Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Admiral Mike Mullen’s surprise visit to Pakistan was confirmed by the Foreign Office on May 26th. However, this is the first instance that I can recall when their reception at the airport did not include the politico military list of ‘who’s who’! Perhaps the coolest reception ever accorded to the US Secretary of State and the Chairman joint Chiefs. Not unsurprising was the repeated emphasis of both in expressing their gratitude for the warmth of their reception.
Having met the Pakistani leadership, they held a press conference at which the Pakistani leadership was prominent by its absence. What is more, no response or clarification have been issued by Pakistan: mum’s the word. Appearing somber, even grim, the US Secretary of State and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs addressed the press at the US Embassy in Islamabad. The body language was clear: all was far from well.
After three weeks of recrimination and accusations of ‘complicity’ or ‘incompetence’ directed at the Pakistan military/ISI, during which no such clarification was issued, Ms Clinton stated categorically that, ‘there was no evidence that anyone in the Pakistani hierarchy was aware of Osama’s presence’ Both praised the courage, the sacrifices, and the commitment of the Pakistani people and their security forces. Once again, contributions by Pakistan’s intelligence services were also acknowledged.
Noteworthy was Ms Clinton’s acknowledgement to the effect that, in the event of a negotiated settlement for Afghanistan’s future, Pakistan had a prominent role to play. Following this, in response to a question regarding Pakistan’s response (or lack of it) and the US reaction, to the US’ demand for Pakistan to undertake military action in North Waziristan (NWA) against the Afghan Haqqani group, she failed to respond.
Admiral Mullen mentioned the need to rebuild trust and that he ‘was not unaware of the differences in opinions’.
Obviously, no one is talking about what actually transpired during the meeting between Clinton/Mullen and the Pakistani leadership. One is, therefore, forced to draw conclusions from what was said during the press conference, what was left unsaid, and the ominous silence of the Pakistani leadership.
My first impression was that there is, finally, awareness in the US administration that they have pushed Pakistan as far as they could; and that, any further attempt to push them will result in severing this tenuous, uneasy, and unhappy relationship.
From her comment on a negotiated settlement of Afghanistan and her refusal to comment on the US demand for military action in NWA by Pakistan, I conclude that, at least until a negotiated settlement of Afghanistan with Pakistan’s assistance is reached; or if the US-Afghan coalition can find a way to reaching such a settlement without Pakistan’s assistance, the US still needs Pakistan and is prepared to retreat on some of its demands to appease Pakistan’s leadership.
It is also my opinion that the US might now be prepared to negotiate with not merely Mullah Omer, but also the Haqqani group, so long as ‘they denounce Al-Quaida: a spurious and unnecessary demand, since the relevant chapters of the Afghan Taliban (not the Tehreek-eTaliban Pakistan, TTP, the Pakistani chapters of Taliban) have already broken free from Al-Quaida. Even Gen McChrystal’s report for Obama two years ago, mentioned that the Afghan Taliban were prepared to sever ties with Al-Quaida.
Some readers might recall my explanation for US Vice President Biden’s visit to Pakistan, in which, quoting the Washington Post, I listed some of the messages he was carrying to us. The relevant one here is the end of the US demand for the Pakistan army to undertake operations against the Haqqani Taliban, who are provided safe haven in North Waziristan (NWA), by the Wazir tribe.
Circumstances have changed; and now that demand is under discussion in Pakistan again, whether or not it has been tabled by the US is a matter for conjecture. I will attempt to explain here, why it must not be obeyed, no matter how much the US protests.
To the uninitiated, there are many Taliban factions, both Afghan and Pakistani. While all are/were loosely associated with Al-Quaida, they did not always obey it. In 2007, when Al-Quaida declared that its ‘enemy #1 was no longer the US but Pakistan’, only two factions of the Taliban responded to that call, both Pakistani: Baitullah Mahsud in South Waziristan and Maulana Fazlullah in Swat. All factions of the Afghan Taliban, including the Haqqani group, condemned it.
