The downside of US friendship By Syed Talat Hussain - Monday, March 07, 2011

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IF familiarity breeds contempt then closeness can lead to a whole lot of complex problems. This is true at least of the closeness that Pakistan’s military establishment has sought to build with its counterpart in the US.

The country’s top brass led by chief of army staff Gen Ashfaq Kayani has been studiously working on an elaborate network of engagement with the US. One result is deepened institutional ties. At the same time, and more importantly, this has produced a personalised relationship of the kind where leaders from both sides feel free to make direct demands on each other and expect the other to oblige.

Adm Mike Mullen, chairman joint chiefs of staff, captured the spirit of this relationship recently in his testimony before the house sub-committee on appropriation and defence. There he spoke of the US national interest being served by furthering ties with the Pakistan Army.

He also underscored his personal efforts in this regard: “…the relationship that we have with the Pakistan Army, I have spent an extraordinary personal time on [this] and it has improved remarkably in the last two to three years.”

As evidence of this claim Adm Mullen cited a recent meeting between Gen Kayani and Gen David Petraeus (commander of the Isaf and US forces in Afghanistan) and said that there was a level of coordination across that border that “no one could imagine a couple of years ago”. He then went on to plead for sustaining this interaction over the long term.

The perceived benefits of this new engagement are not a one-way street. Pakistan’s military establishment sees the US military as its strong lobby in Washington’s complex system of decision-making. Through this lobby, the army gets aid, equipment and the attentive ear of the White House.

Moreover, staying engaged with Washington is an important counter-manouevre to India’s dangerous designs. This engagement is also meant to ensure that in the endgame in Afghanistan, Pakistan is not stranded in the wrong corner of the room full of hostile regional interests.

But this upside of friendship now has a downside. The US administration wants Raymond Davis back safe and sound. Gen Kayani’s friends in Washington are now being sternly asked by their political bosses to use all their goodwill in this regard. They are willing to negotiate procedural matters with Pakistan but on the substantive issue of Davis’s immunity they refer to the red line drawn by the US president who called the killer of Pakistani citizens “our diplomat in Pakistan”.

Simply put, the US wants the Pakistan Army and the ISI to shoot the trouble for them.

This places Gen Kayani and his men in an unenviable domestic situation. While the matter of the US spy is in the courts, it has become an open secret that the courts are not the place where his fate shall be decided. Political leadership in Islamabad and Lahore and even foreign service officers state in off-the-record conversations that the final verdict has to come from the Pindi-Aabpara combine — a reference to the military and the ISI headquarters.

This perception that the army holds the key to the Raymond Davis controversy is further promoted by a string of news reports that the ties between the ISI and CIA — an important strand in the bilateral intelligence-to-intelligence relationship — have been frayed to the point of a virtual break-up. This is an obvious pointer to where the US is applying the pressure for Davis’s release.

How will the army deliver Davis to the US without running against popular sentiment and over the law of the land is the dilemma that does not lend itself to easy solutions.

A behind-the-scenes deal where Davis is quietly flown out of Pakistan is no longer possible. All other options are complicated in that invariably these involve some form of exposure to the public eye that for weeks has been fixed on the issue and now is red with rage. But the US pressure shall not relent. In fact, it will mount on the army as Washington sees that politicians are too beholden to their constituencies to meet their demands.

However, the army has its own problems. While it is not a representative institution, Gen Kayani has been keenly promoting the army as a force that does not move without popular consensus behind its back. Such has been the force of this projection that elected representatives see this as a slow-moving coup. For Gen Kayani to now underwrite a deal with the US on Davis would require a paradigm shift in public relations with the nation.

Delivering the spy to Washington has other repercussions that Gen Kayani cannot ignore. In that case, he would be seen to be turning his face away from the ugly fact of CIA operations in Pakistan, which, from the looks of it, go much beyond keeping tabs on potential terrorists.

A friendly gesture from Gen Kayani in response to unfriendly actions from Washington — intelligence operations against allies fall in that category — would be tantamount to indirectly endorsing them. No one from the army and the ISI has yet explained to the nation the size of the iceberg of CIA activities in Pakistan, whose small tip is Raymond Davis.

Neither has there been any honest assessment of the stark intelligence failure in countering US activities on Pakistani soil. These are hard questions that Gen Kayani is expected to ask of Mullen and Leon Panetta, the CIA director. If he does not, and is seen ‘shooting the trouble’ for Washington he is unlikely to win medals at home. But not delivering is also not an option. A friend in need is a friend indeed is what the Americans are saying. The Pakistan Army high command has to choose its options carefully.

The writer is a senior jour-nalist at DawnNews.

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