US tightens its grip on Pakistan?
By M K Bhadrakumar
Alphonse Karr, the 19th-century French novelist and pamphleteer, is principally remembered for the epigram, "The more it changes, the more it is the same thing." That could be the thought that comes to mind at first glance of speech made by US Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte at the National Endowment for Democracy's (NED) Pakistan forum in Washington on Monday. Yet, the speech merits attention.
In all practical terms, the speech is a final summing up but at the same time it sets outs the tone of the US policy towards Pakistan in the remaining months of the George W Bush administration. Pakistan is indeed a transformed home. New applications of new principles must be quickly forthcoming.
It is extraordinary that a seasoned diplomat like Negroponte has chosen the NED forum to make such a major speech on Pakistan. But then, "promoting democracy" - the motto of NED - also happens to be a stated objective of US policy towards Pakistan. Over the past quarter century, the US government-funded NED has specialized as a handmaiden of American regional policies.
The NED is well known for covertly funding and supporting politicians in Latin American countries with strong support to the military. Its activities in many countries are known to run parallel to those of the Central Intelligence Agency. Its sensational role in conceptualizing and orchestrating the "color revolutions" in Ukraine and Georgia was a high-water mark in the organization's history since its inception in 1983, mitigating to an extent its dismal failures in Iran, Venezuela and Cuba.
Rarely does a top diplomat speak so openly from a public forum as Negroponte did on the centrality of Pakistan for the US's national security. He spoke in Winston Churchill terms. "More than ever, our [US] national security depends on the success, security and stability of Pakistan ... We recognize that our fate - that is, our security, our freedom, our prosperity - is linked to the fate of the people of Pakistan," Negroponte said, echoing the gravitas of the British statesman during World War II.
What Negroponte implied was that Washington will categorically assure Pakistan that no matter the change of administration in the White House next year, the US commitment to a "long-term, substantial and comprehensive" partnership with Pakistan will remain a cornerstone of American regional policies.
Negroponte seems to have perceived that allies like Pakistan are increasingly beginning to look beyond the Bush administration and that is not going to do the "war on terror" in Afghanistan any good. In his recent visit to China, President Pervez Musharraf's mind desultorily wandered, inviting the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) to come and help stabilize the Afghan situation. But, why go to the SCO when the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) could still do a first rate job? The SCO comprises China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.
Negroponte, therefore, proceeded to underline that in its remaining months in office, the Bush administration will endeavor to establish a new framework of political, economic and security assistance to Pakistan. He singled out military cooperation as an important feature of that partnership.
Negroponte acknowledged that the weakening or "estrangement" in the US-Pakistan alliance in the post-Cold War setting in the 1990s had led to a "strategic disconnect" between the two militaries. The result has been that there are serious limits today to the US military's capacity to influence the officer corps of the Pakistani military. That deficiency needs to be rectified. The solution lies in reviving the old practice when as Cold War allies, the US military used to engage the middle and senior ranking Pakistani military officers within the framework of a "robust training and education program" so as to establish links with them on a sustained, enduring basis.
But Negroponte implied that Washington expects the Pakistani military to reciprocate by accommodating the US's strategy in the "war on terror" in the tribal areas of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border where military operations must continue. He said the Bush administration will have no objection in principle to the Pakistani civilian leadership's emphasis on the economic development and integration of the tribal areas, but "any kind of agreement or understanding which might be negotiated [with the Pakistani Taliban] will have to be consistent with the imperatives of the US strategy towards the war on terror".
Negroponte explained, "Whatever the approach, it's got to be multi-faceted ... it also has to include a security component. You can't let the irreconcilables, as I call them, have a free hand, have a free pass. They must be confronted." In other words, the imperatives of the US strategy are clear: Pakistan's tribal areas should cease to be a platform for the Taliban and al-Qaeda to stage cross-border attacks inside Afghanistan where US troops and other NATO troops "end up being the victims of such attacks". Therefore, the security operations must continue at any cost.
Negroponte made it clear that the US remains skeptical about the efforts of the Pakistani government to negotiate with militants in the tribal regions. He said, "I think that one would have to wait and see what is actually concluded, if such an agreement were to be concluded. Certainly, our past - our concern with past agreements regarding South Waziristan have gone to the issue of how much it really - these agreements really limited the scope of action of terrorism - of terrorists, extremist elements operating in the area, or was it some way of allowing them greater scope for action than we're comfortable with."
As could be expected, Negroponte put emphasis on Pakistan's transition to democracy as a development that is "strategically significant" insofar as the people rejected extremism by supporting moderate, pro-democratic forces and parties in the last elections, which in turn has provided an opportunity to the US to build a "broad national consensus to defeat terrorism". He reaffirmed the US commitment to strengthen Pakistani civil society and civilian institutions. On the Pakistani political scene, Negroponte singled out Asif Ali Zardari as Washington's principal interlocutor. Zardari, widower of former premier Benazir Bhutto, is co-chairman of the Pakistan People's Party, the leading party in the new ruling coalition in Islamabad.
