Tuesday, 17 May 2011

Trouble ahead in Pakistan's new US phase

Trouble ahead in Pakistan's new US phase
By Syed Saleem Shahzad

ISLAMABAD - Relations between the United States and Pakistan are at a "make or break" stage, John Kerry, chairman of the US Senate foreign relations committee, said during his fence-mending trip to Pakistan on Monday.

For now, a break appears to have been averted with the opening of a "new phase" of American operations in the region under a fresh agreement between Washington and Islamabad for the routing of the Taliban and al-Qaeda. In a joint statement issued in Islamabad, the countries agreed on Monday to work together in any future actions against "high-value targets" in Pakistan.

Details of the accord, like all past accords, are unwritten. What will happen though is that US Secretary of State Hillary Clintonand the US envoy for Pakistan and Afghanistan, Mark Grossman, will soon visit Pakistan to make the political environment conducive for the next phase.

Relations between the two nations were severely strained at the beginning of the month when US Special Forces assassinated al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in the military town of Abbottabad, 60 kilometers north of Islamabad. Pakistan was embarrassed and angered when the US claimed sole responsibility for the operation in defiance of an agreement between the countries.

Contrary to all previous rhetoric by the Pakistani military establishment and briefings they delivered to a joint session of the Pakistani parliament last week, Monday's joint statement proved that Pakistan had always been onboard to work with the US and that statements issued by the military establishment were posturing.

Last Friday, General Ashfaq Pervez Kiani and the Inter-Services Intelligence head Ahmed Shuja Pasha appeared in a historic joint session of parliament, the first time in 63 years that an army chief and the top man of the ISI had presented themselves before the legislature.

The joint statement pointed out that "all tracks of US-Pakistani engagement need to be revisited to assure that the countries can continue to cooperate on counter-terrorism", yet deeper problems remain, most notably among middle cadre of the military.

This was emphasized by Kiani, who told Kerry that there were "intense feelings" in the military over the raid to get Bin Laden, according to a statement issued by the army.

Many in the army still want alliances with Sunni Islamist elements in the region as leverage against India and Iran. As a result, a backlash within the military establishment against the forthcoming new phase in the war against the Afghan Taliban is inevitable. Once again, Pakistan will be caught in the middle between the US and militants, with interests on both sides.

Kerry is one of the initiators of the Kerry-Lugar bill that envisages US$1.5 billion yearly in aid to Pakistan for five years. Pakistan has already received $14.6 billion in economic and military assistance from the US since 2005. Kerry arrived in the Afghan capital Kabul on Sunday with a clear message that a conclusive war against Islamic militancy is wanted, and all his statements reflected this decisive theme and uncompromising stance.

"Yes, there are insurgents coming across the border," he said at the US Embassy. "Yes, they are operating out of North Waziristan [tribal area in Pakistan] and other sanctuaries, and yes, there is some evidence of Pakistan government knowledge of some of these activities in ways that is very disturbing," Kerry said.

The senator also pointed a finger at the presence of the powerful Haqqani network in North Waziristan as one of the key drivers of the Taliban-led insurgency in Afghanistan. The US tried to tighten the noose around the network when it slapped sanctions on leader Jalaluddin Haqqani's younger son, Badruddin Haqqani, last week. His name was added to the list of Specially Designated Global Terrorists that allows the US to freeze his assets, prevent him from using financial institutions and prosecute him for terrorist activities.

Kerry said there were "deep reservations" among some American lawmakers about whether Pakistan shared Washington's goals in the region, but said, "Pakistan has supported our efforts to diminish the capacity of al-Qaeda over the last several years. Pakistan has allowed us to have intelligence personnel operating in Pakistan in ways that helped us to capture Osama bin Laden."

Opening of the next phase
Now that Bin Laden is dead - the pinnacle of the American-led war against militancy - the next logical targets inside Pakistan include his deputy Dr Ayman al-Zawahiri, Taliban leader Mullah Omar and Jalaluddin and Sirajuddin Haqqani as well as other top militants.

However, after the Abbottabad incident, the role of the nuclear-armed nation's military establishment is a real question mark, both domestically and internationally. The fact that statements by the armed forces during the briefing to parliament last week were rigged with contradictions does not help their image.

On Saturday, parliament condemned the Bin Laden raid and termed it an attack on Pakistan's sovereignty and urged for an end to unilateral action within its borders, including attacks on suspected militants by US drones. It said logistical support for North Atlantic Treaty Organization troops in Afghanistan could be withdrawn if the strikes continued.

Even as the armed forces were briefing the joint session, US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) predator drones struck North Waziristan again and parliamentarians questioned the top brass over not doing enough to prevent drone attacks inside Pakistan.

It was reported that the closed-door session was told that drones flew from Pakistan's Shamsi air base in Balochistan province, but that this facility was owned by the United Arab Emirates. This armed forces statement contradicted an ISI official spokesperson's statement published last month that Pakistan had closed Shamsi to drone flights. Later, when the strikes continued, an ISI spokesperson said the drones were coming from Afghanistan.

Some parliamentarians then objected that even if Pakistan did not own Shamsi, the drones were still using Pakistan's air space and should therefore be shot down.

"Pakistan has the capacity to strike down CIA predator drones, but then the government and the parliament should order us [to do so] and also make a commitment to stand behind the armed forces when the fierce American reaction came," air chief Rao Qamar Suleman reportedly told the joint session that continued for 10 hours.

During the session, ISI head Pasha, the person blamed for most intelligence failures, insisted that it was a collective failure of all the civilian and military law-enforcing agencies and the ISI should not be singled out. However, he offered that if parliament and the government demanded, he would resign.

What has become clear in the past few weeks is that the US wants results in a short space of time, and Pakistan has no option but to collaborate in the hunt for Taliban bigwigs hidden in Pakistan.

This would be the beginning of real fireworks within the military establishment should mid-level cadre - rogue elements - aligned with Sunni militants instigate attacks along the lines of the militant assault on the Indian city of Mumbai in 2008 that resulted in the deaths of more than 150 people. (See Al-Qaeda 'hijack' led to Mumbai attack Asia Times Online, December 2, 2008.)

After the September 11, 2001, attacks on the US, Pakistan's top brass took a policy turn and joined in the US's "war on terror", but a large chunk of officers took retirement and with serving colleagues they helped the Taliban. This changed the dynamics of the Afghan war theater (see Military brains plot Pakistan's downfall Asia Times Online, September 26, 2007).

This collection of former and serving officers was responsible for a number of attacks on the military, including on military headquarters in 2009 and against ex-president General Pervez Musharraf.

Kerry's visit to Pakistan was made to open a new phase of the war in South Asia and the whole exercise of the Pakistani armed forces appearing in front of parliament was not intended to show accountability but to pave the way for this stage.

This is also the time when a nexus of serving and retired soldiers could become active again to revive regional operations, in addition to a possible mutiny against the top military brass.

Syed Saleem Shahzad is Asia Times Online's Pakistan Bureau Chief and author of upcoming book Inside al-Qaeda and the Taliban: Beyond Bin Laden and 9/11 published by Pluto Press, UK. He can be reached at saleem_shahzad2002@yahoo.com

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