Pakistan:the unintended consequences of U.S. pressure

December 21, 2010

petraeus kayaniU.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.

In an article for Time magazine, former CIA officer Robert Baer said that even if you accepted the ISI denial, “what can’t be dismissed is a lawsuit filed by a Pakistani tribesman in which he accuses the CIA of murdering his brother and his son in a drone attack. According to press reports, none of which have been confirmed by the CIA, it was the appearance of the station chief’s name in a filing in this suit, along with unspecified threats, that caused him to be pulled. Regardless, the suit itself could be an ominous sign that the Pakistanis may be coming to the end of their rope in the ‘war on terror’.”

His assumption was that the ISI, which until now is believed to have given tacit support to the U.S. drone strikes, had supported the case by the Pakistani tribesman.

Even more alarming are Pakistani press reports suggesting that fake WikiLeaks cables planted in the Pakistan media were deliberately designed by Pakistani intelligence to whip up public opinion against U.S. pressure to “do more”. (h/t Five Rupees).

“The fake story is not an isolated incident,” Azhar Abbas, the managing director of GEO News, wrote. “Political and security observers believe a concerted effort is once again being made to encourage and promote a typical extremist mindset. Some analysts-cum-anchors have re-emerged from quasi-oblivion. Many journalists and analysts are briefed and encouraged to take an aggressively anti-West, especially anti-US, stance. Experts, who ‘preach’ extremism in disguise, are encouraged to participate in talk shows.”

Maintaining the support of the Pakistani people has been essential in Pakistan’s own battle against the Pakistani Taliban - a widely circulated video of a girl being flogged in the Swat valley rallied public opinion behind the army when it launched a military operation there last year to drive out militants from the region.  The authenticity of that video is a subject of much debate in Pakistan. But be that as it may, if public opinion were to turn decisively against military operations, no amount of American pressure would be able to convince the Pakistan Army to launch a new ground assault to assert control of areas now held by militants, including North Waziristan.

“All true enough — until you stop to ponder how exactly ‘public opinion’ decides it is in favour of something or against it,” wrote Dawn columnist Cyril Almeida. “The fake WikiLeaks cables give the first public hint about how opinion is being shaped in this country right now.”

Such suspicions will never be confirmed, and Pakistani officials themselves say they have no control over a vibrant media which has exploded since the sector was freed up by former President Pervez Musharraf.   But given Pakistan’s own battle against domestic militants – not just on the border with Afghanistan but also in its heartland Punjab province - any shift in the media towards greater sympathy with violent Islamists would be playing with fire.

Lest anyone finds the Pakistani approach completely irrational, do remember that from Pakistan’s point of view, the U.S. strategy in Afghanistan is also looking irrational. “Some people in the establishment are of the view since the Americans are losing the war in Afghanistan, they are trying to shift the blame on Pakistan in order to use it as a scapegoat,” Abbas wrote. He quoted a senior security official as saying that,  “It is quite obvious now that the US is fast losing its grip in Afghanistan. It is easy for them to sell the story back home that they are losing the war because of Pakistan.”

“The fundamental division in U.S. foreign policy is between use of force and use of diplomacy. Some foreign policy analysts believe that in the post-Holbrooke scenario, the balance may shift towards use of force rather than diplomacy. If the US President Obama decides to move in that direction, things may get out of control. ”

He said that Pakistan Army chief, General Ashfaq Kayani, had written a 14-page letter to President Barack Obama, in which he “apparently tried hard to convey the ground realities of Pak-Afghan situation. Senior diplomats who have seen the letter say that the letter gives the U.S. president some new and better options to resolve the Afghan conflict, as compared to the ones provided by his own military commanders.”

Pakistan has been increasingly talking up the need for a political settlement in Afghanistan which would force al Qaeda to leave the region. A senior Pakistani security official said Washington needed to identify “end conditions” in Afghanistan, rather than sticking to its current preconditions for talks with insurgents that they renounce al Qaeda, give up violence and respect the Afghan constitution. He suggested instead a process in which violence was brought down, insurgents renounced al Qaeda, and a consensus then negotiated on a future Afghan constitution.

That suggestion is born not just out of a desire to limit Indian influence in Afghanistan — though that has long been a lynchpin of Pakistan’s strategy. It also  comes from a fear that the aggressive military U.S. approach will so radicalise the insurgents,  promoting younger fighters at the expense of the older (and Pakistan-influenced) leadership – that there will no longer be a peace settlement to be had. That would leave Pakistan with a dangerously unstable Afghanistan on its border once the Americans leave in 2014.

The argument has support from academics and experts on Afghanistan, who have appealed to Obama to back talks with the Taliban . That’s interesting since the distrust between Pakistan and Afghanistan is such that it is rare to see such concordant views between those looking at the war mainly from the Afghan perspective and those of the Pakistan Army.  (for more on views by those Afghan experts, see Joshua Foust at Registan.net on A Call to Reason For Afghanistan, and Matt Waldman writing in the RUSI Journal. Also see Anatol Lieven’s  How the Afghan Counterinsurgency Threatens Pakistan.)

For now though, the military has been given its head on the grounds that more military pressure needs to be applied to force the Taliban into a settlement that the United States and its allies would find acceptable (ie one in which they might be co-opted into the political process but would not be treated as equal partners with the Afghan government and the United States and its allies in any negotiated settlement.) 

And as one western diplomat said to me it would be very hard politically for Obama to go against the advice of General David Petraeus, his commander on the ground.  If the war is going badly for the United States, the diplomat said, Obama could not back down; equally if it going well, he could not back out. 

And with that military campaign, are likely to come more and more unintended consequences in Pakistan. One has to hope that those setting strategy know what they are doing and have taken what they presumably see as a well-calculated risk. For as Holbrooke appeared to have understood, that there is no point in achieving success in Afghanistan (however that is defined) if Pakistan — a much bigger country, population 180 million, with nuclear weapons — is allowed to slip out of control.

(Reuters file photo of General Petraeus and General Kayani)

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