By Bhaskar Roy
One would think with 60 years of all weather friendship, Pakistani leaders (especially in the military and intelligence), would have learnt to read their Chinese counterparts. Even more important, Pakistani experts must understand that the Chinese are masters at making very important statements by not making those statements.
Following the killing of Al Qaeda Chief Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad on May 02 in a precision commando attack, relations between Pakistan and the US plummeted to an unprecedented level since US President George W. Bush’s post-“9/11” ultimatum to President Pervez Musharraf – “with us or against us”.
The Abbottabad incident left the Pakistani army and the ISI red faced. They had little explanation about how the world’s most wanted terrorist could live in the military town in a large, secure mansion for five years without being detected. Forget about intelligence agencies. The police system in Pakistan and India are similar, and the Kotwal of the local police station knows everything that is going on in his area of jurisdiction – from the gentleman to the crook. He has his own informal intelligence network.
The US pressure on Pakistan was a mixture of anger, frustration and almost total distrust. In the initial stages of the Abbottabad incident, the Americans made it abundantly clear that the Pakistanis were deceiving them on high value terrorist targets, and they did not share information about the operation with their Pakistani counterparts for fear of the plan being leaked to Osama. On several occasions from 2007, the Americans from the highest level had shown evidence to Pakistan that information on targets shared with the ISI were leaked and the targets slipped away before action could be taken.
Finding Osama bin Laden living in a secure environment in Abbottabad provoked outrage among the American politicians and the public. Here was the US pouring in billions of dollars in Pakistan, Washington’s so-called most important non-NATO ally in the fight against terrorism, and the ally was selling them blind.
US aid to Pakistan including the Kerry-Lugar bill of 2010 sanctioning $ 7.5 billion to Pakistan over the next five years is now hanging in balance.
This is where the China issue started. The two top Pakistani leaders President Asif Ali Zardari and Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani went to Russia and China respectively in May to solicit support. One can assume this was done at the behest of Army Chief Gen. Ashfaq Pervez Kayani and ISI Chief Lt.Gen. Shuja Pasha, or at least in consultation with them. The military-intelligence establishment was incensed with the publicly aired condemnation from the US and the series of riot acts read out by top US officials both from the USA and while visiting Pakistan. This is where Pakistan demonstrated its inability to understand the new international political winds.
President Zardari went to Moscow in the first week of May to solicit support, thinking Russia was still an arch enemy of the US, more aligned with China and, therefore, perceived that Moscow could be played against the US. The Pakistani foreign ministry had apparently not learnt that the cold war was over for two decades, Russia and the US/NATO have now bilateral strategic interests, and Moscow-Beijing relationship was not based on trust but was purely a matter of convenience.
Zardari returned from Moscow with nothing but Russia’s concern over terrorism, terrorist havens in Pakistan which host Chechen and Uzbek rebels who have caused immense damage to Russia, and its Central Asian satellites. President Dimitri Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin courteously, but firmly told Zardari that Pakistan had to do much more. Very little was briefed to the Pak media on the visit.
On four day visit to China from May 17, ostensibly to celebrate the 60th anniversary of establishment of diplomatic relations between the two countries Prime Minister Gilani was made to understand that the Pakistani leaders were living in a castle without windows.
Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao, Gilani’s official host, eulogized the unbreakable relations between the two countries and highly praised Pakistan’s sacrifice in the fight against terrorism. More seriously, he gave the following message to Pakistan through Gilani (a) by appreciating Gilani for his visit to India for the cricket World Cup match between India and Pakistan in Mohali at Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s invitation, the Chinese firmly said Pakistan must improve relations with India (The Daily Times, Pakistan, May 19) (b) Wen also conveyed that Islamabad must improve relations with the US, and not scuttle the developing peace and reconciliation process in Afghanistan, and (c) Pakistan had to do something about its terrorism factories in Pakistan, and the madrassas, and offered increased co-operation to fight terrorism (Xinhua and other reports, May 17).
Meeting Gilani, Chinese President Hu Jintao reiterated Wen Jiabao’s position saying the Chinese government would “Unswervingly continue to support Pakistan’s efforts to fight terrorism”, that “terrorist threats” are a challenge for the entire international community”, and urged “more international co-operation with Pakistan on this issue”(China Daily, May 17). China, itself, has faced terrorism from Uighur militant separatists in China’s Western Xinjiang Autonomous Region who have been trained in Pakistan. China has lost several of its citizens working in Pakistan in terrorist attacks. As far back as in 1992, Chinese Premier Li Peng told visiting Pak Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto that the ISI was training and helping Uighur terrorists, but China also knew she could not do anything about it (the writer’s personal briefing by a Chinese official).
Beijing was obviously more irked when Pakistan’s Defence Minister, Choudhury Ahmed Mukhtar, who accompanied Gilani to China, told the Pakistani media that China would be building a naval base in Gwadar, Pakistan. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson, Jiang Yu, denied (May 24) it officially saying that China had no knowledge of it (AFP, May 25, 2011). The statement was made also for the international community.
China was quick to sense Pakistan’s petty politics to project China as eager to replace the USA in Pakistan and Afghanistan. A Pakistani media report also said that Foreign Secretary Salman Bashir who was going to Kabul for the May 24 US-Afghanistan-Pakistan talks was carrying a letter from Prime Minister Gilani to Afghan President Hamid Karzai that China was agreeable to a Pakistan-Afghanistan-China triumvirate to resolve the Afghan issue. It is not clear if Salman Bashir carried such a letter or not, but at the end of the May 24 talks he assured Pakistan’s commitment to facilitate Afghan-led reconciliation bid, adding it was for the Afghan people to decide how they wish to work out the problem. (Demotix, May 25).
