Behind frenemy lines: US and Pakistan

The dark clouds hovering over US-Pakistan relations grow darker by the day, with not a silver lining in sight. After the recent to and fro of US accusations and Pakistani rebuttals, US defence secretary reiterated his stance over the weekend. Leon Panetta said that the US was fighting its own war in the tribal areas of the Pakistan.

Let’s not forget that three of the five most wanted terrorists in the world today are believed to be in Pakistan: Al Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri Zawahiri, Taliban’s supreme leader Mullah Omar, and Lashkar-e-Taiba’s founder Hafiz Saeed. Moreover, the US is frustrated with Pakistan’s unwillingness to take on the Haqqani network which thrives in the safe havens in the tribal areas. Last week, Chairman of US Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey in fact went on to say that “Pakistan is at war in the FATA, and with us in some cases; not with any US military personnel, with us in the sense that they are trying to diminish the effect of those insurgencies on that side of the border”. If the Haqqani network is such a potent threat, the US should officially declare it an international terrorist group. Pakistan can then be proscribed as a state sponsor of terror for not acting against the Haqqani network.

Tough talk: US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta recently said that his country was fighting its own war in the tribal areas of Pakistan

Because Pakistan refuses to act against the militants ensconced there, the US uses unmanned drones to fire missiles on them. An open secret for many years, the drone programme has been recently acknowledged and its usage justified by the US administration. Notwithstanding Pakistan’s vocal objections to these strikes as a violation of its sovereignty, the US evidently seems to favour drones as a weapon of choice. There have been eight strikes in Pakistan since the Chicago summit, with one of them eliminating the Al Qaeda number two, Abu Yahya al Libi. Unless Pakistan launches its own military operations against the jehadis, the US understandably won’t stop the drone strikes.

The haggling over reopening of NATO supply lines through Pakistan has been the centre of media attraction. Closed in November last year after an attack by US helicopter gunships led to death of 24 Pakistani soldiers at Salala post, Pakistan has demanded a transit fee of $5000 per truck against the earlier levy of $250 per truck for reopening the routes. While the US hasn’t agreed to such a higher fee, it can sweeten the deal by reconstructing the highway used to carry NATO supplies. A few million dollars shouldn’t matter when the US spends $100 billion every year in Afghanistan but it seems intent on squeezing Pakistan out of the picture: NATO has signed a reverse transit agreement with three Central Asian republics which will allow it to move military equipment out of Afghanistan bypassing Pakistan.

But the biggest stumbling block in any rapprochement is the Pakistani demand for a public US apology for the Salala incident. Overwhelming anti-US Pakistani public opinion means that both the politicians and the generals in Pakistan need a face-saving US apology for reopening the NATO supply routes. With US Presidential elections round the corner, an apology from the Obama administration is out of question. Enraged by the footprints of the Haqqani network in the deadly attack on NATO’s Kabul base and Dr Shakil Afridi’s prison sentence, bipartisan anger in Washington at Pakistan’s perfidy rules out an apology even later.

Pakistan’s desperation to end this impasse is heightened by its dire economic condition. Pakistan army needs US military aid and CSF tranches for its unsustainable defence budget while the government has to go back to the IMF to stabilise its perilous finances. Chinese support has been limited solely to rhetoric, and Pakistan realises that only the US can help it out. But Pakistan needs to overcome its obsession with ghairat or honour to work with the US. As an US official said, “We’ve been several times very close [to a deal], until ghairat intervened.” Pakistani ghairat brigade’s reluctance to learn from its own past is inexplicable. In the 64 years of Pakistan’s existence, its generals and politicians have been invariably humiliated after overplaying their hand. Who won doesn’t matter because the real losers have been the poor people of Pakistan. And 2012 looks to be no different

Sushant K Singh is Fellow for National Security at the Takshashila Institution and editor of Pragati-The Indian National Interest Review 

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