November issue 2010

By | News & Politics | Opinion | Viewpoint | Published 10 years ago

The message that we needed to convey to the Obama team at the recent Washington confab was that we have reached a point in our vexed relationship when the haggling has to end. It’s no longer a question of what we will do in return for how much. We can do no more for all the money in the world and, notwithstanding the spin, what’s good for America is no longer good for Pakistan.

That we did not convey this message is obvious from the impression that most took away from the talks and Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi’s subsequent media briefing in Lahore. He boasted that all is well with the Pak-US relationship, and that all stresses and strains had been removed. Of course, one way of removing differences is by agreeing to all the demands of the other side, just as a sure way to end a war is to surrender. And this, sadly, is what many think has happened.

The impression here is that in return for the $2 billion that the military will receive from 2012 to 2016, it has finally agreed to mount the long-awaited operation in North Waziristan targeting the Afghan Taliban (Haqqani) sheltering there. Obama’s generals have been calling for such action so that they can show positive results from the much-touted ‘surge’ presently under way. Obama has been told that the thinning out/withdrawal that he has promised next year won’t look good unless they can show a significant weakening in the Taliban’s fighting capability. General Petraeus is petrified that unless he achieves measurable success, it will appear that he is leaving with his tail between his legs rather than his head held high. And that, inter alia, would blow his chance for a shot at the US presidency. Regardless, Pakistan must not oblige and the reasons are self evident.

The Haqqani Taliban have not attacked Pakistan. They are not harbouring Al-Qaeda. They do not maintain operational links with the TTP or foreign militants and criminal elements. If they did, and we had irrefutable evidence of this, it would be a valid reason to take them on. But merely because they oppose the American occupation of their country, their presence in Pakistan, however unwelcome, is not sufficient reason to take them on. We cannot afford to alienate the population of an entire sub region, or sever our ties with the Afghan Taliban, or stand our present Afghan policy on its head.

So many and harmful are the consequences of warring with the Afghan Taliban on behalf of the US, that it hardly bears contemplation. Their present struggle against US occupation would probably metamorphose into a struggle for achieving a Pashtun homeland with the Judas, Pakistan, replacing the US as the main enemy. Old and dormant irredentist claims would be revived with the ensuing fratricide straining the loyalties of Pakistan’s Pashtuns. Frankly, it is unthinkable that the government should in return for two billion dollars and American threats and blandishments risk rending the febrile modus vivendi that exists among the different ethnic groups in the country. Besides, where is the sense in, on the one hand, using the goodwill built up with the Taliban over years of interaction to prod and cajole them into negotiations with Kabul while, on the other hand, attacking them in North Waziristan.

Moreover, an army operation will inevitably lead to mass dislocation and destruction of lives and property. South Waziristan, after the earlier operation, remains a tortured land with its displaced population wallowing in misery in makeshift camps in Tank and Dera Ismail Khan. Worse, the militants have not been cowed. According to Rahimullah Yusufzai, the army is facing “a growing number of attacks from militants belonging to the TTP.” A similar operation in North Waziristan would not only invite attacks from the TTP, but also the Afghan Taliban and not only in the FATA region, but also in our towns and cities.

Nor, given the vastly forbidding terrain in North Waziristan, would an army operation be very effective. In the past they have had no long-term benefit and only alienated the hapless population. The Haqqani Taliban would, in any case, do what militants invariably do when such operations are launched: relocate to other parts of the tribal areas.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, an army operation conducted under American duress will not sit well with the public at home. It would make an unpopular government even more so and, because the military would be spearheading the action, damage the army’s recently restored popularity. Furthermore, belief that the current war is almost entirely American-driven will receive a powerful boost. And if, as a result, the public were to conclude definitively that the war is not ‘our’ war, the loss in every meaningful sense would outweigh the little that may be gained militarily or financially.

Judging by the remarks of the Corps Commander, Peshawar, Lt Gen Asif Yasin, the six brigades presently in North Waziristan are insufficient to launch an operation. In fact, he has gone to the extent of declaring that the army will not be ready till 2012 to conduct such an operation. That is just as well because by that time the situation should have become clarified to the extent that the utility of such operations would become clearer.

Having once been close to those who make and implement foreign policy, one was struck by how much governments are influenced by extraneous matters such as the need to be seen as succeeding; to reap dividends that favourable publicity promise regimes that are faring badly at the polls; to prove that policies which may be floundering are in fact working and to proffer any remark or praise uttered by outsiders as a sign of success. Although understandable, such considerations are unacceptable when core national interests are involved.

The Americans have had it their way with us for quite some time. They came to Afghanistan with our backing and that of the world community to eliminate Al-Qaeda — a task which, for all practical purposes, was achieved years ago. They are now hanging on to defeat the Taliban, sit atop strategic pipeline routes, threaten Iran by the construction of air fields and bases ringing Iran, and to contain China. (One is discounting the allegation that the US has a more sinister purpose of destabilising Pakistan and seizing our nukes). These aims were never part of the international agenda or that of the US. And it was also not why Pakistan lent its forces and territory for the cause.

But even if Mr Qureshi, by some miracle, had developed the spunk to say this to his American interlocutors, he would have been dissuaded to do so by the establishment. They probably contend that, as in the past, they can have their cake and eat it at the same time, and that such confrontational talk is unnecessary. However, not this time. The small print attached to the civilian and military giveaways won’t, one suspects, be overlooked by Congress and the Obama team.

We will know soon enough.