The future of the Pakistan-US friendship

The two recent ISAF-US led attacks on South Waziristan have generated anger against the US. It is tragic that in these attacks innocent Pakistani women and children were killed. The depth of Pakistan’s annoyance and hurt was evident when the US ambassador to Pakistan was summoned to the Foreign Office and a protest lodged. Later the foreign minister condemned this attack on Pakistan’s sovereignty in the National Assembly. There is something quite bizarre about what is happening between two nations which consider themselves friends. Furthermore, it is difficult to understand the US motives for these attacks. These attacks have imperilled the lives of hundreds of Pakistani military personnel who are spread over the tribal areas in small guard units. The tribes will seek revenge from them. Experts on the war on terrorism are unanimous in concluding that it cannot be won by military action alone but by combining the military with winning the hearts and minds of the people strategy. Secondly, this incident comes at a time when the Pakistan military achieved ascendency over the militants in Bajaur Agency; the US attacks have destroyed the government’s credibility painstakingly built amongst the tribes for community based action against the militants. The government was successful in mobilising the Salarzai tribe of Bajaur against the militants ¬†unfortunately that moral high ground has been lost after the US attack and a very good opportunity for gaining ascendency by the government squandered. These attacks indicate that perhaps the time has come both for the US and Pakistan to frankly re-examine what is now beginning to look like a brittle alliance. I feel that this war is being driven by the US media rather than a saner political vision. I have a visceral feeling that these two attacks were the outcome of US reservations of three months ago and perhaps related to the dynamics of the forthcoming US elections in November. The recent operations showed that the Pakistan military was taking robust action against militants in Bajaur, Swat and elsewhere in contrast with the previous lukewarm approach. The main causes for tension in the existing relationship are the divergent perceptions of both the US and Pakistan. I will attempt to compare these perceptions to indicate how better results can be achieved if the respective points of views are understood and a change in the war strategy made. The first erroneous US perception is its belief that it can fight the war in Afghanistan unilaterally and that it does not need a political solution. Secondly, the US believes that it can run its Afghan operations independently without anyone’s assistance. Thirdly, the US has shown that it is not concerned too much with the consequences of its actions on Pakistani people or politics. In other words, Pakistan is considered irrelevant. On the other hand, there is ambivalence in Pakistan’s commitment to the war on terrorism, which is dictated by certain political and geostrategic compulsions driven by its location and its social and political aspects. Pakistan’s interest in Afghanistan is dictated firstly by the need to maintain goodwill of the Afghan Pashtuns who are the real power brokers in that country. If foreign presence in Afghanistan ends that country would revert soon to its base model of a loose tribal and ethnic confederation in which the Pashtuns have a predominant role. This basic fact was ignored when the US attacked Afghanistan in October 2001 and later in the reconstruction of the Afghan state under the Bonn Accord. Secondly, Pakistan has a volatile and large Pashtun population inhabiting FATA, NWFP, Balochistan and Karachi. Pakistan’s nationhood cannot be cohesive and healthy if its Pashtuns are killed and kept marginalised. The allied operations in Afghanistan and Pakistani military actions in FATA and NWFP is causing disenchantment among Pashtuns; to them this war appears to be directed only against them. Pakistani leaders fear that if there is no change in the violent approach adopted towards the Pashtuns, it is likely that the Afghan and Pakistani Pashtuns will coalesce into a larger entity; if that ever comes about Central and South Asia will fragment like nine pins. Is not the current flawed security strategy in Afghanistan and Pakistan inevitably leading towards that? Thirdly, the Pakistani military and political leaderships know that they must maintain leverage with the Afghan Pashtuns to prevent India from playing a spoiler’s role on Pakistan’s northwest. This is Pakistan’s soft underbelly. Such a fear has been further reinforced by the preferential treatment meted to India by the US for instance in the matter of the transfer of nuclear technology recently. The nuclear agreement provides India with an opportunity to produce plutonium for its nuclear weapons. Such a partial attitude of the US towards India provides scoring points to the increasingly powerful nationalistic lobby in Pakistan which accuses the leadership of being a US proxy, not friend. Pakistan has suffered a lot for providing support to the US. It has lost more than 4,000 soldiers another 2,000 civilians have died either as collateral casualties or as a consequence of suicide bombings undertaken by the Pashtuns to avenge the military action. In 2007 there were 56 suicide bombings. Forty-six of these attacks were directed against targets associated with the state military apparatus. The corresponding figure for 2006 was only six suicide attacks. It was in 2007 that the collateral deaths increased manifold; this period also saw an increase in US Predator attacks in the tribal areas. US unilateralism has persuaded many Pakistanis to believe that the US does not really care what the impact of its actions will be on Pakistan or its citizens. Clearly a reliance on a strategy which leads to more collateral deaths whether by Pakistan or US is a bad policy in terms of winning the hearts and minds of the people. Continued reliance on such a strategy will ultimately force the Pashtuns to consider other alternatives which would require heavy policing and stabilisation operations which few countries, including the US, can afford indefinitely. It is also clear that the root cause of the problem is the ineffectiveness of the security policies in Afghanistan, including the presence of foreign troops. The allies have spent about $15 billion there and have been fighting for seven years, but what are the results? First, the insurgency has gained strength, it is not ebbing. Second, despite the presence of such a large number of international troops, Afghanistan has become the largest producer of poppy in the world, which, according to Barnett Rubin of New York University, provides the militants with more than $100 million a year for fighting the war. Third, neither the US nor the EU countries accept casualties. It is bad politics in their countries when soldiers die and there are stringent demands for a troop recall when the body bags increase. Apparently it is thus clear that it is not the efforts of the international force in Afghanistan alone that will provide results in the fight against militancy but assistance from Pakistan which will remain a critical ingredient in any solution to the Afghan problem. One fact that is easily overlooked is that Pakistan is also the logistical hub for the supply of oil and material to US forces operating in Afghanistan. Every day 300 trucks carry more than three million gallons of fuel by road to the military forces there. Additionally plenty other military goods are also transited via Karachi. Furthermore, Pakistan’s pivotal role becomes more pronounced in the context of the recent Russian resurgence. If the Pakistan-US relationship is to prosper, especially with a new president now in office, then the time has come for the US to recognise Pakistan’s genuine reservations and to re-strategise the Afghan war, so as to make it more acceptable to Pakistan.¬†