In September 2008, when the Pakistan army commenced its South Waziristan (SWA) operation, its largest logistic base was in Razmak, a small town in NWA. In other words, we exposed our rear to the Wazir tribe and the Haqqani group with assurances of impunity; and we found those assurances to be gilt-edged. On the other hand, our so-called ally in this war, the US, vacated six (perhaps eight) posts on the Durand Line, across South Waziristan (SWA); in February last year, at a conference, an American who was on Gen McChrystal’s staff at the time admitted as much, and offered an obviously lame excuse.
Our ally, the US, opened the rear door to SWA, permitting Hakeemullah Mahsud and his followers to escape.
They are now back in the Aurakzai Agency in Pakistan; the Agency captured by Taliban in early 2008, after killing almost all tribal elders in a suicide attack, during a Jirga (Council of elders). The Pakistan army is now trying to get at them in Aurakzai.
A glance at the map will show that Aurakzai is linear in shape southwest to northeast and the only Agency that has no direct land link with Afghanistan. Its northern and eastern flank is well protected by the Khyber Agency peopled by the Afridi tribe under Mengal Bagh, while Kurram protects its south western flank. Army operations, without securing one of the two flanks, are unlikely to succeed since the Taliban will fade away. But, if the army could also attack from Kurram, blocking the linear front, it could force them all the way through Aurakzai and Khyber Agencies and, if the US this time, agrees to play the anvil to the Pakistan Army’s hammer, these Taliban could finally be brought to book. And, Hakeemullah knows this!
Unlike all other Agencies, Kurram is not dominated by any one tribe and has always been beset with sectarian strife. Powered by the army and strongly supported by Aurakzais residing in Kurram, who want their Agency released from the Taliban, all tribes, across the sectarian divide, struck a ‘Peace Deal’ in Kurram early April 2011. This would have enabled the army to employ that flank as well.
To scuttle the deal, Hakeemullah sent in a team which illed a dozen Shias in Kurram and kidnapped thirty in mid-April. The peace deal broke down. Give you one guess, who came to our rescue?
That’s right; Jalauddin Haqqani! A week after the murder/kidnaping in Kurram, Haqqani warned Hakeemullah that if he tried to scuttle the peace deal again, Haqqani would come and take him on!
Alliances exist when interests converge. When, more often than not, they diverge, alliances remain shrouded in mutual suspicion and double dealing(s); like the US-Pakistan alliance.
The US is, at best, a dubious and devious ally, only when our interests meet. Surely, the US could say the same about Pakistan, with equal accuracy. Haqqani, on the other hand, is not merely a reliable ally, but a friend of Pakistan.
If, on the US’ behest, Pakistan army ever decided to attack him, I would join Haqqani, unarmed, refusing to engage soldiers wearing the uniform I wore with considerable pride for many years, but to make sure everybody knows where I stand.
The US chairman Joint Chief’s most significant comment, which seems to have gone unnoticed by the mainstream international media, was, “This is not America’s War. It is Pakistan’s War. It is Afghanistan’s War”. It appears he had a momentary lapse and told the truth!
My question is: If this isn’t America’s War, what, Admiral Mullen, are more than 100,000 US troops doing here? Because US forces are, on a daily basis, continuing to kill innocent Afghans and Pakistanis. As recent as May 28, twenty two Pakistanis, including women and children were killed by a drone and, on May 29, fifty two Afghans, including women and children were killed by another drone; and this in Herat! Herat; a non-Pashtun, Darri-speaking province, one that US official and media reports acknowledge as amongst the most peaceful ones in the country!
The US is also losing troops, though perhaps at a ratio of one US/NATO soldier to one thousand Afghan/Pakistanis. What is more, our internal strife is also a direct outcome of our support to the American invasion of Afghanistan.
If this is not a U.S. war, is it merely engaged in prolonged training maneuvers; if so, these are really too expensive for the US economy to afford and can only result in prolonged and ever-increasing insecurity in this region. So, please pack your bags, go home, and continue your maneuvers in the California desert somewhere and; do remember to use blanks, lest you go around killing American citizens as indiscriminately, as you kill us!
