Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Tariq Fatemi: Bush-Zardari Meeting

A crucial meeting amid discord
By Tariq Fatemi, Dawn, September 25, 2008

A SUMMIT-level exchange between allies in the global war on terror would be important at any time, but the recent meeting between Presidents George Bush and Asif Zardari had an added significance, coming as it did at a time when US-Pakistan ties appeared to have entered a strained phase.

Either by coincidence or design, the Bush administration’s welcome for Pakistan’s elected government has been shockingly irreverent. Instead of giving it time to get a grip on myriad problems inherited from an authoritarian dispensation, Washington is indulging in missile attacks and cross-border raids on so-called terrorist targets. Resultantly, the government is confused and the people outraged.

In fact, the expectation in Pakistan after the army chief’s meeting with Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, last month was that the anti-terror strategy would be reviewed and the terms of engagement determined. Obviously, this was not the case for Sept 3 witnessed the first US ground assault in South Waziristan. Attacks have continued amidst reports that Bush had issued an executive order in July authorising unilateral ground action in our tribal areas.

More worryingly, in a congressional testimony this month, Admiral Mullen presented a detailed roadmap of a new, comprehensive American strategy. Admitting that the US was not winning in Afghanistan, Mullen asserted that “these two nations are inextricably linked in a common insurgency that crosses the border”, indicating that the US would treat both Afghanistan and Pakistan as a single area of operations. Admiral Mullen’s testimony was a tacit admission of failure in Afghanistan, while also an assertion that the only way to win in Afghanistan was to open a new theatre of operations in Pakistan. Confirmation of this was contained in President Bush’s speech at the US National Defence University where he named Pakistan among the major battlegrounds in the global war on terror, clearly a warning to Islamabad that in the war on terror, it had no option but to continue to play the role assigned to it.

Around the same time, the American media reported that the Bush administration had approved a three-phase plan calling for a far more aggressive military campaign and authorising US forces to operate inside Fata to capture Al Qaeda leaders. The same sources stated that the CIA presence in the Pak-Afghan border areas was being beefed up. Later, Assistant Secretary Richard Boucher called for reform of the Inter-Services Agency (ISI) to increase the pressure on Islamabad.

US officials claim to be closely monitoring public and private reactions to cross-border operations. They explain that even though the stepped-up operations risked a backlash, the US had decided “to get to the areas where the terrorists rest, relax and train”. What then explains the American impatience with Pakistan? Is it the presence of safe havens in Fata that leave the US with no option or that “the initial Pakistani response has been relatively restrained”, as claimed by Pentagon officials? Or is it because of the administration’s confidence that the improved situation in Iraq and a power shift in Islamabad had widened the window of opportunity for more strikes?

The politics of US presidential elections involving a desire to achieve major success against Al Qaeda to brush up Bush’s negative legacy could also be one of the factors. Finally, is there any truth to the claim made by Arnaud de Borchgrave, a veteran American journalist, that Pakistan’s consent has been forthcoming — “with a wink and a nod”?

It is quite obvious that US “patience with Pakistan is running short”. Nevertheless, Washington needs to broach this issue cautiously. As the Marriott Hotel blast has demonstrated, this may not be the most appropriate time for Washington to give expression to its petulance.

America needs to appreciate that the Taliban resurgence is primarily on account of its own mistakes in Afghanistan, including failure to provide the men and material required immediately after the invasion; the inefficient and corrupt government of Hamid Karzai; and its support for an authoritarian regime in Pakistan that failed to ‘own’ the war on terror thus reinforcing the impression that it was America’s war and not ours.

Unilateral US attacks betray a sense of desperation and a misplaced reliance on brute military offensive to cover up a strategic failure. It is in this context that Zardari’s meeting with Bush assumes special importance. He would have done well to have ensured national consensus through parliament’s endorsement of government policy before embarking on this crucial visit. From Bush’s remarks to the media it appears that Zardari did raise Pakistan’s concern at the violations of its sovereignty.

Bush, however, avoided giving any commitment on this issue though Information Minister Sherry Rehman later claimed that Bush had assured Zardari that the US would respect our sovereignty, though she did not respond when asked whether Zardari had received assurance that the US troops would no more enter our territory while pursuing the militants.

In fact, US policy is not likely to change as evident from the vigour and conviction with which Bush dwelt on the issue of terrorism in his speech to the General Assembly, claiming that “bringing terrorists to justice does not create terrorism; it’s the best way to protect our people”. Zardari did well to play on Bush’s ego and public attachment to democracy by claiming that “democracy was the answer to the problems”.

Hopefully, Zardari would have also emphasised that Pakistan’s democratic government cannot react with the same disregard for public opinion as did the earlier authoritarian regime. For the first time, the federal and Frontier governments have publicly ‘owned’ the war on terrorism and supported military action in the tribal areas. National support for this policy that was greatly strengthened after the Marriott blast, could, however, be quickly diluted if the US persists in disregarding Pakistani sensitivities.

The US has to be persuaded that commando raids and missile attacks that result in civilian casualties are likely to raise anti-American sentiments, make extremists more popular, discredit the civilian set-up and weaken the effectiveness of government. All this could jeopardise Pak-US cooperation in countering terrorist groups. The US should concentrate on providing Pakistani forces with advanced equipment, sharing credible and timely intelligence and extending massive economic assistance, especially to the affected areas, and then letting the Pakistanis deal with the situation.

Pakistan, in turn, has to get its own house in order, formulate a well thought out strategy, sell it to the people through building consensus in parliament and then implement it forcefully.

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