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Crisis in Pakistan-US relations

A few days ago I had the opportunity to present a paper, “FATA: internal security and Pakistan’s international obligations,” to a conference in Islamabad. It included five proposals for tension reduction between the US, Pakistan and Afghanistan. The conference came at an opportune time. NATO and the ISAF are dismayed at the peace negotiations Pakistan has decided to initiate with the militants, and charge that Pakistan’s peace deals transferred militancy to Afghanistan and raised the death and injury rates among allied troops.

President Karzai added a strident warning of military intervention by Afghan forces into Pakistan if the militants were not stopped from entering Afghanistan. The immediate cause of his wrath against Pakistan was the Kandahar jailbreak executed by the Talibans. It led to the escape of about 1,400 prisoners, including 400 Taliban. Karzai said that his forces would launch raids into Pakistan to hit the militants. It was “better for the Afghan troops to be killed during offensive operations in Pakistan than in militant attacks in Afghanistan,” he said.

A few days earlier, allied air force and unmanned Predators used precision-guided weapons to attack nine reinforced bunkers of the Pakistani Frontier Corps positioned along the international border with Afghanistan. The Frontier Corps, also called the Scouts, were reorganised after the Third Afghan war in 1919. They are lightly armed well trained soldiers who act as the political agent’s police force. It is a force known for its bravery and hard work. It operates in those parts of the tribal areas where government writ extends; about 1/8th of FATA. They are officered by regular officers of the Pakistani military.

All the tribal administrative agencies have either one or two units of this force. They are manned by the tribes, who normally serve in mixed configurations to prevent breakdown of disciple. Their officers are normally from the army. They have served with bravery and distinction so far. Today, they are tasked to assist the 90,000 strong army stationed in FATA.

The Scouts have a legendary history. A fact not generally known is that it was a unit of the Frontier Corps, the Gilgit Scouts, who under 24-year-old Major Brown and Captain Mathieson, both formerly of the Tochi Scouts, jointly fought in October 1947 to get rid of the Dogra governor of Gilgit, Brigadier Ghansara Singh. This action brought the Northern Areas into Pakistan. It is also true that if they hadn’t acted there would have been a bloodbath of Hindu and Sikhs in the Gilgit.

Today the Scouts have an impossible job of guarding more than 800 kilometres of Pakistan’s western border with Afghanistan. They are occupying more than 18,000 positions on this dangerous border, most of them as bunkers. During the Taliban administration in Kabul Pakistan established a post at Gora Tai in Mohmand Agency at a location known as Spina Soka (white peak). The Afghans have been contesting the Pakistani claim to this area, and according to records, this portion on Pakistan’s western border and stretching along the Kunar-Bajaur watershed, is not demarcated.

On June 10 an Afghan army group with the support of the ISAF came to the region and started constructing a post on the same ridgeline as the Pakistani Scouts’ position. This was contested by the Scouts personnel but the Afghans continued to work. In the afternoon the Mohmand Rifles sent a senior officer, Major Akbar, to speak to the Afghans and to suggest to settle the matter at higher level. However, the parleys did not succeed since the rear Afghan headquarters did not agree. Before dusk, the Afghan forces withdrew. After about 45 minutes the sound of small-arms fire was heard by the Spina Suka post which later turned out to be a Taliban ambush. The Pakistani post was ordered to retain position and not to allow anyone near their security perimeters. At about 20.30, nine of the 11 bunkers of the Scouts suddenly and without warning came under direct attack by precision bombs and missiles. It was this unprovoked air attack which led to the death of Major Akbar and 12 others.

What has angered the Pakistani military is the fact that Pakistan had provided the exact GPS locations of each of the 11 bunkers as well as 22,000 other locations in FATA to the US forces to prevent casualties from friendly fire. It is not understood why the positions were attacked. This needs to be cleared up in the proposed joint inquiry by US and Pakistan.

I am afraid that the bad blood caused by this action will continue to sour relations between the two nations for some time to come; the alliance between the US, Pakistan and Afghanistan has become brittle and, as they say, the compact requires mending; there is too much at stake.

One of the reasons for this tension is the new rules of the game which have emerged in Pakistan after the Feb 18 election. Instead of Gen Musharraf and the military making all the decisions as in the past, now a disparate group of people are involved. There are many more power centres and policy consultations have to be wider and time consuming; just as in the US. Secondly, both the NWFP and the federal government have opted for peace deals which are distrusted by the US and Afghanistan since they do not prevent militant action in Afghanistan.

The new army chief wants to act according to the Constitution and desires that directions must be given to the army regarding policy by the political executive. The US is not used to this method of working in Pakistan. It felt more comfortable with Gen Musharraf’s personalised approach. That is not possible any more. However, the allies have a serious cause of worry. Out of the many serious problems facing Pakistan, the most worrying is the deteriorating security situation within FATA and the NWFP. However, we neither have a central focal point for its redress nor a counter-insurgency strategy. This is Pakistan’s major weakness.

Since major policy revisions are underway, it would be worthwhile to keep the following five obligations in mind while we negotiate a new compact with the US and Afghanistan:

Pakistan must initiate a comprehensive consultation process with stakeholders for the formulation of a national counter-insurgency strategy. Such a strategy must be owned by the National Assembly. In the meantime, Pakistan should formulate a draft interim strategy based on international good practices for battling the militancy. Strengthening the state must be a goal of such a policy. It must contain indicators to monitor progress.

Second, Pakistan must undertake reform of Fata to mainstream it by extending the Political Parties Act, extension of empowered local government, reform of the FCR and finally the merger of FATA into the NWFP in phases. Third, Pakistan must prevent to the maximum extent possible the freedom of movement of militants crossing over to Afghanistan. Four, Afghanistan should not heighten tension on the international boundary and issues if any must be resolved at the diplomatic level. The allies should understand the sensitivities when they operate with Afghan forces on the international border. Fifth, the US Congress should pass a bill to place the US-Pakistani relationship on a strategic level committing itself to Pakistan’s economic and social transformation.

If the above recommendations are implemented the situation relating to militancy could improve considerably.

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