The New Great Game
by Dr. Hasan-Askari Rizvi, Daily Times, September 14, 2008
The tough and categorical rejoinder by the Pakistani army chief to American statements reflected the consensus in army circles, and was aimed at dispelling the impression that he had agreed to unilateral American action during his meeting with the US top brass
Statements from top US and Pakistani commanders on dealing with the militancy in Pakistan’s tribal areas reflect divergence in their perspectives on counterterrorism. The two allies do not always trust each other, and public differ on ways and means to counter the terrorist threat in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
The on-going campaign along the Durand Line cannot be tension-free as Pakistan and the US have not articulated a shared vision of terrorism in the region and how to cope with it. Both are excessively occupied with their respective domestic political considerations and security concerns, which leads them to lose patience with each other. However, relations between the two cannot break down completely.
Both Pakistan and the US need each other for different reasons. Pakistan’s faltering economy needs US and Western support. The US needs Pakistan for logistical reasons, and as an extension, for pursuing its counterterrorism agenda in Afghanistan. Major supplies to American troops in Afghanistan pass through Pakistan. Other transit options like the Central Asian land route, or the airlifting of goods to Afghanistan, are not better alternatives.
Further, while Pakistan may not be cooperating to the satisfaction of the US, its exclusion will not facilitate counterterrorism efforts in Afghanistan either. Consequently, one can neither expect a total breakdown of relations nor complete harmony in their policies.
The present crisis in Pak-US relations developed when US military authorities based in Afghanistan took four unilateral military actions in Pakistan’s tribal areas between September 3 and September 8, killing at least 57. Only five persons killed in the missile attack of September 8 were said to be low-level Al Qaeda operatives. These attacks greatly embarrassed the civilian government, and it made a formal protest to the US government.
The American response to Pakistan’s protest was terse, and came in the shape of statements by US Chairman Joint Chiefs of Staff Mike Mullen and Defence Secretary Robert Gates, who maintained that the US favoured expanding military action against the Taliban and Al Qaeda concentrations in Pakistan’s tribal areas. Both also talked of working closely with Pakistan to eliminate the Taliban’s ‘safe havens’.
This was followed by the news that, in July, President George W Bush had authorised unilateral military action inside Pakistan tribal belt without prior approval from Islamabad.
US forces have been launching attacks in the tribal areas from time to time over the last five years. They have fired missiles at specific targets from across the border, or have used unmanned drones to fire missiles and gather intelligence. At times, Pakistani military authorities owned such attacks to dilute domestic criticism.
These incidents have increased in 2008. On September 3, the US used its ground troops for the first time, assaulting a house in a village near Angur Adda, in what was seen as a clear escalation of the attack strategy.
It is known that US military authorities had been discussing for some years the possibility of sustained unilateral military action in the tribal areas against the Taliban and Al Qaeda operatives that challenged US and NATO troops in Afghanistan. Encouraged by the American posture, Afghan President Hamid Karzai and other top Afghan officials launched a barrage of propaganda accusing Pakistan of aiding and abetting the insurgency in Afghanistan.
The Americans believed that some elements in Pakistan’s security and intelligence establishment sympathised with the militants and aided their operations in Afghanistan. This perception led US authorities to restrict intelligence sharing with Pakistan.
The latest American attacks have created a crisis-like situation in Pak-US relations for three main reasons:
First, Pakistan’s federal government and the provincial government in the NWFP have publicly owned the war on terrorism for the first time, and have supported military action against the Taliban in the tribal areas. They also began mobilising support for military action, arguing that the insurgency threatened Pakistan’s internal stability. This effort by the government suffered a major setback after the four US attacks within a week, and tough statements from the Americans.
Second, the meeting between Pakistan’s army chief and top US commanders aboard an aircraft carrier in the Indian Ocean on August 27 created the impression that the two sides had developed an understanding for dealing jointly with the militancy in the tribal areas. This impression was strengthened by Adm Mullen’s statement within a day or so of this meeting. However, the September attacks showed that American military authorities in Afghanistan had not changed their ways. This was viewed as an affront to the Pakistan Army, whose chief met with his American counterparts to improve trust between the two sides.
Third, the Pakistani government’s efforts to contain the activities of Islamist groups and parties, which often act as a political front for militants, have received a setback due to the American raids. These elements seized the opportunity to project the government as an American lackey and stepped up their activities. Such attacks increase support for religious extremist, and strengthen anti-American sentiments.
The tough and categorical rejoinder by the Pakistani army chief to American statements reflected the consensus in army circles, and was aimed at dispelling the impression that he had agreed to unilateral American action during his meeting with the US top brass. A few days earlier, the Air Chief Marshall said in Lahore that if the government granted permission, PAF can take care of violations of Pakistani airspace by US drones.
Gen Kayani won much appreciation in both military and civilian circles for stating unambiguously that Pakistan will not allow foreign troops to operate on its territory. The corps commanders met on September 11-12 to discuss security issues. It is ironic that the civilian government did not come out with a similar statement. Prime Minister Gilani endorsed the army chief’s statement, whereas it should have been the other way around. It seems that the civilian government lacks the confidence to take a firm position on the matter.
While efforts were underway to defuse the situation, the US launched another missile attack in North Waziristan on September 12.
Pakistan and the US will continue to diverge on the management of counterterrorism because they are not pursuing this goal through a shared approach. The US sets the agenda and then expects Pakistan to perform to the American’s satisfaction in return for economic and military assistance. Pakistan is not impressed with all aspects of the American policy, as it does not take into account Pakistan’s security concerns.
Pakistan sees many challenges to its security as Afghanistan experiences a new Great Game with India, Iran and the new resurgent Russia all interested. Additional problems are being caused with the American policy of supporting the Karzai government, which is dominated by ethnic minorities whose leadership has traditionally been hostile to Pakistan. Some players in this new Great Game are likely to help insurgents in order to keep the US under pressure, while others like India or Afghanistan’s Northern Alliance can assist the Pakistani Taliban or Baloch separatist elements to further trouble Pakistan.
If diplomatic intervention cannot stop American attacks, the military commanders and major political circles will build strong pressure on the civilian government to downgrade Pakistan cooperation with the US, and target American drones flying into Pakistani airspace.
Dr Hasan-Askari Rizvi is a political and defence analyst