Allies at cross purposes By Huma Yusuf Sunday, 19 Sep, 2010

American President John F. Kennedy famously conceded that the only thing “worse than being an enemy of the United States was being an ally”.

The accuracy of that insight has been reiterated with the recent declassification of documents pertaining to US-Pakistan exchanges in the days immediately following Sept 11, 2001. 

Once again, we have proof that Islamabad and Washington habitually engage at cross purposes. The documents reveal that post-9/11, Pakistan quickly recommended the US enter into a dialogue with the Afghan Taliban.

But Washington “bluntly” rejected that offer, and warned then ISI chief Mahmoud Ahmed that his meetings with Mullah Omar should not delay military planning.

It also becomes clear that from the outset Pakistan asked the US to clarify its goals in attacking Afghanistan: were they after Osama bin Laden, Al Qaeda, or the Taliban? 

Nine years on, one has to admire the Pakistanis’ prescience, and wonder how things might have been different if the US was willing to seriously engage with Islamabad’s suggestions. 

The documents say that the US presented Pakistan with a list of seven demands (including territorial and naval access, landing rights for operations, intelligence-sharing, and isolating the Taliban).

Interestingly, these demands echo various conspiracy theories — and legitimate concerns — regarding US intentions in the region that have proliferated in Pakistan in recent months: US troop presence in Pakistan; the use of Pakistani airbases; the presence of private security forces; and the influx of CIA agents. 

Of course, Pakistan was not the only astute party in 2001. In the declassified documents, American officials raise concerns about the Pakistani intelligence’s continuing ties with the Taliban.

Tellingly, the ‘double game’ accusation against Pakistani security and intelligence officials continues to dog US-Pakistan relations — particularly in the wake of the WikiLeaks episode.

Given this context, it is not surprising that the trust deficit between the US and Pakistan endures. Similar suspicions existed before 2001, as a consequence of the Pressler amendment, the abrupt US withdrawal from Afghanistan, and the imposition of sanctions on Pakistan as a result of nuclear testing.

With 9/11, the US and Pakistan seem to have missed an opportunity to start over. The fact that the declassification of these documents has not sparked a media furore indicates that miscommunication and miscalculations between Islamabad and Washington are old news.

Then, as now, the two countries fail to connect, and, instead, make sweeping demands, and even more sweeping concessions, without confronting the fact that they have fundamentally different strategic outlooks for the region.

Indeed, in June this year, Adm Mike Mullen admitted that one of the toughest challenges facing the US was the struggle to earn Pakistan’s trust. 

If one were optimistic, one might surmise that Washington and Islamabad have learnt something from history. After all, the US is now willing to negotiate with the Taliban: in January this year, the Obama administration announced that the Peace and Reintegration Trust Fund would finance incentives for Taliban militants to put their guns down.

Washington also continues to support Afghan President Hamid Karzai as he reportedly reaches out to Mullah Omar with an invitation to participate in reconciliation talks.

On this point, Jonathan Powell writing in the Guardian best explains the pattern of western engagement with terrorists: “First we fight them militarily, then we talk to them, and eventually we treat them as statesmen.” 

For its part, the Pakistan government seems more willing to own up to its role in the controversial drone attacks. Although September has seen the most intense drone campaign to date — 75 alleged militants killed this month — Pakistan has not raised objections.

Instead, Information Minister Qamar Zaman Kaira has expressed appreciation for the international community’s ‘support’ in fighting the terrorism that Pakistan could not manage on its own. 

But it would be pre-emptive to assume that Islamabad and Washington are progressing beyond the preoccupations that engendered a climate of distrust and disagreement in the immediate wake of 9/11. Conversely, nine years after that fateful event, the US and Pakistan remain caught in a familiar quagmire. 

Although US President Barack Obama steps up to podium after podium to clarify that his country’s only goal is to dismantle Al Qaeda in Afghanistan, his administration’s actions suggest otherwise.

On Sept 1, the US declared the Pakistani Taliban a terrorist organisation, froze the group’s US-based assets and placed a $5m bounty on Hakeemullah Mehsud and Waliur Rehman. 

Moreover, the intensified drone attacks are targeting members of the Haqqani network, an extremist group that Pakistan is reluctant to pursue.

Pakistan, meanwhile, continues to enjoy the benefits of US aid while its intelligence agencies refuse to give up links to militant groups, preparing for a post-US-withdrawal redistribution of power in Afghanistan. 

Veteran Washington Post columnist David Ignatius has described the US and Pakistan as “tempestuous” lovers who fall in and out of love with each other.

On a less romantic note, I would suggest the two countries are more like an aged married couple who persistently shout at each other, but can no longer hear what the other is saying.

The declassified 9/11 documents show that Islamabad and Washington have been quibbling over the same issues for almost a decade. There is no evidence to suggest that the terms of engagement will improve soon. 

To bridge the trust deficit, then, the two countries need to take concrete, quantifiable and transparent steps.

Pakistan should own up to its cooperation in American counter-insurgency initiatives, and come clean about its Afghanistan agenda.

For its part, the US should keep up with aid payments, draft a civilian nuclear deal for Pakistan and open American markets to Pakistani goods — in the hope of empowering Pakistan to take control of its own growth and stability. Only then can the next decade begin with a new chapter of US-Pakistan relations.

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