Pakistan wants new rules of engagement with the Americans in the war on terror
The pre-dawn airborne NATO attack on two Pakistani posts on the AF-PAK border in Mohmand Agency on November 26, resulting in the deaths of 26 Pakistani soldiers, has given the Pakistan government a chance to re-set their ‘strategic’ partnership with the United States. The attack has once again raised serious question marks on the US-Pakistan strategic relationship, and their war on terror.
One of the actions Pakistan had threatened to take was to boycott the Bonn Conference on Afghanistan which was to take place on December 5. Pakistan carried out the threat by boycotting this important Conference, though over a hundred countries participated and renewed their commitments for peace, stability and development of Afghanistan. Pakistan’s proxies, the Afghan Taliban led by Mullah Omar, headquartered in Quetta, also boycotted the Conference. If the aim of the Conference was Afghan reconciliation, then the Conference failed to achieve its principal aim. Apart from boycotting the Bonn Conference, the other major actions taken by the Pakistanis was to block the supplies to the US and ISAF forces which passed through Pakistan, and are extremely vital for their operations in Afghanistan, asking the United States to vacate the Shamsi Air base in Balochistan from where the Drones were being operated against the al Qaeda and Taliban militants, mainly in North Waziristan and also in South Waziristan, and the decision to revisit the terms of their engagement with the United States and NATO/ISAF ‘on the basis of sovereign equality, mutual interest and mutual respect’. The Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani said that “our willingness to cooperate with the international community on counter-terrorism has not been understood in its proper perspective. The notion to give Pakistan a ‘to do’ list and the mantra of ‘do more’ have caused immense resentment.”
Around this time, India and Afghanistan entered into a strategic partnership with provisions for training the Afghan security forces in India. This has certainly not gone well with the Pakistanis. They are worried about India’s role gaining further impetus in the war-torn country after the Americans withdraw the bulk of their forces in 2012. General Kayani has openly commented about the Indian ‘mind-set’ that the Afghan forces would acquire if they are trained by the Indians. The United States is also working out a strategic partnership with the Afghanistan government, indicating that the US is not about to pack up and leave Afghanistan. They plan to retain a few bases in Afghanistan, which will enable them to mount a watch on forces hostile to them. These developments would put a spanner in Pakistan’s well thought out plans for Afghanistan. The Bonn Conference early this month would have more or less laid the foundation to formalise these arrangements. The Pakistanis, not happy with the emerging situation, were keen to stall these developments which went against their, or the ‘Deep State’s’ interest of gaining strategic space in Afghanistan.
The NATO/ISAF’s ‘unprovoked attack’ on the Pakistani posts should be viewed in this background. It is a moot question whether the Americans would go for such an attack in spite of the worsening US-Pakistan relations, risking their vital supplies to Afghanistan and the impending Bonn Conference on Afghanistan’s future, without sufficient grave provocation. With the US Presidential elections slated for 2012, and their plans to exit from Afghanistan before the elections, depending to a large extent on Pakistan and their influence with the Taliban, the Americans should be out of their mind to go for the attack. The ISAF have announced an enquiry into the circumstances of the attack, and though the Pakistanis were invited to join their investigations into the mishap, the latter have refused. So who provoked the attac?
NATO forces fighting in Afghanistan get a large percentage of their supplies through Pakistan. There have been attacks on trucks carrying these supplies a number of times. However, such blockades have been for short durations. But this time the blockade has already gone for over 20 days. While the United States has explored other routes for carrying the vital supplies to the ISAF fighting in Afghanistan, the routes through Pakistan are the most affordable, and by comparison, the most safe! The other alternative is the northern route through Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, which is apparently fraught with more danger and uncertainty, due to local competitions and prejudices. There is no question of the United States seeking a supply route through Iran with their mutual hostility not showing any signs of ebbing, though the two countries have cooperated in fighting the Taliban on earlier occasions.
The current impasse suits Pakistan, or rather, the ‘Deep State’ as the army establishment is known there. Firstly, the pressure on the army to operate in North Waziristan against the Haqqani group is off, at least for the time being, and the unilateral Drone attacks in North and South Waziristan have been stalled also, for the time being. Pakistan would like to play an important role in any plans for Afghanistan, keeping the Indians out, though they have been stating that the peace process in Afghanistan should be worked out by the Afghans themselves. With the Indians in a strategic partnership with Afghanistan, and the Americans bent on retaining some bases there beyond 2014, such a unique role for Pakistan is virtually ruled out. So the Bonn Conference had to be sabotaged. Any new relationship with the United States had to factor Pakistan’s priorities, including their unilateral Drone attacks which had come under severe domestic criticism. For this to happen, the United States should be compelled to see the emerging situation through Pakistan’s eyes. The blockade of NATO’s supplies was an important step in this strategy. If the Pentagon proposes to continue the war on terror in Afghanistan, NATO forces would depend on supplies through Pakistan. The forces would have already started to feel the pinch in the last 20 days of disruption of their supplies.
The United States is keen on getting the Taliban on board in any peace deal, and the Taliban is clearly in Pakistan’s embrace. The Haqqanis is another trump card that they hold. And the US Presidential elections next month only adds pressure on them to make a deal with the Pakistanis. Pakistan hopes that the US will finally come round to seeing their point of view. This probably explains the Pakistani brinkmanship in boycotting the Bonn Conference, in spite of repeated calls from Washington for their participation. The question therefore repeats: who provoked the 26 November attack on the Pakistani posts in Mohmand agency?
(The writer retired as the first chief of NIA. Earlier he was the additional director general of police, Jammu and Kashmir. He was also Vigilance Commissioner in Jammu & Kashmir)