The “sound and fury” of U.S.-Pakistan ties (Part II)

March 20, 2011

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I have (somewhat belatedly) got around to reading the full text of the statement made by Pakistan Army chief General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani condemning last week’s drone strike in North Waziristan which killed more than 40 people. The strike has reignited tensions with Washington, and came only a day after Pakistan released Raymond Davis, the CIA contractor who shot dead two Pakistanis, after a bruising row with the United States. 

The Pakistani media has put forward many reasons as to why Kayani issued such a public condemnation, and indeed on why the United States chose to  launch such a lethal drone attack just as tempers were beginning to cool over the Davis row (for a must-read round up of the different views of officials and analysts in Peshawar, see Cyril Almeida at Dawn.)

One of the more interesting explanations lies in the statement itself (my italics):

“Chief of Army Staff, General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, strongly condemns the Predator Strike carried out today in North Waziristan Agency resulting into loss of innocent lives. It is highly regrettable that a jirga of peaceful citizens including elders of the area was carelessly and callously targeted with complete disregard to human life. In complete violation of human rights, such acts of violence take us away from our objective of elimination of terrorism. It is imperative to understand that this critical objective can not be sacrificed for temporary tactical gains. Security of people of Pakistan, in any case, stands above all.”

His criticism of the United States putting tactical gains ahead of the longer-term needs of battling terrorism goes to the heart of the mismatch between U.S. and Pakistani priorities. The United States, keen to end the war in Afghanistan, needs Pakistan’s help quickly in fighting militants on its side of the border. Pakistan says it can’t fight all militant groups at once and that moving too fast would unleash fresh instability in Pakistan itself.

This ambivalence by Pakistan is often presented as evidence of duplicity, with the many critics of the country’s approach to militancy arguing that while it is allied to the United States, it continues to support militant groups that can be used against India. But then, read Kayani’s statement in conjunction with this WikiLeaks cable published by The Hindu to understand why none of this is as black-and-white as some would have you believe.

The cable is based on a November 2008 briefing by then National Intelligence Officer for South Asia Peter Lavoy to NATO Permanent Representatives. Although much of this ground has been covered before - notably on how the Pakistan Army’s approach is influenced by the perceived threat from India - I have not seen such detailed comments from a U.S. official on how far the military is also driven by a genuine fear of instability in Pakistan.

Among the highlights:

- Lavoy said there was a risk that Pakistan could ”completely lose control of its Pashtun territories over the next few years”.  This risk came from a breakdown in traditional Pashtun tribal authority since the anti-Soviet jihad period, and from past neglect of the tribal areas bordering Afghanistan which left them suffering high levels of  illiteracy, unemployment, and disaffected youth. “Both of these situations play to the advantage of insurgent and extremist groups. ”

- He said that although ”Pakistan now identifies both al-Qaeda and the Taliban as existential threats”, it continued to allow the Quetta shura Taliban to operate unfettered in Baluchistan province, while the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency provided intelligence and financial support to the Haqqani network in North Waziristan.  ”PermReps questioned the rationality of Pakistan’s support for the Taliban, which Lavoy explained in three ways. First, Pakistan believes the Taliban will prevail in the long term, at least in the Pashtun belt most proximate to the Pakistani border. Second, Pakistan continues to define India as its number one threat, and insists that India plays an over-active role in Afghanistan. Finally, Pakistani officials think that if militant groups were not attacking in Afghanistan, they would seek out Pakistani targets.”

- “Lavoy said that after the storming of Lal Masjid (Red Mosque) in July 2007, the Pakistani government had tried to sever ties with insurgent groups that its government institutions had cultivated over three decades. When militants sought al-Qaida support and launched a wave of attacks against Pakistani government and security personnel, Pakistan realized it had lost control of these insurgent groups. Pakistan rapidly approached the various militant groups to reach domestic non-aggression deals. Lavoy claimed that the Pakistani Army’s current operations in the FATA’s Bajaur Agency are directed exclusively against insurgent groups that refused to cooperate, while the Haqqani network remains untouched and continues a policy of cross-border attacks. Urging militant groups to be outwardly focused, he said, is perceived by Pakistani officials as a method to safeguard internal security. In addition, Pakistan has (probably correctly) assessed that it is only capable of targeting several groups at a time, which leads to a policy of appeasement of other groups in the meantime.”

Now put these comments into the context of the strains in the U.S.-Pakistan relationship.  The United States has a short-term priority – to end the war in Afghanistan and bring its troops home by 2014. Pakistan has a long-term challenge in rolling back militant groups — and the mindset that accompanies them — something that could take a generation to achieve. And while the U.S. focus is on Afghanistan, the Pakistan Army’s priority (at risk of stating the obvious) is stability in Pakistan.

With some care and attention, these two different but overlapping priorities, and two different but overlapping timescales, can in theory be reconciled. But the area of overlap is narrow – a bit like a Venn diagram which is also constantly moving, as it is buffeted by volatility of the U.S.-Pakistan relationship and the unpredictability of events in Afghanistan and Pakistan.  Imagined this way, you can see why — at least from Pakistan’s point of view – Kayani would argue that,  “this critical objective (of the fight against terrorism) can not be sacrificed for temporary tactical gains. Security of people of Pakistan, in any case, stands above all.”

(Picture of a protest in Islamabad against Raymond Davis’s release.Reuters/Mian Khursheed)

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