Twists and Turns in US-Pak Ties
April 22, 2011
There is nothing new about the United States and Pakistan approaching the Afghan conflict and its resolution through different angles. This difference of approach often strains their counter-terrorism relationship, a trend visible again in recent weeks. That the United States is to start withdrawing its troops for Afghanistan from July may also be a contributing factor in this regard.
The United States has once again started to criticise Pakistan for playing a ‘double game’—covertly supporting the forces of insurgency in Afghanistan while overtly being a frontline state against their terrorist campaign. Pakistan has renewed its own criticism of US drone strikes in tribal areas and cover CIA activities across the country.
However, as it has often happened, whenever differences between the United States and Pakistan reach the stage of a serious conflict of interest over issues of counter-terrorism, their civilian and security leaderships start to interact with each other more frequently. The ensuing increased consultative process then leads to modus-vivendi, whereby the two sides are willing to sort out differences cooperatively.
Two recent instances indicate renewed US criticism of Pakistan as an ‘untrustworthy’ ally—one, the content of a White House report released recently; and, two, remarks made by members of a US Congressional delegation led by John Boehner, Speaker of the House of Representatives, visiting Pakistan this week. The visit was preceded by heightened tension between the two countries over the detention of CIA operative Raymond Davis in a Pakistani prison in Lahore.
Likewise, Pakistani civilian and security leadership has increased criticism of US counter-terrorism approach in the region. A US drone strike that killed several tribal leaders last month, on the eve of Davis’s controversial release, was termed by Pakistan Chief of Army Staff General Ashfaq Pervaiz Kyani as a “violation of human rights.’ This week, while speaking on the floor of the National Assembly, Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani urged the United States to refrain from drone attacks and instead share credible intelligence to enable Pakistan to take action against terrorists itself.
US drone attacks in the area doubled last year, with more than 100 drone strikes killing over 670 people in 2010 compared with 45 strikes that killed 420 in 2009. Their frequency, especially in North Waziristan, has increased particularly in recent weeks.
The United States considers drone attacks vital for the mission to exterminate alleged al-Qaeda and hard-core Afghan insurgents in Pakistan’s tribal safe havens. Pakistan, on the contrary, perceives them as instrumental in worsening its own terrorism-ridden security quagmire as well as contributing to growing wave of anti-Americanism in the region.
However, a major source of the current divergence between American and Pakistan’ counter-terrorism approaches in the region may have to do with recent moves towards Afghan reconciliation by the Karzai regime and the willingness of Pakistan’s security establishment to facilitate the process.
Presuming that hard-line Afghan insurgent leaders will be unwilling to renounce violence, dissociate themselves from al-Qaeda and embrace Afghanistan’s current political reality, the Obama Administration has preferred reintegration over reconciliation in Afghanistan and restricted Afghan reconciliation process only to moderate insurgent leaders.
On the contrary, the governments of Afghanistan and Pakistan, as they harmonise their approaches towards the Afghan reconciliation process, can be expected to work out a political compromise, whereby hard-line insurgent leaders agree to all of the afore-mentioned preconditions for reconciliation in return for benefitting from a host of opportunities that Afghanistan Peace and Reintegration Programme offers them and insurgent fighters.
The programme was launched by the Karzai regime in June last year. Subsequently, an Afghan High Peace Council was established under the leadership of former Afghan President, Burhanuddin Rabbani. A delegation of the peace council visited Pakistan in January. Subsequently, a joint commission was established between the two countries to pave the way for reconciliation with Afghan insurgents with Pakistan’s help. Last week, the two countries also agreed to include representatives from Pakistani military and intelligence in the said commission.
That Afghan and Pakistani approaches are increasingly diverging with that of America regarding an amicable resolution to the Afghan conflict is largely because of the US and NATO decision to withdraw their troops from Afghanistan, as political, military and economic cost for the war for them becomes increasingly unbearable. President Karzai’s peace overtures to insurgent leadership seem to be pragmatically motivated to make himself relevant to Afghanistan’s power structure post-US-NATO troops’ withdrawal period.
One area of such divergence pertains to North Waziristan, where the Obama Administration expects Pakistan Army to launch a military offensive; an option Pakistan Army considers unaffordable since its battle against insurgents in the rest of tribal areas is far from over. Pakistani security establishment is pragmatic enough not to offend a potent group within Afghan insurgency on the eve of a Pakistani-assisted Afghan reconciliation process.
One of the reasons why Pakistan wants to play a pivotal role in Afghan peace settlement is that it does not want to be left alone again to deal with the messy outcome of the second international war in Afghanistan, as happened in the aftermath of the Soviet demise in Afghanistan in late 1980s.
The country has suffered acutely from extremism and terrorism to the extent that a revival of Taliban regime in Afghanistan cannot presumably be in its interest. Islamabad will nonetheless seek a major share for Afghanistan’s majority Pashtun population in any Afghan peace settlement, as this entails peace dividends for Pakistan’s own Pashtun population bordering Afghanistan.
From time to time, the distrust caused by divergence in US-Pakistani counter-terrorism interests translates itself into increasing frequency of North Waziristan-specific US drone strikes with a corresponding rise in the subversion of NATO supplies through Pakistani territory. However, as strategic choices for US and NATO forces in Afghanistan become limited with the onset of their scheduled withdrawal this year, the value of such divergence impeding Pakistan’s potentially vital role in Afghan reconciliation process may diminish.
As stated at the start, despite having serious differences over counter-terrorism issues or the question of resolving Afghanistan, the United States and Pakistan have mechanisms in place to prevent open-ended hostility in their relationship. Enhanced contacts between the two countries’ top civilian and military leaders in recent and coming weeks should be seen in this context.
These include a recent meeting between ISI chief Ahmed Shuja Pasha and Leon Panetta, the CIA director, in Washington, the forthcoming visits to Pakistan by US Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, as well as the corresponding trips to Washington by Foreign Secretary Salman Bashir and perhaps President Zardari in May.
Pakistan and the United States have already completed three rounds of their Strategic Dialogue, identifying a dozen core areas of civilian development in Pakistan, which will be built with the help of $1.5 billion annual US assistance under the Kerry-Lugar-Berman Act. The dialogue, which was put on hold due to tension caused by the Raymond Davis affair, may be on track once again following these meetings.
Consequently, at least some of the sources of tension in US-Pakistan counter-terrorism ties, if not all, may be tackled, re-creating a modus vivendi—until another incident puts the uncertain relationship on hold once again.