August 3, 2012

Fitting Info-Battle Greets New ISI Chief In Washington

Dueling headlines have become obsolete in the face of single contradictory reports.

According to Reuters, one of two things happened yesterday when Pakistan's Lieutenant-General Zaheer ul-Islam sat down in David Petraeus's office. Selected in March to lead Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), ul-Islam flew to Washington with general orders to maintain a degree of control, however loose, over U.S. military and intelligence operations inside the country. This "public preview" supposedly "displeased" U.S. officials even though Petraeus and the CIA have no intention of permanently halting drones inside Pakistani territory. What exactly happened remains open to interpretation, but not much is left to the imagination. "Sources familiar with the discussions" claim that Petraeus and ul-Islam aired their governments' "mutual grievances" without making "big strides on the main issues."

Equally telling, one U.S. official released a trite statement in an unconvincing effort to highlight U.S.-Pakistani relations: "The discussions today between General Zahir and Director Petraeus were substantive, professional, and productive. Both leaders reaffirmed their commitment to work together to counter the terrorist presence in the region that threatens both U.S. and Pakistani national security."

The Obama administration plans to ignore Pakistan's parliamentary veto on drone strikes.

Chatter between two spy agencies is usually informative so long as one ignores their lines and reads between them. U.S.-Pakistani relations remain as frigid and transactional as 30 years ago, and the Obama administration has managed to keep America at Bush-like unpopularity levels. Regardless of how close the two countries must cooperate in the name of national security, their fractious relationship will never create permanent stability for the region or trust between capitals. In the near term, Washington desperately needs Islamabad to ramp up pressure on the Haqqanis, either militarily or politically, as more U.S. and NATO forces redeploy ahead of 2015. Afghanistan's prospects are uncertain even with their network dismantled, but a strong core would further destabilize a post-2014 landscape in both countries.

Multiple reports conducted by the U.S. government have found that the Haqqanis' arm of the Taliban network remains intact, presenting one of many threats to the success of President Barack Obama's strategy.

Petraeus has tried to eliminate these sanctuaries since taking command of CENTCOM in 2008, and presumably argued that Islamabad must crack down if it doesn't want the Reapers to continue firing into tribal areas. Recent Congressional efforts have introduced legislation asking Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to label the Haqqani Network as a Foreign Terrorist Organization. One source claims that Islamabad will not object to this move, and the government is still inclined to accept the occasional drone strike in North Waziristan, but American pressure is unlikely to completely sway the Pakistanis against the Haqqanis or other proxies. Cheap rhetorical tricks - "the U.S. supports the Pakistanis taking more responsibility for ridding the tribal areas of al Qaeda and its militant allies" - certainly won't work.

Due to the pervasive doubts over Washington's own strategy for the region, Islamabad is waiting out America's withdrawal (along with the Taliban) and remains content to engage the Haqqanis and other quasi-allies on its terms.

The Obama administration is simply asking Islamabad to do too much, too quickly in Waziristan, and the inability to restore America's public image in Pakistan is only making the situation worse. Speaking to the London-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism, Pakistan's High Commissioner to the United Kingdom spelled out the obvious root of evil that plagues U.S.-Pakistani relations. Wajid Shamsul would plausibly assert that "there are those in the US government who would still prefer to be dealing with a dictator," a belief reinforced by the CIA's interaction with the ISI.

"The United States if you look at Pakistan's 65 year history has always preferred to deal with one man rather than with institutions, he said. "They would never like a matter to go to the parliament, to be debated there, for issues to be accountable to the parliament and the people, they don't want that, they want one man."

A final question lurks at the bottom of North Waziristan's uncertainty: will Washington eventually deploy ground forces if Islamabad refuses to launch its own mission, as so many reports have alleged over the years? Such an intervention appears to possess the  power to further destabilize Pakistan and Afghanistan, rather than generate a victorious Western endgame or peace for the local populations.

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