A stern warning from the newly inducted US Defence Secretary, Leon Panetta, will not shock those who are keeping a close watch on the downward spiral of relations between Washington and Islamabad since May this year. Panetta, who now heads the Pentagon, was pivotal in planning the Abbottabad operation that took out bin Laden in his stint as CIA chief. The exponential rise in the drone attacks on Pakistan also happened on his watch.
In this context, his warning that his country will use all resources to target militants and terrorists using Pakistani soil needs to be taken seriously. The foreign office spokesperson has glibly stated that these remarks are not in line with the cooperation that exists between the two countries.
She is well aware that the ground realities are quite different. Whatever cooperation existed has come down to the minimal level after the Raymond Davis affair early this year. The spat between Panetta’s former domain, the CIA, and the ISI has exacerbated since then.
Mr Panetta’s successor, the freshly appointed CIA Chief, David Petraeus, who is the outgoing commander of US forces in Afghanistan and the former head of US CENTCOM, is not new to the region and its appended problems. Between these two gentlemen Islamabad must sense a change in gear. The initiative is inexorably slipping from the State Department to the CIA and the Pentagon.
This would mean an increased propensity on the part of the US administration to resort to arm-twisting and gunboat diplomacy towards Islamabad. In this context, Panetta’s warning to deliver the Haqqani network should not be taken lightly.
The dramatic attack on the US Embassy and NATO compounds in Kabul has prompted this fresh wave of recriminations against Islamabad. All US personnel came out unscathed from the attack that claimed 19 lives. But it was a lot of egg on the face of the NATO forces who had been boasting that the Taliban were on the run and the Afghan national security forces are trained enough to deal with them.
The attack on the most secure areas of Kabul shows not only that the insurgency is potent as ever but also that the Afghan security forces have a long way to go before they can manage their affairs. It is not even clear yet that it was the Haqqani group that was actually responsible for the dramatic attack. However, the US was quick to blame the Pakistan-based insurgents of the group for the attack.
The Pakistani military has been saying for a long time that for various reasons it is unable to start a full-fledged operation in North Waziristan. For Washington’s drawdown strategy to succeed in Afghanistan, the operation against the militants holed up in the badlands of Pakistan is pivotal.
This is quite similar to the quandary the US forces faced in Vietnam that ultimately forced them to bring a CIA sponsored regime change in Phnom Penh. Once their puppet Lon Nol was in place, the US forces bombed the Viet Cong sanctuaries in Cambodia with impunity. It is quite another matter that the US Forces had to quit Vietnam in ignominy, nevertheless.
The COAS General Ashfaq Pervez Kayani is in Seville to attend the NATO Chiefs of Defence meeting and to deliver a lecture on the Pakistan army’s efforts in the global war on terror. The war in Afghanistan and Pakistan’s role will surely come under threadbare discussion. The General will have a hard time convincing his interlocutors why it is not possible for the Pakistan army to control its side of the Pak Afghan border and launch an operation in N Waziristan.
The US is simply not wiling to brook the argument that Islamabad facing an existential threat on its eastern borders cannot commit more forces on its western border. It might cry hoarse that it is paying a huge price in terms of recurring terrorist attacks against its own citizens owing to its efforts towards war on terrorism.
Still, Washington considers Islamabad an unreliable ally in the war against the Al-Qaeda. It was a harsh denouncement coming from the US Vice President Joe Biden when he stated in a recent interview that “Pakistan had failed on occasion when forced to choose between the US and Al-Qaeda.”
In a related development, Washington has endorsed plans for the Taliban to open political headquarters in Qatar by the end of the year. According to the London-based The Times, the move is designed to allow the West to begin formal peace talks with the Taliban. Washington’s motive is quite obvious that it wants to talk to the Taliban outside the influence of Islamabad.
If the report is to be believed, the ISI is being denied a seat on the table for a final round of talks with the Taliban. This is the ultimate insult for an entity that has always considered itself the main interlocutor and the sole arbiter for any political negotiations with the Taliban.
This also means the US is seriously mulling over the idea of by passing Pakistan from the ultimate solution in Afghanistan. It is another matter that ground realities militate against such a strategy.
Internally fragmented and in dire economic straits, Islamabad is badly in need of the West’s largesse. Despite being a nuclear power, it needs to shore up its military prowess, which is not possible without a helping hand from Washington.
Numerous and frequent forays towards China and a belated opening with Iran simply cannot resolve our problems in the short and medium run. Washington has been pressing Islamabad for altering its India-centric strategic paradigm that the Pakistan military is loath to do.
Although there was little progress on core contentious issues, recent talks with New Delhi have been relatively successful purely in terms of improving the atmospherics. The war of words between the leadership of the two perennially quarrelling neighbours has somewhat subsided. Making a clean break from the past, the Indian Home Minister, P Chidambaram, has declared that India cannot blame Pakistan anymore for terror attacks within its territory.
This could be a harbinger of real change. However, Islamabad, being under the yoke of its powerful establishment, is stuck in its old grooves for the time being.
The writer is Editor, Pakistan Today