January 14, 2011

"Do More" Leads to Less in Pakistan

As if there was any doubt.

For the last six months U.S. officials have taken to praising Pakistan’s military sweeps in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). Demanding a similar operation in North Waziristan to follow the laborious South Waziristan only delayed Islamabad’s response, and it seemed that Defense Secretary Robert Gates decided to think of ways around the wall rather than through it.

But substituting praise for commands doesn’t work so well with U.S. officials periodically calling out Pakistan on North Waziristan. Tends to ruin the disguise.

During the White House and Pentagon’s December “review” of the war in Afghanistan, President Barack Obama, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and Gates made sure that Pakistan absorbed a large amount of responsibility for Afghanistan’s current and future state. They also tried to stay light, with Gates once more singing Pakistan’s praises and claiming that any operation is its decision alone.

Yet not one Pakistani was surprised when Vice President Joe Biden and Joint Chief of Staff Michael Mullen rolled in blaring that quintessential American motto: “do more.”

"Not surprisingly, on his brief visit to Pakistan, US Vice President Joe Biden has conveyed his government’s impatience with Pakistan’s reluctance to take action in North Waziristan, a militants’ sanctuary,” writes The Daily Times, one of Pakistan’s more liberal papers. “At the same time, he tried to address Pakistan’s concerns raised in a document handed over to President Obama by Pakistan’s Chief of Army Staff General Ashfaq Pervaiz Kayani on the eve of the Strategic Dialogue in Washington. It might be argued that it was business as usual with the old recipe of carrot and stick. In the prevailing circumstances, when the US is increasingly becoming disillusioned by the futility of the war in Afghanistan, there was little else for Pakistan to expect.”

The more nationalistic of Pakistan’s media isn’t so gentle.

“US Vice President Joe Biden has given the Pakistani government a fairly clear-cut idea of the way thinking in Washington is moving,” says The News International’s editorial. “Impatience can be sensed in much of what Mr. Biden had to say during his six-hour stop in Islamabad.”

Even after decades of misunderstanding Pakistan’s history and society, Biden and Mullen have just delivered a stunningly ignorant counterinsurgency performance. The White House professes to fostering a deeper understanding of Pakistani politics, yet the reaction Biden and Mullen drew proves that Washington still elevates the military sphere above all other concerns. To Washington, eliminating militants aids Americans, Afghans, Indians, and Pakistanis.

A main problem in U.S.-Pakistani relations is that the list goes in that order.

“If the US is serious in its views,” argues The Nation, “as Mr. Biden professes, that its relations with Pakistan are ‘absolutely vital' and the US wants to ‘see it a developed and prosperous country,’ it should show due respect to the considered views of its experts. That should bring the mantra of ‘do more’ to an end.”

I made a similar notation after reading Mullen’s remarks: "I've said it before and I'll say it again it. Pakistan is the epicenter of terrorism in the world right now, and it deserves the attention of everybody to do as much as we can to eliminate that threat. But we cannot succeed in Afghanistan without shutting down those safe havens.”

If Mullen were really the Pakistani expert he acts like, he would know this tactic automatically triggers negative results. His insensitivity to Pakistan’s heated environment could delay an operation into North Waziristan as well - now that would prove this counter-productivity. Although Mullen claims that Pakistan is part of the long-term solution, a true statement, his short-term thinking may jeopardize the White House and Pentagon's wish for a July invasion.

Foreign Office spokesman Abdul Basit rejected Biden and Mullen’s advances with an extra jab. Perhaps playing on Washington’s “condition’s based” time-lines of July and 2014, Basit said that any operation into North Waziristan is Pakistan’s decision alone, and will be determined “on the security of the area.”

North Waziristan itself remains fairly stable due to Islamabad’s strategic depth. The TTP’s commander in the agency, Hafiz Gul Bahadur, agreed to a truce with the government before South Waziristan's invasion in June 2009, allowing the TTP’s leadership and many of its fighters to wait out the fighting. Hence the escalation in drone attacks in the north.

Bahadur generally refrains from attacking Pakistanis, but has promised war in the event of invasion, something Islamabad feels it doesn’t need any more of.

At one point Mullen correctly extends his sympathies: "One of the facts over the course of the last year is Pakistan is emerging from these devastating floods and their military, their army in particular, was diverted, and rightfully so, to take care of their own people. They're emerging from that... So the Pakistani military leadership has had to both guide that and readjust. I'm confident that the military knows what it has to do and I've been through this with General Kayani, and intends to do this.”

But he appears oblivious to canceling himself out. Asked, “Would we like to see it happen more quickly? Absolutely.” And that's his headline around the world.

The reality is that most Pakistanis do want the majority of militants out of their country, however they also see this as the means of riding U.S. influence in the region. They want to clean house on their terms, distrusting in America's. "The Taliban” hydra's heads all spring from Washington. Jalaluddin of the Haqqani network, which the Pentagon treats as worse than al-Qaeda, was made by the CIA. The Taliban spawned from a U.S.-induced power vacuum. And the TTP climbed out of the primordial soup America left after its invasion into Afghanistan and the Pakistani border region.

“This threat is evolving as well,” Mullen explains of the latest unintentional consequences from drone strikes, “because it's not just Haqqani Network anymore, or al-Qaida, or TTP [Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan, or Pakistani Taliban], the Afghan Taliban, or LET [Lashkar-e-Taiba], it's all of them working together in ways that two years ago they absolutely did not.”

Now Washington is making a new mistake by over-correcting, offering long-term relationships and prolonged occupations when many Afghans and Pakistanis want America out of the region as soon as possible. The Nation doesn’t speak for all Pakistanis, not even close. But its response to Biden is more fact than opinion.

“As he wished Pakistan to prosper, he should know that mere words would not do the trick. The American assistance to Pakistan has largely been directed towards the US-sponsored war on terror; as against its favors to India, its real strategic ally in the region, it has tried to create hurdles to the Chinese offer of nuclear energy assistance. The contrast is unmistakable. It has not even bothered to exercise any pressure on New Delhi for acceptance of Islamabad’s legitimate demands – settlement of Kashmir in accordance with its own commitments.”

It’s as if the Obama administration has already given up its short-lived attempt to win Pakistani “hearts and minds.” Though U.S. officials believe they’ve improved their public relations skills towards Islamabad, one piece of feedback instantly springs to mind: “do more.”

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