Terms of Endearment

Commentary | September 29, 2011

Outgoing chairman US Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen dropped the charade of being a staunch friend of Pakistan and in bare-knuckled testimony before the US Senate crucified the ISI as being complicit with the Haqqani network in the recent attack on the US embassy in Kabul. By default this also implicates his friend Kayani, who had headed the ISI before he became COAS. Why did Mullen choose his departure a few days after a good three-hour meeting with Kayani in Seville in Spain to rake Pakistan over the coals?

Not a man of many words, Kayani who had partnered with Mullen in papering over frequent tensions in the US-Pakistan relationship over the past four years must have been severely jolted. If nothing else the Pakistani COAS must be deeply embarrassed by this “unkindest cut of all”, Et tu, Mullen? Such trust deficit among the military heads of the two countries is counter-productive and will be difficult to overcome in the future.

The “Afghan leaders” propped up in Kabul by the US must now be really apprehensive about the US exiting Afghanistan. Soviet puppet Najibullah hanging publicly from an electric pole is not something people forget easily. No wonder Burhanuddin Rabbani, the peacemaker, was assassinated; some people have a vested interest in keeping the conflict going. The overwhelming public perception is that failing to meet its stated goals in Afghanistan, the US is passing the buck onto Pakistan, the ISI being a most convenient scapegoat for all perceived ills in the world even at the best of times. The US diatribe has further aroused public feeling against the US in the drawing rooms and streets of the country, even the most diehard friends of the US are aghast at the allegations made by responsible US officials.

The Haqqani faction of the Afghan Taliban is mostly concentrated in the Paktia and Paktika and later Khost. These fiercest of Afghan fighters are from the Zadran tribe. The Haqqanis only crossed the porous border into the adjacent Pakistani territory after the Soviet invasion; from here they operated against the Soviets with active help from both the CIA and the ISI. Where are the coalition forces bases that should have been formed in this area to “do more” in combating the Haqqanis? While targeting the safe havens of the Haqqanis on our territory, can we risk that the Waziris, who mostly inhabitant North Waziristan become collateral damage? Mostly rural guerrillas, Haqqanis seldom operate in the Afghan towns and cities since their very distinct facial features make them recognisable.

While all intelligence agencies maintain some links with the opposition, there is a vast difference between having contact and actively aiding and abetting terrorism. If it were the Haqqanis who attacked the US embassy in Kabul, they could have only homed onto their targets with active insider help within the city from the many guerrilla factions that have melted into the city’s population.

The Pakistan Army is most reluctant to open up a front against these fierce fighters without “casus belli”. Almost 200,000 of our combat troops are very heavily engaged in Swat, South Waziristan and other Fata agencies, some units have been out in the field for over two years. Pakistan’s available helicopter fleet can hardly support the ongoing operations; moreover our ammunition reserves have been seriously depleted. Going into Haqqani-infested areas will have a blowback that will make our present terrorist-ridden situation seem like a walk in the park, to do so would be illogical bordering on insanity. Time, space and logistics (and public sentiment) are against us at the moment.

Our civilian and military sacrifices compare at a ratio of almost 10:1 to all Afghan civilian and coalition forces put together. The Afghan National Army (ANA) casualties number only a few hundred against our thousands, the less said about them the better. One incongruous thought, why the sudden concentrated diplomatic and media offensive by the US? Is it an amazing coincidence that every time the PPP coalition is in danger of a meltdown, the army and the ISI are put on the block by the US to relieve the existential threat to this inept and corrupt government?

Notwithstanding the rhetoric from the US about attacking Haqqani safe havens in North Waziristan, and Pakistan giving “a suitable reply”, both are nonsense. US “boots on the ground” in Pakistani territory is not a viable option, and not for political reasons alone. The US gameplan is to exit Afghanistan according to an enhanced schedule with the minimum casualties; this will only mean more body bags.

While one can expect escalation of drone attacks, and possibly even cruise missiles and limited air incursions, will the US risk a fire fight with the Haqqanis that could involve the Pakistan Army, and US coffins flying into Dover Air Force Base? One can expect an escalation in the war of words but not direct conflict. On our part, nobody in his right mind would counsel confrontation with the US, that is not an option. One would be stupid to go that route.

The US Congress would do this country the greatest favour if it passes the Bill to cut off aid to Pakistan, this government can than declare freedom! First, we should re-affirm our commitment to continue fighting the war on terror, but on our own terms. Second, we must pull out as many troops as we can from Fata and mobilise the tribal militias as in the past. Third, we must not take any further aid of any kind, economic or military, saddled with conditions. Fourth, we must charge transit fees (and the wear and tear to our infra-structure) at internationally acceptable rates for all goods passing through Pakistani territory.

These fees should be paid at points of entry, and fifth, we must clearly define the parameters of future collaboration with the US in the war on terror, this should include intelligence sharing, drone strikes, overflights, etc. This should spare the US administration from their present discomfort of giving us aid subject to all sorts of intervention by uninformed members of Congress playing to the conservative gallery which believes in bombing all problems into oblivion, and damn the consequences.

What exacerbates the US-Pakistan relationship is that no defined “terms of engagement” exist. This grey area allows each country to push its own agenda with motivated interest, this serves to create festering problems. While we lurch from crisis to crisis the underlying threat of crossing a fail-safe line will not only be detrimental for the US and Pakistan but will have long-term effects on future peace and stability on all the countries of this region. We must define clearly the “terms of engagement” for the future; “out of the box” thinking must remove the rough edges that mar the relationship between us. A well-defined “terms of endearment” will provide for a genuinely productive and meaningful relationship in the future.

Click here to read Sehgal's piece in The News