More of the same? Huma Yusuf - Monday 2nd May 2011

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PAKISTAN observers quip that the US should be considered an internal rather than external actor in policy analyses of the country.
Given the trickledown effect of decisions in Washington, it’s worth considering the impact of President Barack Obama’s recent shake-up of his national security team on Pakistan’s strategic calculus. The main drivers of the appointments are internal, but the side effects for Pakistan are significant.
The naming of Leon Panetta, the current CIA head, as the new US defence secretary is less interesting from the Pakistani perspective.
It is clear that Panetta’s shift to the Pentagon has more to do with Obama’s plans to significantly reduce defence spending to tackle America’s mounting fiscal deficit. Last month, Obama announced that military spending should be cut by $400bn over 12 years, a goal that demands a serious rethink of US military strategy. Panetta’s previous experience as former US president Bill Clinton’s first budget director in 1993 qualifies him to take on the challenge.
It is possible that Panetta’s budget-cutting initiatives will limit the number of goodies the Pakistan Army receives from the US.
But they will hardly be a deciding factor — it is well established that equipment and aid for our military are political tools that the US uses in order to enjoy leverage over the Pakistani decision-making process, particularly in the security arena. The Panetta budget axe may not be a major concern for Rawalpindi.
That brings us to the announcement that Gen David Petraeus, the four-star general currently commanding US troops in Afghanistan, will replace Panetta as CIA director. This appointment too has a domestic dimension: many in the Republican Party have political aspirations for Petraeus, and hoped he would contest the 2012 presidential election. By reassigning the general to the CIA, Obama has knocked a potential competitor out of the field. But in doing so, he may have made his administration’s engagements with Pakistan a tad trickier.
Petraeus’s departure from Afghanistan advances Pakistan’s goal of convening reconciliation talks with the Afghan Taliban as soon as possible. Pakistan prefers a political solution to the conflict in Afghanistan, and believes that further prolonging the US presence in the region will make it harder to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table.
In this context, Petraeus’s reassignment could be beneficial: as a general who has worked extremely hard to determine how to militarily defeat insurgents, he is in favour of seeing the fight through to its conclusion.
From Pakistan’s point of view, this is a strategic miscalculation because, as is commonly said, the Taliban believe they have God and time on their side, and are willing to battle the US as long as necessary. For those who believe that a power-sharing agreement in Kabul is the best possible outcome of the long war, distancing Petraeus from the battlefield is constructive.
It is also worth noting that the CIA has been the part of the US security complex most willing to point out the failures and gaps in America’s Afghanistan strategy. There are concerns that Petraeus’s leadership at the agency will stifle such candid assessments, given his own contributions in that war.
Indeed, Petraeus’s personal investment in the Afghanistan endgame is the starting point of Pakistan’s interest in his new appointment. Pakistan will feel the heat from his new post. The general has consistently criticised Pakistan’s policy of maintaining links with the Afghan Taliban and other extremist groups, and has leaned hard on the Pakistani establishment to stop providing sanctuary to terrorists, especially those who target US troops.
Petraeus also has little patience for the Pakistan Army’s preoccupation with the Indian threat, and has publicly urged Pakistanis to acknowledge that homegrown terrorism poses a greater existential threat.
It is likely that Petraeus will primarily view Pakistan, its relationship with the US and its regional role through the prism of the war in Afghanistan. One can therefore expect him to reiterate his earlier message, and push back against Pakistan’s ‘hedging’ policy in Afghanistan (whereby the establishment tries not to anger groups that may either one day participate in Afghan government, or have the potential of turning against the Pakistani state).
One possible outcome of having Petraeus crack down on the establishment’s ‘hedging’ policy is that Pakistan and the US will finally, and institutionally, have to acknowledge that while they engage with overlapping issues, they have few aligned interests. Such a frank appraisal of the relationship is urgently needed to help the two sides craft a new narrative for engagement, one that is grounded in reality and accommodates divergent goals in the region.
More plain speaking between the US and Pakistan would be one productive consequence of Obama’s personnel shake-up.
Unfortunately, a negative outcome seems more likely. It has been stressed that the bilateral relationship stands to gain from heightened transparency, particularly with regard to the drone programme.
But Petraeus is known to prefer secrets, and, as The New York Times put it, his appointment will further blur the boundaries between United States soldiers and spies. As a general, Petraeus has been willing to rely on private security contractors and special-ops troops to carry out covert intelligence missions.
He now takes charge of an agency tasked with the paramilitary function of carrying out drone strikes. Such conflation of military and intelligence activities stifles debate, undermines accountability efforts and makes operational parameters unenforceable — and if there’s one thing the US-Pakistan relationship cannot endure, it’s more of the same.
The writer is the Pakistan Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Centre in Washington.

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