By B. Raman
“All indications are that the civilian leadership is keen to mend fences with the US. Zahir-ul-Islam could be the right man for the job because he was never very close to the US and, at the same time, was never suspected by the US of being mixed up with the jihadi terrorists.” –An extract from my article of March 9, 2012, on the appointment of Lt. Gen. Mohammad Zahir-ul-Islam as the new Director-General of the ISI
The three-point face saver announced from Washington DC and Islamabad on July 3,2012, marks a recognition by the US and Pakistan of the strategic reality that the continuing frictions in the bilateral relations are proving counter-productive and detrimental to their interests in Afghanistan.
The face-saver consisted of a statement by Mrs. Hillary Clinton expressing US regrets for an air raid over a Pakistani border post at Salala on the Afghan border on November 26 last in which 24 members of Pakistan’s Frontier Corps were reportedly killed and a Pakistani decision to allow the resumption of the movement of logistic supplies between the Karachi port and Afghanistan through Pakistani territory without insisting on an enhancement of the transit fee paid by the NATO to Pakistan.
Separately, a US official indicated that as part of the deal, Washington would release about $1.1 billion to the Pakistani military from a US “coalition support fund” designed to reimburse Pakistan for the cost of counter-insurgency operations.
Mrs. Clinton said in her statement:” (Pakistani) Foreign Minister (Hina Rabbani) Khar and I acknowledged the mistakes that resulted in the loss of Pakistani military lives. We are sorry for the losses suffered by the Pakistani military. We are committed to working closely with Pakistan and Afghanistan to prevent this from ever happening again.”
Qamar Zaman Kaira, Pakistan’s Information Minister, announced as follows in Islamabad: “The meeting of Pakistan’s defense committee (DCC) of the cabinet has decided to reopen the NATO supplies.”
Pakistan’s new Prime Minister Raja Pervez Ashraf, who chaired the meeting, said it was time to end the blockade. He reportedly told the Committee: “The continued closure of supply lines not only impinge on our relationship with the US, but also on our relations with the 49 other member states of NATO.”
While a face-saving formula has thus been found to end the post-November 26 frictions arising from the death of Pakistani para-military personnel in the US air raid, a face-saving formula has not yet been found to the frictions that arose after the US Navy Seals raid on the hide-out of Osama bin Laden at Abbottabad on May 2,2011.
Two frictions arose from the Abbottabad raid. The first related to Pakistani complaints of violation of its sovereignty by the US undertaking an unilateral raid in Abbottabad without its permission. The second related to the US complaints of Pakistani harassment of some Pakistani nationals who had helped the CIA in establishing the identity of OBL The US has been particularly concerned over the Pakistani arrest and jailing of a Pashtun doctor (Shakil Afridi) who had helped the CIA in covertly collecting blood samples of the inmates of the Abbottabad hide-out of OBL for DNA tests.
The pending issues relating to the Abbottabad raid are still under negotiation between the two Governments. A face-saver should not prove very difficult since no Pakistani military and para-military personnel were killed during the Abbottabad raid. There were no Pakistani civilian deaths either, except some living with OBL in his hide-out. It is understood that attempts are being made to find a save-saver under which Pakistan would allow the Pashtun doctor to settle down in the US after a token sentence.
The belated US decision, after dragging its feet for seven months, to reach a face-saver with Pakistan is an indicator of its coming to terms with the ground reality that an invading power would need Pakistan’s support for disengaging from Afghanistan without humiliation. The Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan post-1988 was facilitated by the pressure exercised by Pakistan on the Afghan Mujahideen not to attack the withdrawing Soviet troops.
Similarly, the US is hoping that Pakistan would facilitate the thinning out of the NATO presence in Afghanistan by pressuring the Afghan Taliban and the Haqqani network not to attack the withdrawing NATO forces.
Moreover, as admitted by US officials, the continued closure of the logistic movements through Pakistani territory would have made the NATO withdrawal from Afghanistan time-consuming and expensive if the NATO forces were to use only the Northern route through the Central Asian Republics.
Will the face-savers work? Will the tensions be over once and for all? Will the NATO withdrawal from Afghanistan and the withdrawal of heavy military equipment through Karachi be smooth?
The answers to these questions will depend on the sincerity of the Pakistani political and military leadership and the kind of control that the Pakistani Army and ISI are able to exercise on the Pakistani and Afghan Taliban and the Haqqani Network.
During the Soviet withdrawal, the Pakistan Army and ISI had effective control over the different Afghan Mujahideen groups and were able to ensure that they did not attack the withdrawing Soviet troops.
The Pakistani Army and ISI do not definitely have effective control over the Tehrik-w-Taliban Pakistan as the Pakistani Taliban is called. Their ability to pressure the Afghan Taliban and the Haqqani network not to attack the withdrawing NATO forces is yet to be demonstrated.
Moreover, the continuing presence and activities of the remnants of Al Qaeda from the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) of Pakistan would be an additional complicating factor which was not there during the Soviet withdrawal. The US will have to maintain a high level of Drone strikes to disrupt the activities of Al Qaeda, the Haqqani Network and the TTP operating from FATA. This could create fresh friction.
In return for the Pakistani removal of the ban on the movement of equipment from Afghanistan to Karachi during the withdrawal phase, Pakistan might not be satisfied with an expression of the US regret for the Salala raid.It would expect the US to be favourable to its interests in Afghanistan and vis-à-vis India.
That could mean fresh Pakistani expectations of US support for limiting the Indian presence in Afghanistan and dilution of the pressure on Pakistan to act against the anti-India terrorist groups.
The mending of US-Pakistan fences, if it proves durable, could create problems for us in our relations with Afghanistan and in our counter-terrorism efforts. Our policy-makers have to anticipate the kind of problems that India is likely face and identify the options that would be available to us in future.
As the NATO withdrawal gathers pace, it will be a dynamic situation with oft-changing power play. We have to have a dynamic mind-set to be able to limit damages to our interests and to counter new threats to our security.
I had stated on many occasions in the past that we should not count on a permanent estrangement between the US and Pakistan. Our policy-makers should not similarly count on permanent US support for our concerns relating to Pakistani backing to anti-Indian jihadi terrorists and threats to Indian interests in Afghanistan.