Reviewing Pakistan- Afghanistan policy

Sunday, February 08, 2009

Lt-Gen (r) Talat Masood

The US being a super power enjoys a unique status around the world and cannot be treated as any other country. For Pakistan US means even more, as no other country exercises as much influence, for good or for bad, over Pakistan’s foreign and domestic policy as US does. Ever since Pakistan’s inception it has been closely aligned with United States. First, during the Cold War as an ally in SEATO and CENTO, then during Soviet occupation as front line state in support of Afghan Jihad and since 2001 in the war on terror. The relationship has had its troughs and peaks and expectations run high but have suffered many disappointments. Pakistan presents a paradox as well for it is among the top countries where anti- Americanism is at its peak. It is also true that Pakistan is heavily dependent on the US for economic assistance, military hardware and as a countervailing power against India, notwithstanding Washington’s close and expanding ties with New Delhi.

With the change in US administration the Afghan and Pakistan policy is under major review. Obama’s administration and Pentagon realize that Afghanistan and Pakistan are closely interlinked and Afghanistan’s stability is vital otherwise it would continue to have a destabilizing influence on its nuclear neighbor. President Obama in his recent interview with NBC News stated that Afghanistan has to be stabilized for ensuring the stability of Pakistan. This thinking indicates that Washington is fully conscious of the ramifications of a weak Pakistan. Moreover, it also confirms Pakistan’s viewpoint that the primary source of the problem rests in Afghanistan and unless conditions improve there it may not be possible to stabilize the tribal belt and Pakistan itself. In a way the new administration is taking a broader and a longer view in which the solutions are to be found in a regional context. This aspect was reflected when President Obama referred to the need for the resolution of the Kashmir problem. India should have taken these remarks positively instead its nervous reaction to the proposal made US realize that best way of going about it would be quiet diplomacy and that too after the Indian national elections. The seasoned US diplomat Mr Richard Holbrooke who has been appointed as special envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan was initially tasked to address the Kashmir issue also but had to be taken off in deference to Indian sensitivities.

Washington has come to the conclusion that extensive reliance on military force will not resolve Afghanistan’s complex problems and political solution though not easy will have to be found. Washington is also lowering its sights in Afghanistan and the report prepared by Joint Chiefs of Staff recommends de-emphasizing longer term goals of promoting democracy. Forthcoming presidential elections in Afghanistan will be a major event and it is not clear if Karzai would win, or even enjoy American support. In the event that another candidate emerges than what will be the prospects of his turning Afghanistan around.

United States’ plan about Pakistan seems to be work in progress. Mr. Richard Holbrooke is expected to come out with a plan for Pakistan in the regional context. On the military side, General Petraus will be finalizing his strategic direction and the two plans will have to weld together.

The relationship between the US and Pakistan military high commands is now relatively well defined and mutual confidence is gradually growing. Relations of US administration with the civilian government too are good. But long term relations will depend on how the government internally consolidates its position and manages issues of governance, economy and militancy.

Obama’s administration is looking for political investment in Pakistan so that there is greater space for politics to function. Washington has been fully supportive of the PPP led government and especially of President Zardari. In assisting Pakistan build its institutions it is aiming at a long term relationship. United States has a serious interest in Pakistan’s security. The proposed assistance package which is likely to be revived as Kerry- Lugar bill aims at providing Pakistan 15 billion dollar assistance spread over 10 years to build and strengthen its civilian institutions. There appears to be bi-partisan support for it in Congress. But the success of the program will depend on how the program is implemented.

In the immediate term the security of supply lines to US and NATO forces, management of the border and securing it so that Taliban and Al-Qaeda do not kill or harm US forces would remain the main focus.

President Zardari had remarked that with the change in US administration in January 2009 the missile strikes by un-manned drone aircraft in Pakistan’s tribal belt will come to an end. Was it mere wishful thinking or based on some assurance given to him by members of the new power structure is a matter of conjecture. That aside, it has revived a raging controversy within Pakistan and aggravated anti-American sentiment and placed the civilian government in an embarrassing situation. It is diverting attention from the war on terror and is an impediment in mobilizing public support for counterinsurgency. Missile strikes in FATA demonstrate lack of trust between US and Pakistan as CIA is not prepared to share either the intelligence or sophisticated equipment of drones with Pakistan military. There is another major implication of US strikes. Other countries using this as a precedent can also strike at Pakistan as was being threatened by India after the Mumbai attack.

From the US perspective, the missile strikes are an extension of the Bush doctrine of preemption, enunciated in 2002, according to which US can take unilateral action if its security is threatened. CIA operatives are of the view that top leadership of Al-Qaeda is hiding in sanctuaries created in the tribal belt and pose a great threat to US and NATO forces. They also claim that several high value targets have been hit and Al- Qaeda is on the defensive. In any case from America’s perspective Pakistan has lost control over its territory in FATA and by implication its sovereignty over the area and is incapable of coping with the problem. Loss of internal sovereignty has given rise to loss of external sovereignty. Perhaps, Mr. Holbrooke in his current mandate could also find ways of reconciling these diverging perceptions.
(The News)

The writer is a retired lieutenant general. Email: