Pakistan: Now or Never?
Perspectives on Pakistan
If there was one thing the United States might have learned in a decade of war is that military might alone cannot compensate for lack of knowledge about people and conditions on the ground. That was true in Afghanistan and Iraq, and may also turn out to be the case in Libya.
Yet the heated debate about using Predator drones to target militants in the tribal areas of Pakistan – triggered by the spy row between the CIA and the ISI – appears to be falling into a familiar pattern – keep bombing versus stop bombing. Not whether, when and how drones might be effective, based on specific conditions and knowledge of the ground, and when they are counter-productive.
Combined with that is a tendency to discuss the use of drones in isolation without taking account of the historical context (Pakistan and the United States have been rowing about this for several years – it is not new) or indeed the broader political context (a botched drone attack by the CIA is guaranteed to enrage all the more if it comes at a time when American diplomats are trying to convince Pakistan they want to improve relations.)
Consider, for example, the case of a tribesman with a performing monkey who gathered an audience of turban-clad, rifle-bearing men around him in a village in 2005. The U.S. controllers of the drone mistook the event for a weapons-training session or military briefing and dropped a missile, killing many in the audience. That story was recounted by General Ashfaq Pervez Kayani, now head of the Pakistan Army, and quoted by Brian Cloughley in his book “War, Coups and Terror”. “This, said the General, was an example of lack of cultural understanding,” wrote Cloughley.
With the release of CIA contractor Raymond Davis, the United States and Pakistan have put behind them one of the more public rows of their up-and-down relationship. It was probably not the worst row — remember the furore over a raid by U.S. ground troops in Angor Adda in Waziristan in 2008, itself preceded by a deluge of leaks to the U.S. media about the alleged duplicity of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency in its dealings on Afghanistan.
But it was certainly one which by its very nature was guaranteed to get the most attention – an American who shot dead two Pakistanis in what he said was an act of self-defence, denied diplomatic immunity and ultimately released only after the payment of blood money. Adding to the drama were two intelligence agencies battling behind the scenes.
With the U.S.-Pakistan dispute over CIA contractor Raymond Davis stuck in Pakistani courts, newspapers are reporting that the two countries’ common ally, Saudi Arabia, may step in to defuse the deepening crisis between them.
The high court in Lahore, where Davis shot dead two people in what he said was an act of self-defence in January, on Monday declined to rule on whether he has diplomatic immunity. The court referred the question of immunity to a criminal court which is dealing with murder charges against him.
Given the high-decibel volume of the row over Raymond Davis, the CIA contractor who shot dead two Pakistanis in Lahore in January, it would be tempting to assume that overall relations between Pakistan and the United States are the worst they have been in years.
At a strategic level, however, there’s actually rather greater convergence of views than there has been for a very long time.
The New York Times has an intriguing story about the sourcing for a report that did the rounds last week saying that Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) rushed Afghan Taliban leader Mullah Muhammad Omar to Karachi last week after he suffered a heart attack. (h/t Five Rupees)
To recap, the Washington Post said last week that a private intelligence network, the Eclipse Group, had reported that Mullah Omar had a heart attack on Jan. 7 and was treated for several days in a Karachi hospital with the help of the ISI.
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 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.
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”.
I’ve been resisting diving into the WikiLeaks controversy, in part because the information contained in the documents – including allegations of Pakistani complicity with the Taliban - is not new. Yet at the same time you can’t entirely dismiss as old news something which has generated such a media feeding frenzy. So here are a few pointers to add to the discussion.
U.S. POLICY TOWARDS PAKISTAN
On the likely implications (or non-implications) for U.S. policy towards Pakistan, go back to 2009, and this piece in the National Interest by Bruce Riedel who conducted the first review of Afghan strategy for President Barack Obama. Having assessed all the evidence, including well-known American misgivings about the role of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency, he concluded that Washington had no option but to stay the course in trying to build a long-term partnership with Pakistan.
According to a new report published by the London School of Economics, Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency not only funds and trains Taliban fighters in Afghanistan but is officially represented on the movement’s leadership council, giving it significant influence over operations.
The ISI has long been accused of backing the Taliban – an accusation Pakistan denies, saying this would make no sense when it is already fighting a bloody campaign against Islamist militants at home. But the report is worth reading for its wealth of detail on the perceptions held by Taliban commanders interviewed in the field. You can see the Reuters story on the report here and the full document (pdf) here.