Ms Clinton requested us, Pakistanis, to refrain from indulging in conspiracy theories and in blaming the US. We might have believed her sincerity, if you had not added this ‘truth’. How can there not be conspiracy theories, blame and increasing anti-Americanism in the entire region, when the US Chairman Joint Chiefs tells us, “this is not America’s War”. In effect, you are killing us for our own good; or your training; or merely amusement?
Thank you. But please leave us to fight the war(s) you have created for us in both countries. Go home. Please.
But that isn’t going to happen. The US is not pulling out of Afghanistan.
So, what does the future hold for us all?
Before proceeding any further, it is essential to clarify something which is, probably, not as obvious to the western mind, as it is to us. Our religious extremists/terrorists who target us are doing so, since they view us (security forces personnel and the ordinary citizens of the country) as ‘collaborators’ with US forces. In their view, only those actively resisting the US forces of occupation in Afghanistan and Pakistan are exempt from being considered collaborators!
What is more, in the view of these (Pakistani) terrorists, when they kill us, they think they have actually punished the US.
I have already written at length on the situation in Afghanistan; where you have no friends left; only enemies—most of them implacable ones, some of whom have turned pro-Taliban merely choosing the lesser of the available evils. However, the one important difference is that the Afghan Taliban no longer needs to terrorize the local population, American terrorism is driving locals back to them. What is more, a negotiated settlement in Afghanistan, which includes the Afghan Taliban, is not possible without Pakistani facilitation—the only trump left with us.
As long as the US continues to maintain its, not inconsiderable, presence in Pakistan and its very considerable presence in Afghanistan; both countries will remain mired in war and strife. This does not necessarily imply that the US departure will herald an end to war or strife. However, the departure will certainly signal the possibility, even likelihood of the beginning of the end to conflict; the conclusion of conflict will no longer remain open-ended.
Judging merely by the cold reception offered to Ms Clinton and Admiral Mullen and the lack of a joint statement, it is possible that Pakistan may genuinely be reviewing its options.
Having got rid of most of the CIA (and its associate) operatives, I would like to see a drastic reduction in American boots and shoes (military/civilian) on Pakistani soil. Only genuine diplomats within the agreed-upon numbers according to our joint protocol should be permitted to stay; the rest, politely but very firmly asked to leave ASAP.
Next, I would like to hear of a genuine final warning against drone attacks which are not pre-approved by the Pakistan government and executed to take out ‘high value targets’ only. To enforce this warning, I would like to see the Pakistan air force again patrolling the skies along the Durand Line (the de facto Pak-Afghan border).
Next, I would like to see a real shift in foreign policy. An immediate initiative to recommence the stalled Iran-Pakistan oil/gas pipeline; an acceptance of last year’s offer from Tehran of provision of cheap energy; acceptance of the Chinese offer of cheap energy; an effort towards genuine improvement of ties with India; and more energy put into the (Burhanuddin) Rabbani initiative to find an Afghan solution for the future of Afghanistan.
And finally, I would like to see the emergence of a comprehensive, all-encompassing security policy which addresses the needs of all peoples of Pakistan but focuses more on our deprived regions: the Tribal belt in K-P Province, rural Sindh and last, but most importantly, troubled Balochistan: the province under exploitation by a number of foreign powers, but only because we permitted the dissatisfaction to grow.
A word of warning
It is needless to add that if all of the above take place there will be an US response. Since I consider war an unlikely possibility, the more probable one is that the US will respond through non-state actors and stoke unrest, particularly in Balochistan; an activity it is already involved in.
Our policy will have to consider all possible US reactions and be prepared with suitable responses.
Most critical of all, however, will be the period when the US does finally withdraw from Afghanistan, with or without a negotiated settlement. The US will be in need of a scapegoat, and Pakistan is tailor-made for that assignment. If I could coin a phrase; we have ‘scaped’ ourselves; all the US needs to do is add the ‘goat’!
It is this event that Pakistan’s policy should be able to predict; if possible ensure its delay, till Pakistan is domestically united and sufficiently strong with support from its neighbors that it can survive the isolation and whatever else the US decides to punish us with.
Shaukat Qadir is a retired brigadier and a former president of the Islamabad Policy Research Institute. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org