Thursday, August 07, 2008

The American-Pakistani disconnect: Shafqat Mahmood

The American-Pakistani disconnect
The News, August 08, 2008
Shafqat Mahmood

After being partners for years in the war against terror, the American and Pakistani security establishments have begun to have serious misgivings about each other. The Americans are accusing the ISI of supporting the Afghan Taliban and of carrying out the Indian Embassy bombing in Kabul. They are also highly critical of the Pakistani army's tactical decision, later endorsed by the new government, to negotiate peace with the militants in the tribal area. This, they feel, allows the militants to regroup and enlarge the space available to Al Qaeda and the Afghan Taliban in the tribal territory.

The Pakistani security establishment has its own list of complaints. According to published comments of sources close to it, while the American military keeps blaming Pakistan for not doing enough against the militants, it has taken no steps to take out Baitullah Mehsud even when provided precise coordinates of his position. The leader of the Pakistani Taliban is also reported to have a sophisticated encrypted communication system only available to Western militaries, and there is evidence that he is informed of Pakistani army positions when they close in on him. The implication clearly is that there is some kind of compact between the Americans and Baitullah Mehsud.

Pakistan's complaints do not end here. It accuses the Americans, who are the power behind the puppet Afghan government, of allowing anti-Pakistan activities to take place on Afghan soil. They have allowed the Indian government to establish consulates in various places near the Pakistani border that have only one purpose; to create trouble in Baluchistan and engage in sabotage and terrorism in other parts of the country. They have also through the puppet Afghan government provided sanctuary to anti Pakistan elements such as Brahamdagh Bugti and others.

There are claims in the press that Americans have provided evidence to Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gillani of ISI hand in the Indian embassy bombing in Kabul. No one in the government has confirmed this, but Pakistani security sources have been quoted in the media as strongly denying any link with it. They have also refuted that the ISI provides any support to the Afghan Taliban. The only interaction, some analysts have pointed out, was with the Sirajuddin Haqqani group to obtain the release of the kidnapped Pakistani ambassador to Afghanistan. Anything more than that is baseless.

On the other hand, there has been no refutation by the Americans, at least publicly, of the reported accusations of the Pakistani security establishment. The lack of response to Baitullah Mehsud's coordinates provided by the Pakistani military is intriguing, as is the highly sophisticated communication system in his possession. Does this mean that Pakistan's public enemy number one is being used by the Americans as an asset? There is also little doubt that the Indian consulates have been up to no good in Balochistan. Musharraf would not have used the colourful expression of being one thousand percent sure if he did not have his facts right. We also know for sure that people like Brahamdagh Bugti are in Afghanistan. So what is going on?

There are two ways to analyse American strategic interests in this region. One is to presume that the United States wants to destabilise Pakistan, even break it up, to neutralise an Islamic country's nuclear weapons. If this line of thought is pursued, there is enough to keep the conspiracy theorists happy. If the Baitullah Mehsud information is true, and there is every reason to believe it is, why would the Americans cultivate Taliban assets within Pakistan?

Again, why would they allow the Indian consulates a free run to stoke up insurgency in Balochistan or allegedly engineer terror attacks such as the one in Karachi against an ally? Some observers also find it more than a coincidence that as the American complaints have gone up, the Indians have also started to stir up trouble on the Line of Control. The first incident took place because they tried to establish a post ahead of their normal position. Others have happened since. Indians also have started to accuse Pakistan directly of Kabul bombing and indirectly of recent bombings in Indian cities. All this clearly appears to be coordinated between them and the Americans.

While this is the conspiracy theory, there is the other version. It goes something like this; that actually the United States wants a stable and prosperous Pakistan because it believes that only then would it be a responsible nuclear power. It also wants the country to remain a strong partner in the war against terror. To this end it keeps nudging the Pakistani leadership and sometimes uses different tactics, including economic aid and military pressure, to force it in the right direction. It does keep anti-Pakistan elements in its arsenal, as do the Indians, but only to use them as levers when it needs to put pressure.

Some people also argue that if it had nefarious designs it would not have given Pakistan large amounts of military and non-military aid. Just recently, the Biden-Luger Bill has been introduced in Congress that promises 15 billion dollars over ten years. Both presidential candidates are also on record promising increased aid to Pakistan. This is not the behaviour of a country which is working towards breaking up Pakistan.

What is the truth? One can only guess, but it is clear that nations do not have a single tactical track to pursue their strategic interests. They may have different plans for different contingencies. If things pan out more or less in an orderly fashion between the two countries, the "strengthening of Pakistan" option is more likely to be pursued. If things go wrong, in the sense that a leadership emerges in Pakistan that is anti-American and is determined to thwart its security goals, the option to break up Pakistan, or overwhelm it, may be pursued.

Similarly, Pakistan also cannot put all its options and interests in one basket. It has a deep interest in Afghanistan, and while it is visibly congruent with the US-NATO strategy in that country, it has to keep links with other forces alive. This includes the Taliban but this does not mean that it is actively supporting them against the coalition. It may only be trying to keep its options open. This pursuit of contingencies related to national interest can lead to misunderstandings between allies, and that is what seems to be happening.

The remedy is to increase interactions between American and Pakistani security establishments to ensure that lack of communication does not become a problem. A candid exchange should help to ease tensions. In many ways there is little disconnect between our mutual strategic interests. Once this is recognised, the tensions would dissipate.


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