Main sticking point
Admiral Mike Mullen, Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, and General Ashfaq Pervaiz Kayani met on the sidelines of the Nato conference in Seville, Spain for the first time after the Abbottabad unilateral US raid that killed Osama bin Laden but the encounter does not seem to have done much to close the gap between the two sides. Pakistan and the US, though ostensibly allies in the struggle against terrorism, have of late been more estranged than allies. However, it would be a mistake to see this admittedly under strain relationship in black and white terms. The grey areas are considerable, leading to the perception that the whole situation surrounding the relationship is both complicated and contradictory. Making sense of things therefore is not free of risk; nevertheless, here goes.
Admiral Mullen once again stressed to General Kayani the imperative of launching a military offensive to take out the safe havens of the Haqqani network in North Waziristan. The network is widely believed to have been responsible for the attack on the US embassy and Nato headquarters in Kabul the other day. This would appear to be of a piece with the pattern of such attacks in the Afghan capital for some time. Newly inducted Defence Secretary Leon Panetta, fresh from his bruising relationship with the ISI as head of the CIA, issued a blustering warning to Pakistan the other day that if it did not act against the Haqqani network, the US would do all it had to to protect its soldiers in Afghanistan. Subsequently, the State Department attempted to diplomatically paper over the most abrasive part of Mr Panetta’s remarks, but the damage seems already to have been done. Despite all this, General Kayani steadfastly stuck to his guns and argued that apart from capacity constraints (i.e. the impossibility of shifting troops from the eastern border to reinforce the forces on the western border), Pakistan had the right to decide such matters in its own national interests and according to the wishes of its people. This line has not served to convince the Americans in the past, and is unlikely to go down well now. The eastern border deployment reflects the military’s Indo-centric defence posture, while the ‘wishes’ of the people of Pakistan in this regard remain an unknown factor, despite the efforts of many in the media to convince us to the contrary while advocating a position that appears to strengthen the military’s case.
In an interesting sideshow, General Kayani said in an interview in Seville that he doubted the 2014 US-Nato withdrawal deadline. Because the training and raising of the Afghan security forces is still beset with many problems, including desertions, suspect loyalties, etc, and now questions about their capacity to handle a post-withdrawal Afghanistan as witnessed in the Kabul attack referred to above, General Kayani suggested that the deadline could be reviewed in the light of ground realities. He did also mention that the US-Pakistan relationship was “…good…improving”.
Meanwhile back on the ranch, Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani petulantly struck out at the US to “do more” itself instead of further pressurising Pakistan, which had contributed and sacrificed a lot in the struggle against terrorism. It is being widely speculated in the media that the PM cancelled his scheduled trip to the UN session not because his heart bleeds for the flood victims so much as the fact that our foreign office was unable to get him an audience with US President Barack Obama or other high American officials on the sidelines of the UN moot. Panetta’s fulminations too are said to have persuaded the PM, on FO advice, that this was not the best time to go. We also had the second meeting of the Pakistan-Afghanistan Joint Peace Commission in Islamabad. Foreign Secretary Salman Bashir and Afghan Deputy Foreign Minister Jaweed Lodin announced a blueprint of cooperation against terrorism and extremism. While Lodin diplomatically turned a question about the reported contacts between the US and Afghan Taliban into the acceptable conduit of an eventual single peace process, he was accosted by other, more difficult questions about the cross-border raids into Pakistan from Afghan soil. Although Lodin extended a promise of help and cooperation in this regard, he could not resist a dig at the similar ‘traffic’ into Afghanistan from Pakistan over decades, only saving the day by saying terrorism by its very nature could turn in unpredictable directions.
All in all, a fine stew indeed!