Pakistan: Now or Never?
Perspectives on Pakistan
Last week’s suicide bombing in Pakistan’s Bajaur region, which killed at least 40 people, had a grim predictability to it. The Pakistan Army cleared Pakistani Taliban militants out of their main strongholds in Bajaur, which borders Afghanistan’s Kunar province, after 20 months of intense fighting which ended earlier this year. But as discussed in this post in October the insurgents’ ability to flee to Kunar — where the U.S. military presence has been thinned out — combined with a failure to provide Bajaur with good governance, suggested the security situation in the region was likely to be deteriorating. The bombing appeared to confirm those fears.
The implications go far beyond Bajaur. The Pakistan Army has resisted U.S. pressure to launch a military offensive against militant strongholds in North Waziristan until it has secured gains made elsewhere. Pakistani daily The Express Tribune quoted army spokesman Major General Athar Abbas as reiterating that point after the Bajaur bombing and after fighting in the neighbouring Mohmand region. Until areas “cleared” by the military were consolidated, “it is impossible to rush into another campaign,” it quoted him as saying.
The Taliban in Bajaur also had historically close ties with militants who overran the Swat valley and caused worldwide alarm by pushing further into Pakistan’s heartland before they were ousted by the Pakistan Army in 2009. Any further evidence of the Taliban regaining ground in Bajaur would therefore be a cause for concern that military gains in Swat — itself reeling from this summer’s devastating floods — could also be reversed.
In some aspects — though not all — Pakistan’s problems in tackling militants are a mirror image of those faced by the United States on the other side of the border. Soldiers can drive militants out of their strongholds, but they can’t stop them melting into the local population or fleeing across the border. And they can’t hold and build on those military gains without civilian back-up to provide people with governance.
U.S. pressure on Pakistan has always led to deep resentment within the Pakistan Army, which has taken heavy casualties of its own fighting Pakistani Taliban militants on its side of the border with Afghanistan. But there are signs that this resentment is now spiralling in dangerously unpredictable ways.
The Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) spy agency has denied it was responsible for revealing the name of a senior Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) official in Pakistan, forcing him to flee the country after threats to his life. But the suspicion lingers that the ISI, which falls under the control of the Pakistan Army, is flexing its muscles in response to U.S. pressure.
(The following is a guest contribution. Reuters is not responsible for the content and the views expressed are the author’s alone. The writer is Pakistan’s High Commissioner to the UK)
By Wajid Shamsul Hasan
Is the flood over in Pakistan? No. Most certainly not! Notwithstanding the massive relief, rehabilitation and reconstruction operations, the devastation from the worst natural disaster in recent times continues to claim lives in scores due to the outbreak of epidemics, lack of health facilities, and shortage of food, shelter and clothing.
Just over a year ago, President Barack Obama suggested during a visit to Beijing that China and the United States could cooperate on bringing stability to Afghanistan and Pakistan. As I wrote at the time, China — Islamabad’s most loyal partner — was an obvious country to turn to for help in working out how to deal with Pakistan. Its economy would be the first to gain from greater regional stability which opened up trade routes and improved its access to energy supplies. And it also shared some of Washington’s concerns about Islamist militancy, particularly if this were to spread unrest in its Muslim Xinjiang region.
The big question was whether the suggestion would fall foul of the zero sum game thinking which has bedevilled relations between India, Pakistan and China for nearly 50 years. India was defeated by China in a border war in 1962 and since then has regarded it as its main military threat. Pakistan has built close ties with China to offset what it sees as its own main military threat from its much larger neighbour India. China in turn has been able to use its relationship with Pakistan to clip India’s wings and curb any ambitions it has at regional hegemony.
The fall-out from the fake WikiLeaks cables in Pakistan continues to be far more interesting than the real WikiLeaks cables. To recap, several Pakistani newspapers retracted stories last week which quoted WikiLeaks cables ostensibly accusing India of stirring up trouble in Baluchistan and Waziristan, cited U.S. diplomats as ridiculing the Indian Army, and compared Kashmir to Bosnia in the 1990s. Since the anti-India narrative presented in the stories chimed with the views of Pakistani intelligence agencies, the alleged cables were then dismissed as fakes and most likely an intelligence plant.
However, just to complicate matters, some of the information in the “fake cables” is also in the “real cables”. For example, the real cables do contain allegations of Indian support for Baluch separatists, largely sourced to British intelligence, according to The Guardian. The British newspaper, which had advance access to the cables, also cited them as evidence that India practiced systematic torture in Kashmir.
Reading through some of the many thousands of words written about Richard Holbrooke, for me two stories stood out in their ability to capture what will be lost with his death:
The first was in Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s obituary in the Washington Post:
“While beleaguered members of Mr. Holbrooke’s traveling party sought sleep on transcontinental flights, he usually would stay up late reading. On one trip to Pakistan, he padded to the forward of the cabin in his stocking feet to point out to a reporter a passage in Margaret Bourke-White’s memoirs of the time of India-Pakistan partition and independence. Bourke-White quoted Pakistani leader Muhammad Ali Jinnah telling her that Pakistan would have no problems with the Americans, because ‘they will always need us more than we need them.’ Mr. Holbrooke laughed, saying, ‘Nothing ever changes.’”
A group of academics, journalists and NGO workers have published an open letter to President Barack Obama appealing to him to support direct negotiations with the Taliban leadership.
The letter argues that the situation on the ground on Afghanistan is much worse than a year ago. “With Pakistan’s active support for the Taliban, it is not realistic to bet on a military solution,” it says.
Leading Pakistani newspapers have retracted stories that appear to have partly depended on fake WikiLeaks cables to support long-standing Pakistani allegations against India, particularly in causing instability inside Pakistan. The stories also quoted U.S. diplomats as ridculing India and its army.
The News ran a story saying its report was inaccurate and had been picked up from a local news agency. The report had originated, it said, in websites “known for their close connections with certain intelligence agencies”.
Reading through some of the WikiLeaks cables, I have been struck by how easy it might be to take the fragmentary and often outdated information contained in them and make a case to support either side of the India-Pakistan divide. Now it turns out someone did, but without even the support of the underlying cables, according to this version of Pakistani media reports by the Pakistan blog Cafe Pyala of alleged Indian skulduggery, including in Baluchistan.
As Cafe Pyala notes, Pakistan’s The News and various other papers cited the alleged cables as proof of alleged Indian involvement in creating trouble in Baluchistan and Waziristan. These allegations were included amongst others that anyone who follows the subject closely hears being bandied about between India and Pakistan. (Reporting on those allegations is much harder, for reasons I will discuss below.)
Pakistan is increasingly talking up the need for a political settlement in Afghanistan which would force al Qaeda to leave the region. And while there is little sign yet Washington is ready to hold serious negotiations with Afghan insurgents, analysts detect a new tone in Pakistani comments about driving Osama bin Laden’s organization out of its haven on the Pakistan border.
A senior security official said the Afghan stalemate could be lifted by setting a minimum agenda in which insurgents broke with al Qaeda. There were indications, he said, they could renounce the organisation and ask it to leave the region. Senior politician Maulana Fazal-ur-Rehman, a pro-Taliban member of the ruling coalition, also said a settlement “would squeeze the room for al Qaeda.” ”Al Qaeda will have to fall in line or leave the region,” he told Reuters in an interview late last month.