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The balancing act

The US-Pakistan working relationship is not a strategic alliance but a need-based arrangement. The challenge is to reconcile two divergent geo-strategies

By Imtiaz Gul

Friday Times ,April 22, 2011

Let us consider what primarily drives and defines the current US policy toward Pakistan

In January this year, Adm Michael Mullen reiterated what the majority of the US Congress and the establishment believes. “I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, [Pakistan] is the epicentre of terrorism in the world right now. It is absolutely critical that the safe havens in Pakistan get shut down. We cannot succeed in Afghanistan without that. It’s not just Haqqani network any more, or Al Qaeda or TTP (Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan), the Afghan Taliban, or LeT (Lashkar-e-Taiba). It’s all of them working together.”

And a day before arriving in Islamabad, Mullen restated in Kabul (Reuters, April 19) that US and Pakistani leaders agree they cannot afford to let security ties unravel. “I think that all of us believe that we cannot afford to let this relationship come apart,” he said at the Forward Operating Base Salerno in Afghanistan.

“We’re working our way through the relationships that the ISI has with the Haqqani network and the strain that that creates… and these are issues I address with [Gen Ashfaq Parvez Kayani] every single time we engage.”

These statements underline the American narrative: a) the Haqqani network nestled in North Waziristan remains a threat to the US-Afghan strategic interests; b) the Haqqani network is host to Al Qaeda; c) Al Qaeda “force multipliers” ie TTP, LeT, and LeJ are working out of North Waziristan to destabilise Afghanistan; d) Pakistani military establishment considers this grand network its “strategic asset” and is thus reluctant to move against them, and e) Lashkar-e-Taiba remains the most prized asset for the India-centric Pakistani establishment.

Almost every single American leader and parliamentarian regurgitates this narrative – whenever and wherever possible. They also forcefully quote “the massive, billions of dollars aid” the US is giving to Pakistan under the Kerry-Lugar-Berman law passed in 2009.

Let us now consider the Pakistani response to this and evaluate the aid promised by the US. A paltry $179.5 million have been paid against the $1.5 billion promised for 2010.The Reconstruction Opportunity Zones for FATA regions were promised in 2006 but the legislation failed twice in the Congress because of opposition from the US textile lobby (Dawn, April 20th).

And more important than aid, for Pakistan, is the issue of clandestine US intelligence operations in Pakistan through private security contractors. The arrest of Raymond Davis blew the lid off those operations and caused massive consternation in the Pakistani security establishment.

“He had become like a fishbone in Pakistan’s craw; we could neither swallow (prosecute him), nor cough up (release) without some semblance of legal procedures,” says one of the most senior military generals.

This episode not only exposed what until Davis’ release had been hidden, but also delivered a serious jolt to the US-Pakistan relationship, and that is why you see American luminaries now heading to Pakistan (Centcom Commander Gen James Mattis followed by Mike Mullen to be followed by Hilary Clinton in the next few weeks).

Public statements enunciating the desire to put the Davis issue behind and take this “strategic relationship forward” notwithstanding, the mutual undeclared acrimony as well as the ISI-CIA turf-wars for their mutually conflicting interests in the region ie Afghanistan and India, continue to overshadow all American attempts to normalise ties and return to the “Strategic Dialogue” for various reasons.

Pakistan does not consider it a strategic dialogue, but America’s attempt to peddle its agenda: pressuring Pakistan to switch off support to what the Americans believe are its strategic assets, such as the Haqqani network and LeT.

Mapping and profiling of these organisations – and of course their linkages – is probably one of the objectives of the CIA covert operations through private security contractors such as Raymond Davis.

The CIA activities as well as repeated statements from the US intelligence and military officials, including those from Admiral Mullen and Gen Petraeus, clearly underscore their suspicion of the ISI and the Pakistani army, says the senior general. “You may call it turf wars but essentially we are trying to balance our relationship with the CIA for the simple reason that none of us can afford a head-on confrontation. We have managed this pretty well despite heavy odds.”

“At times they arm-twist us but then return with smiles and goodwill. Sometimes we take a stiff position (eg in the Raymond Davis case) but then give in, basically oscillating between two extreme position and trying to balance,” says the military official.

One of the the military establishment’s arguments runs along these lines: the ISI does for Pakistan more or less the same that the CIA does for the USA. And there is a certain strategic thinking behind ISI’s work.

“We haven’t allowed our strategic framework to obstruct the broad contours of our working relationship with the US military and the CIA. It is a need-based arrangement – not strategic at all – that suits us both,” he said.

One of the preoccupations of the Pakistani establishment is the US tilt towards India. It has conveyed its concerns on various fora about the expanding Indian influence in Afghanistan, which Pakistani officials believe will grow in the post-ISAF/US withdrawal in 2014.

Military officials believe that the Americans are consciously pursuing a policy that they believe would neutralise Pakistani influence in Afghanistan because they don’t want it to return to the dark days of 1990s – an Afghanistan under the Taliban.

Pakistani generals believe that the Indo-American duo, with the active support and connivance of a Tajik-dominated Afghan security establishment, is trying right now to curtail Pakistan’s influence in Afghanistan (they cannot end it altogether). And the CIA seems to be the lynchpin in the entire scheme.

Pakistan therefore believes the ISI cannot afford to relent and allow the United States or its security institutions a free hand in shaping the geo-political agenda in the region.

This appears to be the key Pakistani concern in its policy towards the United States, which in turn remains wary of Pakistan’s perceived nexus with militants and considers India a potential stabilising factor. The challenge right now is how to marry these divergent geo-strategic objectives.

The writer heads the Centre for Research and Security Studies, Islamabad

Email: imtiaz@crss.pk