Clearly, the Bush administration banks on a working relationship to develop between Musharraf and Zardari, which will go a long way in ensuring that Pakistan remains a dependable ally in the "war on terror" in general and in the conduct of the security operations in the tribal areas along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border region in particular.
It is interesting that Negroponte spoke soon after talks between the Pakistani government and the so-called Pakistani Taliban broke down in late April. The impasse in the talks came about when the Taliban demanded that the Pakistani army should withdraw from Waziristan, Darra Adamkhel and Swat as a confidence-building measure prior to reaching an agreement. The Taliban insist that this was a prior commitment given by the government. They allege the US will be averse to any such withdrawal by the Pakistani military from the tribal areas and Washington has pressured the latter to resile from the earlier commitment.
Conceivably, Washington would be viewing with unease that the talks between the government and the Taliban have not completely broken down. According to the latest reports, a tribal jirga (council) comprising the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban has met with Baitullah Mahsud - almost certainly with the knowledge and tacit approval of the government. To quote noted Pakistani expert, Rahimullah Yusufzai, "Pakistani authorities are hoping that Baitullah Mahsud will use his influence to restore peace and stability in the rest of the tribal areas and the NWFP [North-West Frontier Province]." Mahsud is a hardline Pakistani Taliban leader accused of implication in Bhutto's assassination last December.
But the US priorities are diametrically opposite. The central issue for the US is, as Yusufzai pointed out, "Once the TTP [Tehrek-e-Taliban or the umbrella body of the Pakistani Taliban groups] signs a peace accord with the Pakistani government, it would be able to free its fighters to join the Afghan Taliban and launch attacks inside Afghanistan." That is to say, Washington would like the locus of the war to be kept on Pakistani soil in the tribal areas, whereas the elected government in Islamabad wants to limit and control the unrest in the tribal areas so that the NWFP or the rest of Pakistan does not get destabilized.
To complicate matters, as far as the Pakistani Taliban are concerned, they are only too willing to reach an agreement with Islamabad since their main agenda is not the "Talibanization" of Pakistan but the jihad against the US and the other "occupying forces" in Afghanistan. In Yusufzai's assessment, the Pakistani Taliban are under no illusions that they have the capacity to establish their writ in the tribal areas and NWFP, let alone the whole of Pakistan. Therefore, all that they seek at the moment is an accord that respects their interests in their strongholds, though they know that such an accord may not prove durable, given the staunch opposition to it by the US, NATO and, possibly, the Afghan government.
Negroponte's appeal from the NED forum is directly addressed to the Pakistani military. His speech underscores that fundamentally speaking, US policy continues to repose faith in the Pakistani military as its principal interlocutor in Pakistan. (In a highly nuanced parenthesis, by way of allaying the Pakistani military's apprehensions about US intentions, Negroponte added that no matter Washington's reservations in the past, "I think that you could fairly say that the United States has accepted the fact that Pakistan has nuclear weapons and I think I would leave it at that.")
The top US diplomat has appealed to the Pakistani military brass that the security operations in the tribal areas are a "national security imperative for the United States, an essential condition for success in Afghanistan". He has, therefore, gone out of the way to give an undertaking that Washington will comprehensively take care of the Pakistani military's corporate interests on a long-term footing and provide it with modern weapons and training worthy of a close ally, provided the latter reciprocates by relentlessly conducting security operations in the tribal areas.
But the US's current problems do not end there. In immediate terms, Washington is also called on to get the elected civilian governments in Islamabad and Peshawar on board. Unsurprisingly, the elected governments are sensitive about public mood, which is anti-US and disfavors Islamabad's close association with the "war on terror". The recent elections brought to light that the US's capacity to influence Pakistani political parties, including some major ones, is severely limited. And it is here that the NED has a vital role to play in the period ahead.
The NED has gained vast experience in cajoling unwilling politicians in foreign countries to play ball with the US regional agenda. Its expertise will come in handy in building working relationships between civilian politicians and the military in Pakistan, as well as in persuading recalcitrant Pakistani politicians to see the light of reason and to cooperate with the imperatives of US strategy.
Its role will be truly decisive for US policy if Pakistan finds itself facing another parliamentary election any time soon, in case the present uneasy ruling coalition sharing power in Islamabad begins to unravel. The NED's forte lies in finessing effective ways of promoting favored politicians and political parties abroad.
M K Bhadrakumar served as a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service for over 29 years, with postings including India's ambassador to Uzbekistan (1995-1998) and to Turkey (1998-2001).