May 4

Two hands to clap

Posted on Friday, May 4, 2012 in The Friday Times (Editorial)

The Friday Times: Najam Sethi’s Editorial

Two years ago the US and Pakistan were touting a strategic, long term, relationship. Today they are barely able to admit a transactional, short term, one. The trouble started with the Raymond Davis affair in February last year, plumbed new depths with the US Navy Seal raid to kill Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad in May and hit rock bottom with the Salala incident last November. In each case, US action or policy notched up anti-Americanism in Pakistan, severely embarrassed the government and military and stiffened their resistance to American unilateralism in the region. Where do we go from here?

Pakistan’s parliament has taken nearly six months to formulate its position on renegotiating terms of engagement with the US. The sticking point remains America’s drone policy. The military is opposed to drone strikes against the Haqqani network in Waziristan because it is viewed as a long-term Pakistani “asset” in the shaping of Pakistani interests in Afghanistan. The public resents it as a blatant violation of Pakistan’s honour and sovereignty. The elected government is unwilling to incur the wrath of both in an election year simply to appease the US, notwithstanding its obvious transactional losses in the shape of bilateral budgetary grants and aid, multilateral balance of payments support (especially from the IMF), and Coalition Support Funds, weapons and spares for the Pakistan military.

Meanwhile, the delay in reopening the NATO pipeline from Karachi to Kabul as a consequence of all this is cause for rising frustration and anger in Washington. It is also an election year in America – nearly 70% of the public wants most of “the boys” back home by 2014 as pledged by the Obama administration. But the Afghan endgame is not shaping up as strategized by the administration. The bilateral Qatar dialogue with the Taliban has stalled over last minute changes in pre-conditions by the Americans. The trilateral commission comprising Pakistan, Afghanistan and the US isn’t making much headway in nudging the Taliban to come in from the cold. And the recent Taliban raids in Kabul have demonstrated their ability to launch a spring offensive to shake the Kabul regime and embarrass America. Last but not least, the Americans have had to “apologize” to Kabul for their insensitivity over the Quran burning incident and their unaccountability over the killing spree of one of their soldiers. Under the circumstances, the Obama administration has balked at offering another “apology” to appease Pakistan over the Salala incident because it might provoke the Republican opposition to contemn the Democrats and belittle them in the eyes of the “American people”.

Fortunately, though, both Pakistan and America recognize the need to cooperate with each other in order to protect and enhance their respective interests. In Pakistan’s case, this means an American acknowledgement of Pakistan’s legitimate sovereignty claims (drone policy) coupled with maximum political space for the Pakhtun Afghan Taliban in any endgame-settlement. In America’s case, it means a restoration of the NATO pipeline coupled with Pakistani prodding of the Afghan Taliban to cease fire and come to the negotiating table with America and Kabul.

Pakistan’s civil-military leaders are grappling with a policy formulation that restores the NATO pipeline, restricts the drones and reduces the US Intel footprint in Pakistan to the minimal satisfaction of the Pakistani opposition and public in exchange for maximum economic and military assistance coupled with greater American flexibility vis a vis the Haqqani network. To facilitate this in the eyes of their own public, they are, however belatedly, claiming a cooperative role in helping America track down OBL last year – recent interviews by ISI officials and by the Pakistani defense minister testify to this belated initiative.

But the Pakistani military will have to make a forceful endorsement of this policy before the public than it has done so far if it is to nudge the government to own it unequivocally. It will also have to shield the Zardari government from crumbling in the face of an overly aggressive judiciary and opposition. Any regime change at this stage would jeopardize attempts to bring the US-Pak relationship back on track. A recent statement by the army chief, General Ashfaq Kayani, stressing the need for all institutions of the state not to transgress the limits of their constitutional authority, however ironic in view of the repeated culpability of the military on this score, is aimed at stabilizing the government.

The US must reciprocate in order to break the deadlock with Pakistan. It should agree to a more acceptable “management” of the drone programme in order to alleviate Pakistani sensitivities. It should fully back the trilateral dialogue with Pakistan and Afghanistan aimed at securing a “proper” seat for the Afghan Taliban in the power endgame instead of stressing a bilateral dialogue with the Taliban that creates distrust and unease in Kabul and Islamabad. It should not balk at an appropriate acknowledgment of its responsibility for Salala. And it should not be financially niggardly with Islamabad while being overly generous with Kabul.