US and Pakistan: an expedient truce
In a carefully worded statement, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said she was sorry for the deaths of 24 Pakistani soldiers in a NATO airstrike on the Afghan border last November. She slipped in an apology too on Pakistan’s behalf saying that, “We are both sorry for losses suffered by both our countries in this fight against terrorists.” And she announced that NATO supply routes, closed since last November, would be reopened.
As it stands, at best the two countries have agreed a truce which opens the political space for them to work together to try to end the war in Afghanistan. At worst, it is a missed opportunity for the United States to redefine its relationship with Pakistan, returning instead to a toxic mutual dependency which allows both countries to blame the other for their failings. How close they manage to steer to either the former or latter outcome – and the real risk is that they continue to muddle along in the middle – will become clear only when the full details of their negotiations emerge. But there are some fairly obvious signs to watch for.
First is the question of how far the United States and Pakistan are able to dial down propaganda against each other – perhaps the most important issue given that rampant anti-Americanism has distracted many Pakistanis from the challenge of tackling extremism and Islamist militancy at home.
The Pakistan Army and its Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency have long been accused of stoking anti-Americanism to strengthen its hand in negotiations with Washington. The most recent incarnation of this was the Difa-e-Pakistan Council, an alliance of Islamist and militant groups which rose to prominence during the seven-month standoff campaigning against better ties with the United States and India. Will the Difa-e-Pakistan now be forced to take a lower profile?
What message will we see from the right-wing electronic media, or from its rising political star, former cricketer Imran Khan, who have imbibed the anti-American narrative to the extent of arguing that Pakistan’s problems can best be solved by ending the relationship with the United States and going it alone? Will renewed cooperation with Washington squeeze the space for populist anti-Americanism?
And what will the United States do to repair an image battered by the view that it brought war to the region after 9/11? In recent years it has tended to blame all the weaknesses of its campaign in Afghanistan on Pakistan’s alleged backing of Afghan insurgents. But alleged Pakistani perfidy has always been there; if you could measure the difference between reality and U.S. complaints, you would probably find the increase in stridency of those complaints correlates more closely to failings of Washington’s own strategy in Afghanistan. Will the United States soften its tone, and indeed curb the many media leaks on Pakistan which have often been more about internal divisions within the U.S. administration on the correct approach? Clinton’s apology was followed by a terse statement from Defense Secretary Leon Panetta committing to working closely with Pakistan.
TERRORISM AND RECONCILIATION
The operative part of Clinton’s statement noted that, “In today’s phone call, Foreign Minister (Hina Rabbani) Khar and I talked about the importance of taking coordinated action against terrorists who threaten Pakistan, the United States, and the region; of supporting Afghanistan’s security, stability, and efforts towards reconciliation…”
What exactly does this mean? Will we see Pakistan finally acceding to a U.S. demand that it move against the Haqqani network and other militants based in North Waziristan? Or has Washington agreed to include the Haqqanis in an eventual political settlement? (It has left the door open to this by not declaring the Haqqanis a terrorist network.)
What of the Afghan Taliban led by Mullah Mohammed Omar, believed to be based in Pakistan? Will they come to the negotiating table? The clearest sign of progress would be if the Taliban move ahead with a long-planned office in Qatar. Bear in mind, though, this will not produce a magical end to the Afghan war – talks with the Taliban are only one part of an incredibly difficult process of getting all Afghan stakeholders and ethnic groups on board. And we have been here before. Pakistan and the United States have for several years taken a disjointed approach to Taliban negotiations; sometimes encouraging them, sometimes discouraging them; offering safe passage when and where it suited to those travelling for talks in the Gulf and beyond.
Finally what of groups like the Lashkar-e-Taiba, blamed for the November 2008 attacks on Mumbai which killed 166 people, including American citizens? Washington has made clear it wants action against the group, putting up a $10 million bounty for information leading to the arrest of its founder Hafez Saeed.
At the heart of all this is a question which has been asked for years. Can the interests of the United States and Pakistan ever be made to converge, when the former has been set on fighting Islamist militants and the latter has seen them as assets to be used to counter the power of India in Afghanistan and Kashmir? Without that convergence, they will remain frenemies, bumping along for the sake of expediency to end the Afghan war, storing up conflict for the future.
DRONES AND FATA
The U.S. drone bombings in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) are a huge irritant, provoking real anger in Pakistan, compounded by U.S. secrecy and official denials of Pakistani complicity. You can make arguments for and against drones (anecdotal evidence suggests opposition is lower in the tribal areas where people are caught between U.S. drones, Pakistan Army operations and the Taliban, than in mainland Pakistan, where outrage more frequently focuses on the perceived invasion of sovereignty.) But what you can say with certainty is that drones provide an easy target for those in urban Pakistan who want to drum up anti-Americanism for political gain; particularly given the lack of information about what is actually going on in FATA in the absence of free media access.
Will the United States slow down its drone bombings or at least improve their transparency to avoid handing easy propaganda victories to its enemies?
And will Islamabad find a way of opening up FATA to the outside by taking steps to integrate it fully into Pakistan – it is currently run under the colonial Frontier Crimes Regulation. A perceived reluctance on the part of the Pakistan Army to open it up encourages a view that the military want to retain FATA as a deniable base for Islamist militants, a charge it denies. We will soon have an opportunity to test that by seeing if there is any follow through to a demand from people of FATA to be given a free and independent media before national elections due by early next year.
PAKISTAN’S SECURITY INTERESTS
Underneath what Washington sees as near-suicidal reluctance by the Pakistani military to turn against Islamist insurgents lies legitimate security interests. The colonial-era Durand Line which marks the border with Afghanistan has never been recognised by Kabul, leaving Pakistan vulnerable to the idea of a revived Pashtunistan incorporating the Pashtun people of southern Afghanistan and those living on the Pakistani side as far as the Indus river. Pakistan and Afghanistan are never going to have settled relations until that border issue is addressed in some way (tensions on the border have been flaring up again, aggravated by accusations from both Afghanistan and Pakistan of militant sanctuaries on either side.) Will the United States be willing to nudge the Afghans into talks that, while unlikely to reach a settlement for years (Afghanistan is fiercely opposed to recognising the Durand Line as the border) would at least indicate a readiness to address one of the root causes of conflict? Or will it be filed under “too difficult”?
And what of India? Washington has actively welcomed Indian participation in developing Afghanistan; Pakistan opposes any Indian military involvement and only reluctantly has accepted economic support. Have red lines on Indian involvement in Afghanistan been agreed between the United States, Pakistan and India?
If the United States has achieved the feat of being disliked by almost all sections of Pakistani society, it is partly because its past policies proved so damaging to Pakistan, particularly its support for military rule. Its approach to Pakistan has been one of using it for its own strategic ends whether these be challenging the Soviet Union during the Cold War or fighting the war in Afghanistan. That has been changing slowly – over the last few years Washington has begun to acknowledge its real challenge was in stabilising not Afghanistan but Pakistan. With that has come tentative support for democracy – a country being used purely for U.S. foreign policy ends is “more conveniently” run by a general; a country in need of internal stabilisation is more likely to be balanced through democracy. How far will Washington continue to support Pakistan’s chaotic nascent democracy, or alternatively how far will it fall back on the old habits of military-to-military cooperation?
With the end to the seven-month standoff, Washington is pumping money back into Pakistan and lifting a potential block on an IMF deal which could help lift the economy. The truce may work if it creates the space to stabilise Pakistan and build better ties. But it has also deprived Pakistan of the opportunity to learn from experience of what it would mean to fully break with the United States and be forced to put its own house in order rather than under American pressure. For now, the jury is out.