By Bhaskar Roy
The in-camera briefing (Oct.18) given by Pakistan’s army Chief Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani at the GHQ to Standing Parliamentary Committees of both houses of the National Parliament was anything but in-camera. It was a rare occasion, perhaps a first time, when members of the paramilitary forces were invited to GHQ for a national security briefing. All the dressing up was done for an ominous occasion. Then everything was leaked to the media. The nation was under threat from the world’s only super power, and the Pakistani army led by Gen. Kayani would protect it.
The Pak army and its intelligence arm, the ISI, which is accountable to none other than the army chief, desperately needed an image build up among the people. They had to arrive at a deal with the US to release CIA contractor Raymond Davis, who killed two Pakistanis in Lahore in January. In May, US navy seals flew into the military town of Abbottabad, killed Al Qaeda Chief Osama bin Laden and took away his body, without being detected. It was a double insult for the army. One, it could not defend the sovereignty of Pakistan. And two, the incident revealed that the world’s most wanted terrorist was under the Pak army’s protection. It made Pakistan a state supporter of international terrorism.
In quick succession was the Pakistan Taliban’s attack on the Karachi naval base inflicting significant damages. It came out the Pak Taliban had their people in the navy and the ISI knew about it. Journalist Salim Shahazad, who exposed the ISI’s terrorist connections, was abducted and murdered by the ISI. The ISI had come to know that Shahazad was about to reveal more secrets of the ISI’s nefarious dealings.
The reputation of the army and the ISI plummeted sharply, and sections of the press and strategic policy community began to tear apart the ISI’s activities and the army’s ‘strategic depth’ policy in Afghanistan and use of terrorist organizations to promote its security and foreign policy objectives. Both these related organizations begun to lose trust and credibility among the people.
Gen. Kayani’s strident statements to the select gathering that he had warned the US to think ten times before attacking Pakistan, that he had told the Americans that Pakistan did not require their military assistance, and that Pakistan was a nuclear armed country and not Iraq or Afghanistan was for the benefit of the domestic audience. Of course, he was aware the discerning educated section of the Pakistani people would take his challenging statements with a fist full of salt. But there was the large majority who have been brainwashed over decades to believe blindly what the army says. Kayani took the risk of making the “nuclear power” statement hoping that the US would understand the reason. He knows very well that if Pakistan made as much as a move to use its nuclear arsenal nothing of Pakistan’s nuclear assets would live for another day.
The general made two interesting statements for international consumption. One was that Pakistan did not want to control Afghanistan, and historically no country could. This was to try and diffuse concerns over the Pak army continuing to pursue the strategic depth policy in Afghanistan. The other was that the army will do whatever the civilian government decided. He tried to shift the responsibility of the army and ISI actions and activities on the civilian government. No one is going to buy Kayani’s thesis.
Gen. Kayani had some more serious messages to the US. The main one was that the Pak army will not take action against the Haqqani network as it was too important an asset in Afghanistan. Like the US which is keeping all options with the militant forces in Afghanistan open including with the Haqqanis, Pakistan also has to do so. Afghanistan is too important a country for Pakistan where it cannot afford to have other countries especially India, take precedence. There may also be some truth in Pakistan’s stated apprehension that making the Haqqanis enemy could increase internal terrorism in Pakistan.
Before leaving for Pakistan from Kabul on October 20 evening, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made it clear that the US will target all terrorists in their safe havens including Pakistan. She warned that Pakistan must decide whether it would help or hinder the anti-terror war. But again, she did not give Pakistan an option, adding that allowing terrorism to continue Pakistan will have to pay a “big price”. Following the Abbottabad Osama bin Laden operation, the US had said that if need be such operations could be repeated. In Islamabad (Oct.21) addressing a joint Press Conference with Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani, Hillary Clinton flatly said that for too long terrorists had been able to operate from Pakistan’s soil and “you cannot keep snakes in your backyard which bite your neighbours”. She could not have been more forthright publicly. Clinton was reportedly more sharp in the closed door meetings with her Pakistani interlocutors.
The US has beefed up its forces in North Waziristan’s borders in Afghanistan. It has introduced a new drone which can be carried in a soldier’s backpack and used for very precise strikes on a target with minimum collateral damage. An US military operation on the ground in Pakistani territory is still not on the table, and unlikely to be. The US has much more interests in Pakistan, and certainly would not want to open a new war front when it was beginning to withdraw from Afghanistan.
Despite the tense relations with Pakistan, the US is not going to break up relations including consulting and working together on the Afghan peace process. But a stable Afghanistan is a distant mirage because of many other reasons.
The international community would be taking note of Gen. Kayani’s nuclear threat. The language is more dangerous than North Korea’s periodic rhetorics. It is known that in the last several years China helped further upgrade Pakistan’s nuclear weapons and capability in total disregard to its international commitment. According to Western analysts, Pakistan continued to expand its nuclear weapons inventory and may soon hold the third largest nuclear weapons in the world. It is not known if Hillary Clinton took up this issue in Pakistan. Notwithstanding that, Kayani’s words are of grave concern.