappy seeing him bow down to foreign pressure.

Interestingly, President Musharraf has left no stone unturned to convince the world of his lack of capacity. His claim during the Chief Justice fiasco that the attack on the media was a conspiracy against him, sent out a clear message to the world that Musharraf is not completely in charge in Pakistan. As the US monitors the situation, the Bush administration is faced with a dilemma: abandon Musharraf or back him up as the only credible option to fight terrorism. Making the issue more prickly is the mounting pressure from a Congress that is now increasingly dominated by Democrats. The new policies rising from the chamber will make Pakistan accountable. This year in January, the US House of Representatives adopted a bill making it conditional on President Bush to certify Pakistan’s cooperation in preventing the Taliban from operating in areas under its sovereign control before giving Pakistan any US military aid. This legislation implemented the recommendations of the 9/11 commission.

But the US cannot completely abandon the present regime in Pakistan. In fact, the concern is to not push Musharraf to the point where he becomes antagonistic to American policy interests. Therefore, US Vice-President Dick Cheney made a surprise visit to Islamabad at the end of February 2007 to ensure that Pakistan was onboard with the American agenda of the war on terror and to communicate Washington’s disappointment with its ally’s performance in fighting Al-Qaeda and Taliban forces. Cheney’s visit followed in the footsteps of Secretary of Defense Robert Gates. Both the visits were prompted by General Musharraf’s statement made earlier in February that Pakistan had done enough and that it was not his country’s sole responsibility to counter terrorism in the areas bordering Afghanistan. Musharraf’s comments were in response to the mounting pressure from Washington to increase the military crackdown on the Taliban in the tribal areas.

Washington is also faced with the problem of dealing with a nuclear Pakistan. Pakistan cannot go through violent changes, especially of the nature which disrupt communication between the Pentagon and the Army GHQ in Rawalpindi. Therefore, even on domestic issues such as the dismissal of the CJ and the crisis that unfolded later, the Americans could only state that they were watching the situation carefully without putting massive pressure on Islamabad.

The primary fear is to hang on to Musharraf for as long as he can deliver some results. Nonetheless, the window of opportunity for Islamabad is narrowing, as more questions are being asked in the US about Musharraf’s intent in fighting the Taliban. Reports being filed from Afghanistan in particular point a finger towards Pakistan in terms of supporting the rise of the Taliban. Despite the joint committee to discuss security and defence-related issues between Pakistan and the US, there is very little appreciation of Islamabad’s concern regarding the future of Afghanistan, especially after NATO forces leave the country. The Pakistan Army is apprehensive of allowing India to establish links and gain a foothold in Afghanistan and, thus, would maintain contacts with any element which could help it limit India’s presence within the borders of its western neighbour. For Pakistan, Afghanistan is a frontline state which cannot be given up to hostile foreign forces.

Such an approach, of course, makes Americans increasingly apprehensive of Pakistan’s support in the war on terror and makes the relationship shaky. The fears in Washington, however, would not break the relationship between the US government and the military in Pakistan. It is understood that Pakistan’s military has a key role in delivering some results in the war on terror. So, while there could be some agreement on abandoning Musharraf, the link with the GHQ will continue.

The writer is an independent social scientist and author of Military Inc. She tweets @iamthedrifter