July 8, 2011

U.S. Playing Chicken With Shahzad’s Assassination

What Washington stands to gain by publicly challenging Islamabad on Syed Saleem Shahzad is anyone’s guess. Points are scored on the U.S. and Indian political front and within the journalistic community, particularly Pakistan’s, but the government’s assassination of Shahzad’s is the latest mine to detonate its relationship with America. Private diplomacy often blows up in Washington’s face, as Pakistanis have acquired a deep-rooted distrust over a half century of interference.

Now appeared to be the time for private action though. Public intervention won’t repair the existing damage, only aggravate a delicate rejuvenation process that remains in its infancy.

That the Pentagon finally called out Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) isn’t surprising, given the accumulating body of evidence against the spy outfit. Political pressure from Washington’s anti-Pakistani bloc, namely the U.S. Congress, helped push the White House’s criticism outward. With the Pentagon priding itself on Washington’s most functional relationship with Islamabad, delivering the message through its mouthpiece seemingly attempted to soften the blow.

"His (death) isn't the first,” said Michael Mullen, the outgoing Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (CJCS). 
"For whatever reason, it has been used as a method historically. It's not a way to move ahead. It's a way to continue to, quite frankly, spiral in the wrong direction.”

Cluelessness is an inherent element of U.S. policy in Pakistan.

While Mullen has tacitly admitted in previous interviews that relations with Pakistanis remain soured, the Admiral believes he enjoys a healthy bond with Pakistan’s military. Yet repeated push-back against Mullen’s statement over North Waziristan, nuclear weapons and Mullah Omar beg to differ; Islamabad’s public posturing doesn’t fully compensate for its resistance against U.S. interference. Maybe Mullen decided that, since he was moving out in September, he could sacrifice himself over an extremely flammable topic. Pakistani Information Minister Dr. Firdous Ashiq Awan labeled Mullen’s comments an "extremely irresponsible and unfortunate statement.”

"This statement will create problems and difficulties for the bilateral relations between Pakistan and America,” she told reporters on Friday. “It will definitely deal a blow to our common efforts with regard to the war on terror.”

Washington’s warning appears designed to pit Islamabad against its own people, not the wisest strategy in a land that America has yet to comprehend. However one can see why an opportunity is believed to exist. In the same way that Islamabad is trying to capitalize on rising opposition to the Pakistani Taliban and regional militancy in general - Dr. Awan just discussed a “code of conduct” with the media - Washington hopes to siphon the ISI’s own unpopularity for its own purposes. The Saleem Shahzad Commission of Inquiry, headed by Supreme Court judge, Justice Saqib Nisar, said it would welcome any evidence from the U.S. government regarding Islamabad’s involvement.

Shahzad’s killing triggered an enormous backlash that the White House seeks to ride.

At the end of the day, though, Pakistanis are likely to perceive America’s “concern” as a self-interested scheme to clean out the ISI. The agency is believed to have looked away from Osama bin Laden’s Abbottabod compound, or else protected him outright. A rogue faction is suspected of working with Hakimullah’s branch of the TTP. The Pentagon clashes regularly on the ISI’s support for Kashmir insurgent groups, primarily Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) and Harkat-ul-Mujahideen (HuM). The CIA also met resistance over its expanding spy network, forcing it to circumvent Pakistan's entire government.

Many Pakistanis agree that the ISI must be reigned in - but not by Washington’s not-so-hidden hands. This is why Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani warned on Wednesday that pursuing “narrow interests” hurt Pakistan’s sovereignty.

However calling the ISI out on Shahzad’s murder is eclipsed by deploying The New York Times for a propaganda attack. With both the NYT and Wall Street Journal stumping for U.S. policy in Pakistan, such a direct editorial must be viewed as a pure extension of the White House. The NYT starts by singling out President Asif Zardari, “who needs to speak out firmly against abuses, insist on adherence to the rule of law and join his political rival, Nawaz Sharif, in pressing the security services to change. That can start by insisting on the retirement of Lt. Gen. Ahmed Shuja Pasha, the ISI chief, and the appointment of a more credible successor.”

As one of Pakistan’s weakest politicians, Zardari is likely to get nowhere with the ISI by himself or with Sharif.

Ironically Pakistan’s military, in theory, would function as a more practical source of pressure. Why the NYT would balk at calling out the military is difficult to understand when it is so willing to inflame: “The United States needs to use its influence to hasten Mr. Pasha’s departure. It should tell Pakistan’s security leadership that if Washington identifies anyone in ISI or the army as abetting terrorists, those individuals will face sanctions like travel bans or other measures. The ISI has become inimical to Pakistani and American interests.”

What, then, is the solution? Scrap the ISI altogether? Of course not - simply bring it back under full Pakistani (translation: American) control.

Perhaps Washington’s objective is accomplished by a friendlier ISI director, if such a person exists, but this needle is buried within the haystack. The ISI’s leadership and ranks are considered equally hostile to the U.S. and India, their traditional rival. Finding a neutral direct will be challenging enough; a friendly ISI commander is mythical. This task is rendered all the more improbable by attempting to meddle in ISI’s internal affairs. Calling for a new director is the opposite approach for securing its allegiance, and will only radicalize the ISI. Replacing its head would be tantamount to the ISI replacing the CIA - to the ISI replacing Panetta or Petraeus because of drone strikes - and how many fans would that policy win in Langley?

The gamesmanship over Shahzad could be headed to the brink.

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