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Pakistan-US relations: Back to Brinkmanship

By Imtiaz Gul

Weekly Pulse, September 30, 2011

"We need to put Pakistan on notice, …I am saying that the sovereign nation of Pakistan is engaging in hostile acts against the United States and our ally Afghanistan. "The idea of Pakistan's intelligence agencies supporting terrorism as a national strategy needs to come to an end. It destabilizes Afghanistan. They're killing American soldiers. If they continue to embrace terrorism as part of their national strategy we're going to have to put all options on the table, including defending our troops." 

These stark words by US Senator Lindsey Graham on the Fox TV (Sept 25th) basically summed up the current American narrative, and the reasons for the over-spilling emotions. Following up on what Admiral Mullen and Leon Panetta, the secretary of defense, had said earlier in the week, the Republican senator warned the United States will have to consider all options "including defending our troops" in confronting Pakistani support for militant networks fighting U.S. soldiers in the region.

Graham’s outburst as well as offensive rhetoric by Mullen and Panetta essentially resonated the belief in Washington that Pakistan remains an essential, but deeply unreliable ally in the war on terror, especially with respect to the conflict in Afghanistan. The behaviour of the Pakistani military is suspect, and decision makers in Washington consider it as duplicitous, actively undermining US peace-making efforts in Afghanistan. Pakistan’s military, they believe, is seriously infiltrated by Islamist extremists who support the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban if not Al Qaeda itself. The ISI, or elements within, are compromised and co-opted by its pro-Islamist agenda and cannot be trusted in delicate operations, such as the raid on Abbottabad against OBL. Washington sees Pakistan's security establishment - unlike India - as a destabilizing force within South Asia, a geo-political liability, and thus Pakistan as a country has forfeited the right to sustained US military aid. 

Keeping in view the current umbrage flowing out of Washington, it is easy to assume that between Secretary of State Hilary Clinton’s visit to Islamabad (May 27th) in the aftermath of Osam bin Laden’s assassination, and the statements by Mullen, Panetta and Senator Graham, nothing has changed, and the mutual mistrust has touched new levels.

Secretary of Defence Leon Panetta’s September 22nd warning of “operational steps” against Pakistan (for failure to take action against the Haqqani Network), followed by the outgoing military chief Admiral Mike Mullen accusing the ISI of having used its “veritable arm” (The Haqqani Network) , therefore came as no surprise . Both practically implicated the ISI and the Haqqani network in the Sept 13th attack on the US Embassy in Kabul. 

Though not unsurprising, Mullen’s first frontal attack on the ISI underscored his desperation to bend the Pakistani army in a military offensive against the Haqqanis in North Waziristan. 

By calling the Haqqanis the “veritable arm of ISI”, Mullen crossed all limits of diplomacy, it seems, and one wonders how to interpret this sabre-rattling. Is it real brinkmanship arising out of genuine concerns, or a bluster to scapegoat Pakistan for failures in Afghanistan – as the US and allies feel the pinch of the protracted engagement in a seemingly endless conflict? Is it a tripodal Afghan insurgency (Mulla Omar, Hekmetyar and the Haqqanis), or just the Haqqani Network that Americans would have us believe is the only evil attacking the American and Afghan interests with the ISI support?

What does actually the American fixation with the Haqqanis as the only source of violence in Afghanistan mean? Scapegoating Pakistan for the US-NATO failures in Afghanistan? Or does the American establishment want to sink Pakistan in deeper mess by demanding of it a full-scale military operation in North Waziristan, where the army already maintains about five brigades?

Will the American leadership stop there, or move the goalposts on targets inside Pakistan? At the moment it is difficult to say, but the recent history suggests that in international politics, truth is always difficult to find. Take for example the US-UK invasion of Iraq, where both powers used the ruse of weapons of mass destruction to walk in, occupy and tie Iraq in a decade long bondage for dirt-cheap oil (in the name of war reparations). No weapons of mass destruction were ever found.

Secondly, the entire world thought so far that the invasion of Afghanistan was legitimate with complete UN sanction for it. But popular British columnist, Brian Cloughly, a South Asian affairs analyst, in a recent article posted on www.beecluff.com, shocked us all by pointing out that there was no real UN Security Council resolution for the invasion of Afghanistan. “Two researchers in the British House of Commons have produced a paper titled ‘The Legal Basis for the Invasion of Afghanistan’. And they wrote: “The military campaign in Afghanistan was not specifically mandated by the UN -- there was no specific Security Council Resolution authorising the invasion – but was widely (although not universally) perceived to be a legitimate form of self-defence under the UN Charter.”

A cursory look at http://www.un.org/Depts/dhl/resguide/scact2001.html, the UN Documentation guide on the Security Council (SC) meetings/actions, provides only two references to Afghanistan, or related resolutions: the first was a September 12th resolution, condemning the 9/11 attacks, and the second was a September 28th resolution on “Peace and Security and terrorist Acts” which outlined measures member states were required to take to counter the terrorist threat. No mention at all of any invasion of Afghanistan. That action, therefore, was also bereft as much of the UN approval as the attack on Iraq.

The past decade, therefore, reflects a bitter reality; the United States wants a blind compliance of all its desires, and, in most cases, to the disregard of others' interests. It now wants Pakistan to burn its fingers for paving the way for the phased withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan.

It seems that “national interests” motivated both the US and the UK to launch those offensives, and practically bypass the United Nations. Will they now invade Pakistan in the name of their national interest? Should Pakistan take Senator Graham’s and Panetta’s barbed statements as tolling bells? For the time being, they sound like brinkmanship – trying to measure the Pakistani vulnerabilities. But even if Pakistan stays firm, one probably should not expect direct American military onslaught. That would probably also suck China into the game.

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

Email: imtiaz@crss.pk