December 4, 2009

Mutual Suspicions

Diplomacy between America and Pakistan has assumed the characteristics of military conflict. The front line, where each side meets, is generally cordial. Each side quickly encounters resistance though when it enters the other’s territory.

The two countries aren’t enemies, but their interaction suggests that they don’t share a common enemy either.

“Pakistan appreciates Obama’s statement in which he said that the US relations with Pakistan are not limited to partnership in the war against terror,” Pakistan Prime Minister Yousuf Gilani said in London where he’s discussing the war with UK officials. “Islamabad is considering the implications of the new US policy. The Obama administration has taken us into confidence on this policy.”

Still, Pakistan’s lukewarm response has been interpreted as disappointment. It’s hard to hide when someone is truly happy, and hard to fake they’re not. Though Gilani said Pakistan has been consulted, he cautioned, “We are studying that new policy. We need more clarity on it."

He also said General Stanley McChrystal and Admiral Mike Mullen are coming to Pakistan to coordinate with Pakistan’s military and government. That they came after finalizing their strategy suggests America didn’t consult Pakistan 100%. Doing so is presumably too dangerous.

Looking past their public fronts, America and Pakistan still harbor deep distrust for each other’s intentions in the region. America still doesn’t trust Pakistan to dismantle the Taliban and Pakistan doesn’t think America is in Afghanistan to destroy al-Qaeda. Both believe, correctly, that the other is after regional power.

Afghanistan is zero-sum until their relationship fundamentally changes. Victory is improbable unless Obama somehow reconciles America and Pakistan’s interests.

Pakistan fears two scenarios, although they ultimately merge. Some officials believe Obama’s surge will push the Afghan insurgency into Pakistan, who will then be asked (or ordered) to finish the job while America searches for an exit.

The more indirect option would see a voluntary Taliban exodus into Pakistan, where they would wait out Obama’s July 2011 deadline. A decline in operations could give the appearance of success, whereupon the Taliban would reemerge in Afghanistan and spread chaos during Obama’s 2012 election campaign.

Pakistan would be expected to confront the Afghan Taliban either way. British PM Gordon Brown and Secretary of State HIllary Clinton both recently uttered that scandalous phrase “do more,” emitting the exact impression Pakistan fears - that it’s fighting America’s war.

Clinton wants Pakistan to engage all militants, not just the TTP but the Haqqani network, Hafiz Gul Bahadur, Lashkar-e-Taiba, and of course Mullah Omar and his shura.

“It is difficult to parse out the different groups that are operating within Pakistan, all of whom we think are connected in one way or another with Al Qaida, and partition some off and go after the others,” she said.

Driving Islamabad’s opposition or neutrality towards Obama is this realistic possibility, but when Gilani says, “we need more clarity,” he’s speaking of a parallel strategy. Pakistan isn’t the only one anticipating hide and seek with the Afghan Taliban.

White House officials confirm that Obama, fearing a Taliban evacuation along with the routine “al-Qaeda safe havens charge,” is urgently pushing for action. Since Pakistan is unlikely to take on all militant groups inside its borders, Obama is ramping up his silent war too.

“The president endorsed an intensification of the campaign against Al Qaeda and its violent allies, including even more operations targeting terrorism safe havens,” said one official. “More people, more places, more operations.”

According to the New York Times
, the CIA submitted a beefed up budget to increase its operations. The main story is Obama’s persistence to expand drone operations into Balochistan, where Taliban leaders are alleged to be hiding. His message was repeatedly passed along to Pakistan via National Security Adviser James Jones.

But Gilani toned down military action, saying, “I personally feel the military action is not the solution for problems. Therefore we must have an exit policy. Military action is only 10 per cent. The 90 per cent is that you have to strengthen, you have to complement with the political decisions, the social, cultural input in those areas.”

Reuters quoted Foreign Ministry spokesman Abdul Basit as saying, “This has never been part of our discussions. There are clear red-lines as far as we're concerned. We have clearly conveyed our red-lines to them."

Public dissent revolves around this standoff.

Pakistan finds itself in a precarious position. Yes, much could be made easier if it made a clean break with the Taliban, but this possibility is unrealistic. America knows well the art of proxy and no less can be expected of Pakistan. Squeezed between Iran and India, it needs a regional ally in Afghanistan.

Pakistan believes the Taliban cannot be defeated and therefore must be utilized if possible, especially in the event of their return to power. Though General McChrystal also admitted that the Taliban cannot be defeated, Islamabad’s attitude might provoke America into expanding its covert operations without approval.

Pakistan is said to be drawing contingency plans for such an event.

Tempting as an expanded covert program is, foreseeable troubles can been seen from years away. Equal, mutual, and transparent relations are the only hope of a successful counterinsurgency - unless Obama believes a US-Pakistani gunfight will rebuild trust in Afghanistan.

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