US-Pakistan Relations: The Reality of Direct Action Threats?
Babar Sattar: The News, July 27, 2007
The US National Intelligence Estimate has declared that the US is in a heightened threat environment because al-Qaeda has regenerated and consolidated itself on being provided a safe haven in the Pakistan Federally Administered Tribal Area. President Bush endorsed this threat assessment and while he said that "we will work with our partners to deny safe haven to the Taliban and al-Qaeda in Pakistan", Assistant Secretary of State Richard Boucher and White House Spokesperson Tony Snow have stated in so many words that the US is considering all options including direct attacks in Pakistan's tribal areas. Pakistan's foreign minister has told CNN that such talk is "irresponsible and dangerous", but the Musharraf regime has not formally responded to this veiled threat of armed aggression by the US.
The Bush administration and the Musharraf regime make strange bedfellows. General Musharraf is hailed as a strong leader and a dependable ally and in the same breath the US Administration makes muffled threats of attacking Pakistan. What kind of an alliance is this where you get paid if you meet your ally's expectations and lynched if you don't? Do reliable friends and partners threaten each other through hostile media statements? Is this relationship sustainable when Pakistan stands for a mischief-harbouring state in the eyes of American public and the US is perceived by a majority of Pakistani as the most opportunistic and reviled country? Does the muffled war-talk of last week herald the onset of US aggression against Pakistan or is it a continuation of the carrot-and-stick policy to ratchet up pressure on the general to commit more armed troops to fight the American war in Pakistan's tribal areas?
First of all there is nothing new about the US threats. It is just a reiteration of the stated US policy for dealing with al-Qaeda and the Taliban. President Bush made a similar statement during the UN session in 2006. General Musharraf, who was also in New York at the time to attend the UN moot, was asked for his reaction and he stated that Pakistan would not 'like' for the US to carry out armed action within Pakistan! That was that. The meetings between Bush and Musharraf seemed hunky-dory and business as usual. So if the US is being seen as indulging in irresponsible talk now, it has done so before and has never elicited a formidable reaction from the Musharraf regime.
President Bush and other members of his administration persistently echo the super-power bravado that they are committed to attacking al-Qaeda within Pakistan's sovereign territory (in flagrant breach of international law) if they have actionable intelligence, because Pakistan has chosen to tolerate such irresponsible speech as well as military actions in the past. If the Bush Administration chooses to publicly indulge in saberrattling, excessive discretion might not be the better part of valour for Pakistan. At a time of internal turmoil where a majority of citizens are not convinced of the righteousness of Pakistan army waging a war against Pakistan's own citizens in the tribal areas (even those sympathetic to al-Qaeda), keeping mum over US implicit threats to invade Pakistani territory puts the loyalty of Pakistani government to Pakistan's national interest in question, while also making the citizens more angry at an immoral alliance between Bush administration and the Musharraf regime.
Second, let us not get wound-up in excitement over this war-talk. The US statements and the responses by the Musharraf regime are driven by politics. President Bush is struggling to deal with a failed Iraq policy at home. His political detractors, who wish to sound tough on national security, criticize as misguided and flawed the deviation the focus of the War on Terror from Afghanistan (where al-Qaeda exists) to Iraq (where its presence is either make-belief a consequence of the US attack). In this backdrop issuing critical statements against Pakistan for not doing enough to reign in al-Qaeda and the Taliban helps prop-up a useful scapegoat to dump the blame for a failed war in Afghanistan just the way the toothless Iraqi civilian government is being blamed for not doing enough to clean up the mess created by the Americans in that war ravaged country.
Hostile US statements also help General Musharraf in two ways: One, on the domestic front his regime points to US intent to directly invade the tribal areas as a force majure situation leaving no other option for the general but to take preemptive action to wade-off the American threat. And two, the public opprobrium that America's bullying attracts is then held out by the regime as a major factor tying the general's hands, and by acting in disregard of such public sentiment the regime establishes its unfaltering loyalty to the US cause on the one hand and sends an implicit message on the other that a democratic government constrained by public opinion could never render such service to the US in furthering its present strategic interests in the region.
The US has clear double-standards when it comes to foreign policy: there is one set of standards for rule or law, civil liberties and human rights to be upheld for citizens at home and a totally different set of standards when it comes to pursuing its strategic and military interests abroad. It is unbelievable that a nation so committed to enforcing and romanticizing the rule of law as a system of governance is equally at peace with advocating its breach elsewhere such lofty notions get in the way of perceived US national interest abroad. The US understands the immorality of justifying civilian casualties in Pakistan's tribal areas as collateral damage or propagating extra-judicial killing of militants or requesting that captured militants be handed over to the US in defiance of Pakistan's legal requirements, but continues nevertheless.
Despite this comfort of placing different value tags on American lives versus those of tribal area residents (or Iraqi civilians for that matter), the US will not carry out attacks within Pakistan's tribal areas unless it has been conveyed the impression that Musharraf regime will not consider such adventurism an act of hostility and aggression against Pakistan's sovereignty. That such attacks would be in breach of international law would not really deter the US. What would is that the US needs Pakistan more at this time than Pakistan needs the US. The US does not even have a fleeting chance of success in trying to tame Afghanistan if Pakistan turns unfriendly.
With its waning appetite for body bags being received from Iraq the last thing the US would want is to place its military resources at risk in the tribal areas bordering Afghanistan where they would become cannon--fodder for the Taliban, just as Pakistan Army learnt the hard way over the last few years. And with Iraq under occupation, Palestine under siege, Iran at the brink of nuclear capability and most of Muslim world burning with rage against the US, attacking Pakistan after declaring it an enemy state would probably be the stupidest thing the Americans can conceive of doing.
The US will neither attack the tribal areas directly nor threaten Pakistan with such attacks, if it reasonably believes that such actions could anger Pakistan into severing its military ties with the US. The US has no leverage with Pakistan at the moment, except that a beleaguered general is ruling us who needs US support to bolster himself at home and clutch on to power.
The writer is a lawyer based in Islamabad. He is a Rhodes Scholar and has an LL.M from Harvard Law School. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org