Quick to counter Pakistan’s misinformation campaign the official China Daily (May 20) wrote “To begin with, Hu’s (President Hu Jintao) defence of Pakistan has nothing to do with Washington’s doubt over Islamabad’s commitment in the hunt for bin Laden. Hu’s affirmative reply to a question about whether Beijing believed Islamabad’s claim that it did not have prior knowledge of the US operation shows China’s consistent stance on Pakistan. And that should not be interpreted as China’s attempt to dissuade Pakistan from supporting the US in its war against terrorism” (China Daily, May 20). The article added that the death of Osama bin Laden has offered a chance to Pakistan, the US and China to work together to combat terrorism. China cleared any misconceptions in the US political and public community that it was surging to replace the US in the region.
Eventually, China would like to replace the US in the South Asian region, especially Pakistan, as envisioned in Chinese President Jiang Zemin address to the Pakistani Parliament in November, 1996. But now is not the time. China is desperately trying to repair its relations with the US.
Here is a message to the Pakistani civil society, intelligence and the media. China’s love for Pakistan is for its own strategic and economic imperatives. Countering India is the foremost, and Pakistan is being used militarily for this purpose. All its military and strategic weapons support to Islamabad to counter India also comes at a cost, as the 50 JF-17 (Thunder) aircraft promised to Pakistan on an urgent basis during Gilani’s recent visit to China shows.
China is not going to confront India militarily now given the change in India’s all round international status. China has also to gain from India in trade and in international dynamics e.g. Climate change, WTO, BRICS among others. All Chinese projects, including the Gwadar port, Karakoram Highway, Sayndak gold mines and trans-border road networks are in China’s favour including for employment of Chinese workers. China made it clear to Gilani that it is not going to bail out Pakistan financially if the US withdrew.
In the anti-terrorism aspect, however, Pakistan has an advantage over the US. Pakistan is the spoiler, and USA’s top priority is counter-terrorism. That is why the US is going to let off the ISI as a whole in the David Headley case being heard in a Chicago court on the Mumbai terrorist attack. At best, Pakistan may have to pay the families of the six Americans killed in the Mumbai attack as an overall responsibility since the terrorists were Pakistani citizens.
During her recent visit to Pakistan (May 27-28) US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton absolved Pakistan’s top brass of any knowledge about the presence of Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad for five years. This, however, was a nuanced statement. A US State Department spokesman clarified that this was not a clean chit to the ISI. Ms. Clinton demanded about the whereabouts of five top terrorists living in Pakistan, and a report on the ISI’s activities. She also pointedly remarked in Islamabad that Pakistan was the home of most international terrorists.
Can the Pakistani civil society who are questioning the government, the military and the intelligence agency over the Abbottabad incident do anything to change the mind set of the establishment across the board? No. They have formidable opponents holding power, and they have their own mind set over the Kashmir issue. Consider this, for decades since the inception of Pakistan, students in Pakistani military academies and the people were indoctrinated to wage war against India. Following the defeat in the 1971 war, the Pak army vowed revenge, wanting to dismember India. Gen. Zia-ul-Haq, as President ensured Islamization of the Pak armed forces, security and intelligence agencies, and the bureaucracy to a Jihadi mode.
Under Gen. Zia, Madrassas were funded which continues even today, thousands of which continue to spew out jihadis. They influence the common lower middle class. In addition, the terrorist organization forming the Pak military’s strategic assets in Afghanistan and Kashmir/India is the topping on this cake. According to a leaked WikiLeaks cable of USA’s Islamabad Embassy in December 2007 (The Dawn, Pakistan, May 26, 2011), Pakistan’s senior military officers were teaching middle level military officers anti-Americanism and religious conservatism. But China was described in superlative terms. Unfortunately, some of well educated and well heeled Pakistani intelligentia represent the right wing public media. Even some, who are now turning to review their ideology, somehow see India not responding to Pakistani friendly overtures. Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee’s bus journey to Pakistan to extend a hand of friendship, restraint in the face of Pakistan’s Kargil attack and the Pakistani jihadi attack on India’s seat of democracy, the Parliament, and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s dedicated endeavour to better India-Pak relations are all engulfed as a fog in their minds.
Former Pakistani bureaucratic and military top officials continue to bat for whatever that is happening, living in a world of denial to prove nationalist credentials. As Pakistan’s eminent military scholar Ms. Ayesha Siddiqa said following the PNS Mehran terrorist attack, the army will not discard the jihadists. Fact is, they cannot, even if they wanted to. The army and the ISI have been deeply penetrated by the jihadis. True, respected people like Lt.Gen. (Rtd.) Talat Masood are now saying that Pakistan must look inwards instead of looking at India. Former Foreign Secretary Shaharyar Khan told an Indian television channel that the ISI could have been involved in the Mumbai terrorist attack, albeit at a lower level. It is too late, however. The honest and liberal Pakistani civil society has no chance, at least, not now.
Pakistan’s undeclared dictators like Gen. Kayani and Lt. Gen. Shuja Pasha, should know that their closest ally, China, has given a thumbs up to the US and the international community to fight against terrorism in Pakistan.
If the Pakistani military intelligence apparatus remain obdurate there is an apocalypse in the making considering Pakistan’s huge nuclear weapons asset.
(The author is an eminent China analyst with many years of experience. He can be reached at [email protected])