It is understandable that security relationship between a superpower like the United States and a developing country like Pakistan can run into problems from time to time because their goals cannot always be identical. They work together on the basis of a shared goal and endeavour to expand the areas of convergence and reduce divergence.
The US and Pakistan share the goal of elimination of terrorism and stabilisation of the region. However, they diverge on the precise details of some counter-terrorism strategies. In the past, they were able to deal with the differences through diplomatic interaction and especially through direct communication between their security establishments. Periodically, the US official circles publicly criticised Pakistan’s policies. American non-official and semi-official circles were more critical of Pakistan. On the Pakistani side, the official circles were very cautious in criticising the US; they were often defensive in view of American official criticism. Pakistan’s non-official circles, especially the Islamists, were very critical of the US policies in the region. The US and Pakistan were able get over the difficulties in their relations in the past.
What surprised everybody in Pakistan was the anger expressed in public by the US military top brass and the Defence Secretary at Pakistan after the Taliban attack in Kabul on September 13-14, 2011. Their criticism was repeated by other top US officials, including the Secretary of State and the spokesperson of the White House. Short of declaring Pakistan a terrorist state, US military and intelligence top bosses accused Pakistan’s security establishment of harbouring terrorism by supporting the Haqqani network that was waging war against American troops in Afghanistan. One of the statements described the Haqqani group as the arm of the ISI.
American public denunciation of Pakistan has caused the gravest ever crisis in their relations since September 2001. Any deterioration of the relationship can cause a breakdown of their relationship. The US needs Pakistan’s cooperation as long as American troops are based in Afghanistan in such a large number. Pakistan’s support is also needed to stabilise Afghanistan. Similarly, Pakistan is not in favour of complete break up of the relationship because it is not in the interest of Pakistan to pick up direct confrontation with a superpower. Pakistan’s troubled economic situation makes it imperative to maintain relations with the US and the Western world. Further, stabilisation of Afghanistan is as much in the interest of Pakistan as it is in the interest of the US. If Pakistan and the US engage in confrontation, peace and stability in and around Afghanistan will become obscure.
The first major crisis in 2011 developed on the Raymond Davis case against the backdrop of increased presence of US security contractors in Pakistan. This was followed by the crisis in the aftermath of the Osama operation in Abbottabad which embarrassed Pakistan because its security authorities neither knew about the presence of Osama nor knew about the American security operation until it was almost over.
The latest crisis developed after the Taliban attack in Kabul because it embarrassed the US authorities in the domestic context the way Pakistan was embarrassed by the Raymond Davis arrest and release and the Osama operation. The US military establishment decided to take on Pakistan either to convince its own public opinion that the security problems in Afghanistan are caused by the militant groups based in Pakistan or it wants to coerce Pakistan to send its troops into North Waziristan to address American security needs.
In theory, the US can engage in aerial bombing of North Waziristan or send special forces for targeted operations or induct its troops for longer operation. But in practice, these are very hazardous strategies. Any aerial bombing or induction of regular American troops in the tribal areas would rupture all interaction and cooperation between Pakistan and the US. This will not serve the cause of eliminating terrorism. As a matter of fact, the Taliban, other militant elements and Islamic groups based in Afghanistan and Pakistan will be the major beneficiary of this development. This will strengthen these groups and radicalise Pakistan. Any Pakistani civil government and the military will not be able to do any business with the US. No American military and other supplies will be able to pass through Pakistan.
American military unilateralism in the tribal areas is dangerous for US goals in the region. Destabilisation of Pakistan will be the direct consequence of American military adventurism in Pakistani territory without the guarantee that the US will be able to cow-down the Haqqani group and other militants.
It should have been obvious to American policy makers by now that Pakistan would not take military action in North Waziristan for a host of reasons that cannot be discussed here for lack of space. This policy will continue, at least for the time being.
The US needs to tone down its rhetoric and adopt a cool-headed approach to complex security problems in Afghanistan that require a balance between military and political strategies and cooperative action by the US, Afghanistan and Pakistan rather than the US forcing a military strategy on Pakistan.
Pakistan needs a short-term and long-term approach towards terrorism. In the short run, Pakistan is justified in maintaining its autonomy in diplomatic and military domains and it should make it known, once again, that induction of American ground troops or aerial bombing by helicopters or regular military aircrafts will amount the crossing the red line in Pakistan-US relations.
Pakistan needs to review its counterterrorism policies and examine the question why its security forces have not been able to establish their primacy in most tribal areas? After expelling the militants from Swat/Malakand and South Waziristan in 2009, no such success has been reported from five tribal agencies where the security forces are constantly engaged in counter terrorism operations? The people of the Kurram Agency cannot travel directly to Peshawar because of Taliban activity. They go there via Afghanistan. How long this will continue?
Pakistan should establish state primacy in all tribal areas before the withdrawal of US/NATO troops from Afghanistan so that the possible Taliban onslaught from Afghanistan is effectively checked. Even if some militant groups, including the Haqqani group, are not challenging Pakistan, these will prove to be a liability if the Taliban get strong in Afghanistan after the exit of the allied troops. The mainland militant groups will also be strengthened. Pakistan’s leadership should recognise that no militant group can be viewed as a strategic asset. Rather, these are going to be a strategic liability for Pakistan.
The writer is an independent political and defence analyst.