Posted on Friday, September 30, 2011
in The Friday Times (Editorial)
The Friday Times: Najam Sethi’s Editorial
Admiral Mike Mullen’s brutally candid statements have pushed US-Pak relations to the brink. Shortly after the unilateral US Navy Seal raid to extract OBL from Abbottabad on May 2, he said the US had done it because it didn’t trust the Pakistani ISI. This provoked the ISI to expel CIA from Pakistan. Then Adm Mullen accused the ISI of involvement in the kidnapping and killing of Pakistani journalist Saleem Shahzad. This added injury to insult. But his parting kick – ‘the ISI is an arm of the Haqqani network which is a terrorist organization that is killing Americans in Afghanistan’ – is an extraordinary declaration of intent to wage war against both. The fact that all the other branches of US government immediately lined up behind Adm Mullen seemed to confirm that the dye was consciously cast as policy. Accordingly, a spate of reports and analyses followed in the American media and think tanks, outlining the “options” before the US in pursuit of coercive diplomacy against Pakistan.
But the reaction in Pakistan has injected a dose of timely introspection in Washington. Instead of continuing to critique the Pakistani military for being complicit or incompetent in the OBL case, for making journalists “disappear” in Pakistan and for breaking bread with terrorists, Pakistanis have lined up behind their Army, and everyone politician is tripping over himself to condemn America, proving that anti-Americanism, rather than anti-Indianism, is the motive force of Pakistani nationalism today, hardly a propitious environment for a “strategic relationship” between Pakistan and America.
Both establishments feel that cant live with or without each other. That is why both sides have wisely decided to step back from the brink.
In Washington, unofficial spokesmen are leaking comment that Adm Mullen went beyond his brief and upped the ante unnecessarily, partly because of his personal frustration at being unable to read the mindset of his avowed “friend” Kayani despite 27 “frank” meetings with him in the last four years! The think-tank crowd that was quick to list US coercive options in progressive order to make Pakistan’s military, civilian government and people fall in line – starting with military aid cut-off, moving on to civilian aid cut-off, declaring the Haqqani network a terrorist organization, sanctioning Pakistan by implication and association and ending up with a US military boots-on-ground operation in Waziristan – are also having second thoughts.
Both sides are working behind the scenes to repair the damage and get back on track because there is no other realistic option for either.
But for how long? The underlying assumptions and gut reactions of both establishments in Pakistan and America are at stark variance regarding the end-game in Afghanistan – the Haqqani network is a terrorist organization for one and an ally for the other, this being only one manifestation of the contradiction at hand. So when will the next showdown come and over what sort of issue?
The Pakistani establishment will discreetly try to get back into the loop with the Americans. Some joint operation and targeting in Waziristan may materialize soon enough to allay some American distrust and disquiet. American drones strikes are bound to increase by disregarding civilian casualties, if only to show to the American and Pakistani public that America means business. Equally, the Pakistanis are likely to restrain the Haqqani network to stay clear of American civilian targets like embassies no less than loosening their relatively overt links with it in order to avoid the CIA’s eyes and ears. The worst thing in this sort of troubled relationship is a smoking gun.
Both countries would be lucky to get by for another few months without another major incident blowing up in someone’s face or the other. By next April, the Taliban will be ready for a major operation to decisively derail President Obama’s Afghanistan agenda when the US establishment will be focused on the presidential election. America will be in desperate straits. In order to thwart the Taliban’s summer agenda, therefore, America is most likely going to “do more” in its winter agenda before next summer. Short of American boots-on-ground in Waziristan, only Pakistani boots-on-ground will work. But if the Pakistani army is still unable or unwilling to oblige, then cruise missiles and high altitude bombing could be options.
Should that come to pass, however, the war in Afghanistan will spill over to a war in Pakistan. And that should be the last thing America or its Western allies would want.
Therefore, the sooner the Americans and Pakistanis lay their cards on the table and claim their respective interests in Afghanistan based on their Tajik-Uzbek and Pashtun proxies, a significant amount of give and take should show the way forward for both in the Afghan end-game. Yesterday, the only good Taliban was a dead one for the Americans. Today, top Taliban commanders are being removed from the terrorist wanted list. Today, the Haqqani network is a terrorist organization. Tomorrow it might well be sitting at the table in Qatar.