By Rajeev Sharma
Pakistan is increasingly discarding its role as an ‘ally’ in the war on terror that it used to get arms and funds from the West and has now launched a campaign of defiance against the United States. This is happening even as the US finalized its plans to quit Afghanistan at the NATO Chicago Conference on May 21, 2012. In a display of brinkmanship and responding to aid cut by the US Senate, it has even resorted to heaping insults, almost daily, on the US.
In fact, such has been the level of acidic barbs exchanged between the two countries in past few weeks that Pakistan’s former ambassador to the US, Hussain Haqqani, went to the extent of saying that the two sides should better focus on friendship instead of an alliance. In a lecture on Pakistan-US relations at Chautauqua Institution, New York, on 8 August, 2012, Haqqani said Pakistan’s current national interests do not align with the US. He, therefore, suggested a remedial measure: that the two sides should stop thinking of themselves as allies. Nothing could be more explicit than this! Here is a man, who has been the key person in navigating Pakistan-US relations for years, who is actually saying that the Pakistan-US alliance is dead and instead of trying to save the alliance, the two sides should focus on their friendship.
On 27 July, 2012, the US-Pakistan spat reached a crescendo when President Barack Obama’s top adviser on Afghanistan and Pakistan Douglas Lute and Pakistan’s Ambassador in Washington Sherry Rehman were involved in a war of words during a conference in Colorado. Rehman, speaking on video conference from Washington, referred to the most volatile issue of the drone strikes and cross-border raids deep inside Pakistani territory and remarked: “These are critical masses of people that come in; this is not just potshots.” She asserted that the two sides had experienced “an extraordinarily difficult period” after an American airstrike killed 24 Pakistani soldiers in November 2011 and roundly criticised the drone strikes, remarking that the CIA’s actions had reached the point of “diminishing returns” and whipped up anti-American sentiment in the country.
Rehman’s remark that 52 times in past eight months Pakistan had provided to American and NATO commanders in Afghanistan the locations from which the militants were attacking but it was to no avail triggered a strong response from Gen. Lute. “There’s no comparison of the Pakistani Taliban’s relatively recent, small-in-scale presence inside Afghanistan to the decades-long experience and relationship between elements of the Pakistani government and the Afghan Taliban. To compare these is simply unfair,” Gen. Lute retorted.
At the core of these Pakistan-US tensions is the role of militants in cross-border raids in the border areas of Pakistan-Afghanistan. The Americans and the Pakistanis are accusing each other for using militants to harm their national interests. The Americans and the Afghans have for long complained against Pakistan’s complicity in militant attacks on American/Afghan interests in Afghanistan which are originating from safe havens in Pakistan. Of late, Islamabad too has started saying that the US-backed militants based in Afghanistan are launching armed raids inside Pakistani territory.
The US, with its presidential election just a few months away and Barack Obama already into his campaign to seek a second term, has been edgy, but is still taking a tough stand while negotiating reopening of the routes through Pakistan for the NATO supplies to Afghanistan.
Since the deal was not clinched before the Chicago meet, Pakistan’s defiance has begun to match Washington’s tough talk and continuation of the drone attacks targeting Taliban and Al Qaida elements hiding in Pakistan’s tribal areas.
Obama met his Pakistani counterpart, Asif Ali Zardari, only briefly on the sidelines of the Chicago meet, but refused to hold any substantive talks. More significantly, Obama left out Pakistan’s name from among the allies he thanked. This happened in Zardari’s presence after it became clear that a US-Pak deal had not worked out despite feverish negotiations.
Pakistan is insistent on an apology by the US on the loss of 24 of is troops in a NATO helicopter attack last year. After Zardari was snubbed at Chicago, it was left to his son Bilawal to urge Obama to “show some courage” and tender an apology.
The US is swallowing it because it needs Pakistan, notwithstanding the angry, even insulting, defiance. Washington can claim no victory for itself and for NATO in Afghanistan. With the political campaign at home gaining momentum, its more urgent need is to be seen as caring for the lives and welfare of the over 90,000 American troops stationed in Afghanistan.
The two continue to trade barbs and insults even as officials from the two sides wrangled over dollars and apologies in a relationship from which the wheels are threatening to come off.
This is the nadir of the US-Pak relations – till a deal, that is inevitable, is worked out.
In its acts of thumbing the nose at the US, Pakistan has clearly shed the fig leaf of being seen as an ally in the fight against terrorism, a pretence it has maintained for over a decade.
In doing so, the real point of irritation has openly surfaced – the unilateral US action of attacking a house deep inside Pakistani territory and killing al Qaida chief Osama bin Laden.
Shakil Afridi, the Pakistani doctor who helped the American CIA collect data that led to the killing of Osama, was on 24 May, 2012 convicted of “high treason” and sentenced to 33 years in prison. Afridi was produced before a four-member tribal court which also imposed a fine of $3,480 on him.
The ISI had picked up Afridi from Peshawar two weeks after the al-Qaida chief was killed in a US commando raid in Pakistan’s northern Abbottabad on 2nd May, 2011.
Afridi, a resident of Pakistan’s autonomous Federally Administered Tribal Areas, was tried under its justice system, where the courts work under the British-era Frontier Crimes Regulation and do not follow the usual judicial norms.
The region also remains outside the jurisdiction of Pakistan’s higher judiciary and death penalty is not applicable for high treason. Legal experts say Afridi was almost certain to get death penalty had he been charged under Pakistan’s criminal law.
It is not clear if Afridi knew who the target of the investigation was when the CIA recruited him. US defence secretary Leon Panetta had confirmed in January that Afridi collected samples for the US.
Following Afridi’s conviction, an obviously unhappy Panetta said Afridi was not in any way “treasonous towards Pakistan… for them to take this kind of action against somebody who was helping to go after terrorism, I just think it is a real mistake on their part”.
“We continue to see no basis for (Shakil) Afridi to be held,” state department spokesperson Victoria Nuland said.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton called the verdict on Afridi “unjust’. “We have regularly taken up this matter with Pakistan. I would expect we will continue to,” she said.
How the US actually takes up the matter and what Pakistan’s response would be, given the present mood and the strains in US-Pakistan relations, remains to be seen.
But there are questions as to why the CIA did not rescue Afridi and take him out to safety, since his detention, possible interrogation and trial and conviction were as good as certain.
Was it a lapse on the part of the CIA amidst euphoria and celebrations over Osama’s killing?
As for Pakistan, punishment to Afridi leads to one question too many 1) Was Osama Bin laden ever a ‘Wanted By Law’ Man in Pakistan? 2) If he was a wanted man, then how come a man who provided information on the wanted Man’s whereabouts is treated like a criminal?
(The writer is a New Delhi-based journalist-author and a strategic analyst. He is the author of seven books, including five on strategic and foreign policy issues. He can be reached at [email protected])