Our man in Washington
The visit is taking place at a crucial time both for Pakistan and the US. The prime minister’s visit to the US comes at the cusp the end of a presidency and the start of a new one. President Bush is at the tail end of his tenure and would wish to leave behind a memorable legacy. These are risky times for both Pakistan and the US. However, personalities do not change the geo-strategic interests of states. For more than one reason, the destiny of Pakistan and US is interlinked. It ought to be a sobering thought for both the leaders to remind themselves that however severe the current turbulence in relationships, both Pakistan and the US need each other for the foreseeable future; although this is a cause for optimism yet it should not dull the mind to recognize the fact that a misstep could cause irretrievable damage to this partnership.
The last few months have been punctuated with reports of US worries regarding the worsening security situation in Afghanistan and Pakistan and an escalation in casualties of international troops. We also witnessed two major Taliban suicide attacks. The first attack was on the jail in Kandahar and the other was on the Indian embassy in Kabul on July 7th. Brig. Mehta, the military attach’ at the embassy and another senior Indian official were killed along with scores of others. President Karzai has blamed Pakistan for these attacks. Reports say that the suicide attack on the Indian embassy was meant to target Brig. Mehta, who is reported to have worked in the Indian held Kashmir at a senior intelligence level. Could the Indian embassy attack be retaliation to settle past scores?
U.S government and think tanks spent the last couple of months pointing out their concerns about a lack of direction in Pakistani security policies. US leaders however, also understood that the new Pakistani coalition government’s attempt to form a consensus on security policies would take time. For instance the change in previous operating procedures for launching of military operations; instead of starting operations independently the military let it be known that in future they will only be launched on the direction of the federal government.
However, in the last two weeks the mood of the US administration and think tanks has shifted from criticizing Pakistan, to one of constructive engagement. For instance, the US has satisfied the Pakistani military by recently approving the sale of F-16 aircraft. This is indicative of goodwill because the US could have leveraged the transfer of these planes after obtaining something in return during the prime minister’s visit.
The release at this juncture of an important report by Daniel Markey, a leading expert on the region and titled, Securing Pakistan’s Tribal Belt, is indicative of the direction of reform proposed. The publication of the report provides an opportunity to the US officials to seek Pakistan’s reaction to ideas within it. The main thesis of the study is that Pakistan cannot adequately meet the political, bureaucratic, development and security challenges in the tribal areas on its own and needs to be assisted. Incidentally the report carries a more friendly diagnosis of the internal situation in tribal areas than the oft repeated charge that the security situation is a creation of the intelligence agencies.
Markey’s action plan is in line with US design for the region which includes pacification of Pakistani tribal areas, elimination of al-Qaeda, the successful re-construction of Afghanistan and creation of domestic stability in Pakistan. Three of these objectives hinge on pacification of tribal areas, hence their pivotal importance.
Pakistanis in the past have criticized the US from walking away from the region after its purpose was served; for instance as it did after the defeat of the USSR in Afghanistan in the late 1980’s. To allay such criticisms the US has reiterated its strategic and long term partnership with Pakistan by putting into legislative process the $7.5 billion Enhanced Partnership with Pakistan Act of 2008. It aims at investing $1.5 billion annually in the civilian sector of the economy including assistance for budgetary support. The bill foresees a decade of such assistance which it hopes will transform Pakistan. However, the conversion of the bill into law is likely to take place during the next administration.
It is hoped that the prime minister during his visit will explain to his hosts the difficulties Pakistan faced in controlling the movement of militants into Afghanistan. It is extremely challenging for Pakistan to effectively man this difficult 2200 KM of the border. It does not have the required force to enforce such quarantine. Secondly, the approved Pakistani strategy of negotiations preceding military action needs to be supported. This is the policy approved in the recent meeting of the coalition partners in Islamabad.
However, the rising coalition casualties attributed to cross border militant activity has increased the pressure of the US military on Washington policy makers; it is likely that during the Prime Minister’s visit it will be stressed that the Pakistan should undertake more military operations in collaboration with NATO and US Special Forces. It is a risk laden proposition and will generate political discontent. It needs to be resisted. Yet it highlights the urgency attached in preventing cross border activity by militants from Pakistani tribal territory.
The US is also aware that the mounting economic and financial challenge facing Pakistan is leading the country into a vicious period of stagflation, where rising inflation and recession will generate a balance of payment crisis in the next few months. It could lead to agitation and a political back lash resulting from rising prices. Pakistan will need financial help; the situation thus provides a powerful negotiating lever to the US. However, it should be argued by the prime minister that events show that the use of military in tribal areas has aggravated the situation; he should argue for more use of the frontier corp and an increase in its manpower for dealing with the insurgency.
Given the present situation what are the options for Pakistan? I feel that the prime minister’s best option will be to give a commitment to legislate a nationally approved stabilization policy by the national assembly and the senate. This would provide the government with greater legitimacy and a comprehensive strategy for dealing with the insurgency. Besides establishing national principles and priorities such a debate would also win the support of the people. It would give the country more strength in meeting the militant’s challenge and would therefore weaken the latent support that may exist in the peoples mind.
As the prime minister undertakes this vitally important visit to the US, he must not be on the defensive but should feel confident that he is dealing with a friendly country which has stood by Pakistan since its formative years. He is visiting a people who have helped Pakistan tide over the Indus-Water dispute with India and provided assistance for the construction of the Tarbella and Mangla dams by encouraging the World Bank to undertake these programs. They have also helped in the modernization of the Pakistan military. It is these pivotal contributions which have helped Pakistan to deal more effectively with its problems. These are fraternal contributions and cannot be denied.
Pakistan may be facing difficulties yet the prime minister must define and protect the country’s national interest. While Pakistan is willing to help and work towards ending cross border interference in Afghanistan, yet it must protect its sovereignty and its own well being first. Both the countries need to find the space to work within these limitations. It is a tough call to make but then what are prime ministers and presidents for?