The American conundrum - Shafqat Mahmood - Friday, April 22, 2011

Complaints and counter-complaints flow back and forth. The Americans are holding on to the ISI’s relations with the Haqqani network as their principal grouse. The Pakistani side is angry about the drone attacks. These are good talking points, but is the problem that simple?

Consider. The ISI’s connection with the Haqqani network and the Afghan Taliban is not new. Even after the “with us or against us” ultimatum to Musharraf in September 2001, it remained intact. Many of the Taliban cadres took refuge in Balochistan after the American invasion and the Haqqani network retreated into the safety of North Waziristan.

Unless the Americans were blindsided by their focus on the Iraq war, there is no way that they did not know about these connections. The more likely explanation is that they chose to ignore them. It was during this period that Musharraf became their favourite dictator and billions of dollars flowed into Pakistani military coffers.

This continued for years, and still does to an extent, despite the purported ISI links. The Taliban and the Haqqani network are the principal American adversaries in Afghanistan. Links with them remained an irritant between the Pakistani and US military, but not a make-or-break issue. Why has this become a major problem now?

Before we answer this, consider another fact. The drone attacks have been going on for a long time. There is sufficient evidence that successive Pakistani governments have acquiesced, if not facilitated them. Claims are even made that Pakistani airbases are used for them, obviously with the approval of our defence establishment. Why have these attacks now become such a big issue?

The real underlying factors are different, but part of the reason is miscommunication and the timing of these drone attacks. The last two have been particularly unfortunate. The first occurred the day after Raymond Davis’s release. It not only took a great many innocent civilian lives but also was a terrible payback for the cooperation on the Davis issue by the Pakistani power players.

After a very strong protest, the language and tenor of which was the strongest since the drone attacks began, there seemed to be an American rethink. There was some talk that they would go back to the Bush administration’s policy of only going after high-value targets, meaning the Al-Qaeda leadership. Other random drone attacks would stop.

That these were crossed signals became clear during ISI chief Gen Pasha’s visit to the US. From all reports, no promise was made of scaling down the drone attacks, despite veiled Pakistani suggestions that there will be a military reaction. To make matters worse, no sooner had these talks concluded and Gen Pasha hardly out of the country when another attack took place.

This seemed like a deliberate attempt to call what the CIA considered a Pakistani bluff. A marker was being laid down that we, the US, would retain the initiative in choosing when and where to attack, and if the Pakistanis have a problem, let them do what they can to stop it. This was arrogant in the extreme and dealt a severe blow to the confidences that had been built up between the Pakistani and American militaries.

To complicate the situation further, it showed up fissures within the American security establishment. The drones are operated by the CIA, which is not under the US military. It chooses to exercise its mandate of protecting the American people without worrying about how good military-to-military relations are between Pakistan and the US. The bridge is the American president, but in this case the leadership was clearly lacking or a double game was being deliberately played.

The good cop is Admiral Mullen, who was in Pakistan recently trying to sooth the troubled relationship. But the problem is that, given the multiple power centres in the US, it is difficult to believe he speaks for everybody. To put Pakistan on the defensive, he also talked about the ISI relationship with the Haqqani network, without saying a word about the drones.

While the drone issue has escalated into a major crisis, the underlying reason for the tension in Pakistan-US relationship is different. From the Pakistani side, it is linked to suspicions about America’s real motives: Is it destabilising the Pakistani state? Does it want to neutralise Pakistan’s nuclear capability? Is its relationship with India undermining Pakistani interests in Afghanistan? And more.

The Americans worry about the non-state actors in Pakistan, their collusion with the Pakistan security establishment and their ability to attack the West. Their take on Pakistani state stability is a feared takeover by Islamic radicals or its nuclear material falling into their hands. At some level, the US considers Pakistan the most dangerous country in the world.

The Raymond Davis affair symbolised all these tensions. The Pakistanis had been worried for a while about large numbers of American undercover operatives roaming about Pakistan. The security establishment tried to stop their inflow but the political leadership gave in, issuing hundreds of visas without verifying what those people are going to do here.

The stories around Davis also captured the Pakistani fears. Was he in touch with the TTP? What was he doing photographing defensive positions on the Indian border? Was he or his other partners scouting Pakistani nuclear sites? Was the ultimate purpose to create instability in Pakistan? And so on. The role of the American operatives within the country thus became a major issue for the security establishment.

The Americans had placed all these operatives on the ground because they did not trust the Pakistani state. They were trying to penetrate outfits like Lashkar-e-Taiba. And they may well have been scouting the nuclear sites or defence establishments to get a greater handle on what goes on here.

Admiral Mullen is correct when he says that the real problem is lack of trust on both sides. Pakistan now wants the American undercover agents out, and many have reportedly left. This is a setback for the CIA, because its network within the Pakistan is in the process of being severely undermined. Is its anger reflected in untimely and deliberately embarrassing drone attacks?

The US leadership has to get a handle on various elements of its state working at cross-purposes. It needs Pakistan to sustain its forces in Afghanistan and play a supportive role in the endgame to wind down the war. This latter is not possible unless Pakistan has leverage with the various Afghan groups fighting them.

It is an informed guess that the American military understands this, but does the CIA or the political leadership? In a brilliant move, Pakistan and Afghanistan have developed complete consensus on how the endgame will be played. The Americans have no choice but to come on board, because ultimately the peace process has to be led by the Afghans, who see Pakistan as an essential element in it.

There is much at stake for Pakistan and the US, not only in Afghanistan but in the long term. The trust deficit can only be bridged with mutual respect and understanding, putting aside superpower arrogance. Is the US ready for it?


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