The US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and her high profile delegation’s (that includes CIA chief David Petraeus and Admiral Mike Mullen’s successor Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen Martin Dempsey) just-concluded foray into Islamabad was a last ditch effort to put Pak-US relations back on track. Washington wants a handle on its tattered Af-Pak strategy, which by its own estimation cannot succeed without Islamabad’s cooperation.
The US administration’s frustration with Islamabad stems from its desperation to cut and run by 2014. As part of his re-election strategy Obama wants a face saving by the end of 2012. To this end, 30,000 US troops are due to depart from Afghanistan. Obviously, he considers Pakistan as a key to this goal. This is why Hillary Clinton has stressed that Pakistan act “in days and weeks, not months and years.”
No one would have expected the complicated issues haunting US-Pakistan relations to be resolved in a single visit. Despite a better understanding of each other’s position, intractable differences remain. General Kayani and his civilian backers are simply not willing to sign on Washington’s wish list. A putsch any time soon against the Haqqani network and its cohorts holed up in North Waziristan is not on the cards.
In the weeks preceding Hillary Clinton’s visit, Pakistan has faced intense diplomatic and economic pressure from the US. Statements emanating from Washington’s military and intelligence establishment accusing the ISI of backing the Haqqani network have been buttressed by a cut-off in US military assistance to Islamabad.
The recent assassination of Tajik leader and peace interlocutor Burhanuddin Rabbani by the Taliban has made matters worse for Pakistan. Afghan President Hamid Karzai used the accusation that the attack was planned and abetted by the ISI as an excuse to sign a far-reaching security agreement with New Delhi.
Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani tried to underplay its significance by terming it as a deal between two sovereign countries. But the ominous timing of signing of the agreement has sent jitters through Pakistan’s security establishment, already wary of New Delhi’s fast increasing political and economic clout in Afghanistan.
For long, India had wanted a foothold in Afghanistan. Not only as a strategic and economic entry point into Central Asia but also to keep Pakistan busy on its western border. A military agreement between Kabul and New Delhi despite being on the cards for some time was a victim of procrastination from both sides. In the changed circumstances, with relations between Islamabad and Washington at a historic low, the Americans encouraged both Delhi and Kabul to go ahead.
Washington is not quite clear about its own goals in Afghanistan. On the one hand, it wants the Pakistani military to flush out the Taliban from its badlands. But on the other, it also wants Islamabad to facilitate a dialogue with elements of the Haqqani network.
Its aims in Afghanistan seem to vacillate between counter-insurgency and counter-terrorism. As the former US commander in Afghanistan General McChrystal recently opined, “Washington does not understand Afghanistan despite its military presence there for almost a decade now.”
Just like his predecessor who prematurely declared victory in Iraq, Obama dispassionately boasted a few months back that they were meeting their goals in Afghanistan. Osama is dead, A Qaeda is disabled and, hence, US troops should be coming home.
It is another matter altogether that the Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan is on the rise. And as was demonstrated by the recent attack on the NATO and US embassy compound in Kabul, the so-called Afghan National Army (ANA) trained with much fanfare by the Americans is incapable of taking over. The high number of desertions and the fact that the Tajik recruits do not speak the language of those they are mandated to police speaks volume about the efficacy of the Force to take over from NATO troops in months to come.
Obama presiding over an historic economic downturn and an unpopular war overseas is gravely in danger of becoming a one-term president. The first black president elected on a platform of change has proved to be more of the same thing if not actually worse.
Just like his predecessor GW Bush, he has not hesitated to use force as an instrument of US foreign policy whenever or wherever required. He has actually upped the ante by using officially sanctioned assassination of US citizens as an instrument. The neocons spearheaded by Bush’s Vice President Dick Cheney must be quite happy to stand vindicated due to the continuation of their policies.
Islamabad can justifiably gloat over the pervasive sense of desperation in Washington. But it does not augur well for the stability of the region. A growing nexus between Kabul, Delhi and Washington is ominous.
There might be a sense of schadenfreude in Islamabad that we hold the key to the final reckoning in Afghanistan. Nevertheless, a desperate US president could cross the Rubicon based on perceptions about the Pakistani military and the ISI providing sanctuaries to the Taliban.
The high profile and powerful US delegation headed by its top diplomat has made it plain that they want the Haqqanis’ scalp but at the same time want Islamabad to initiate talks with the same Taliban. The sombre look of General Kayani and his intelligence chief, General Shuja Pasha, in a photo opportunity with the delegation says it all. The Pakistani military does not seem to be willing to play ball.
Military measures having failed, a negotiated settlement in Afghanistan is the only answer. However, by bringing India into the equation, quite contrary to the wishes of the Pakistani establishment, Washington has made this goal all the more elusive.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai has washed his hands of the matter by prodding Clinton to shift the focus of the peace talks to Islamabad as the Taliban “to a very very great extent were being controlled by establishments in Pakistan.”
The US secretary of state has wondered aloud about “how much cooperation Pakistanis will provide to go after the (Taliban) safe havens”. What she and her bosses should be seeking is a negotiated settlement aiming at forming a broad-based coalition government with the Taliban as its important component before the US cuts and runs from Kabul.
The writer is Editor, Pakistan Today