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Saturday, June 28, 2008

Pakistan calls the shots
By Syed Saleem Shahzad
KARACHI - Since signing on for the "war on terror" in 2001, Pakistan has received approximately US$10 billion in aid from the United States. It has also been pledged $600 million in economic and security assistance and $50 million in earthquake reconstruction aid on an annual basis through to 2009. Washington is wondering just what it has received in return for all this largesse, so much so that next month US Assistant Secretary of State Richard Boucher is scheduled to visit Pakistan to discuss Pakistan's role in the "war on terror", and is expected to give final notice that if Islamabad does not raise its game, the aid will dry up. The US has been particularly concerned since the new coalition government took power after February's elections, as it was supposed to be US-friendly. But it has refused point-blank to adhere to earlier commitments it made for joint operations with the US in Pakistan's tribal areas against Taliban and al-Qaeda militants. This message was relayed through Pakistan's ambassador in Washington, Professor Husain Haqqani, and to the US Embassy in Islamabad, that Pakistan will fight the "war on terror" on its own terms and that it will not pull out of any peace deals it has with militants. And the Americans will not be allowed to operate in Pakistani territory. Washington saw the writing on the wall immediately after the February polls when former premier Nawaz Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League won more seats than was expected. The anticipation had been that the US-friendly Pakistan People's Party, headed by former premier Benazir Bhutto until her assassination last December, would romp home. Amid the political uncertainty that this result caused, allied with terror attacks in the country, the military delayed operations in the tribal areas. The military's position was hardened when on June 10 the US attacked militants in Pakistan's Mohmand Agency but killed several Pakistani security forces. Washington's plan, which had been in the making for two years, is now in ruins, that is, the ideal of a compliant elected government, an accommodating military and a friendly president (Pervez Musharraf) acting in unison to further the US's interests. The crux is, while America was playing its game, so too was al-Qaeda. Through terror attacks, al-Qaeda was able to disrupt the economy, and by targeting the security forces, al-Qaeda created splits and fear in the armed forces, to the extent that they thought twice about dancing to the US's tune. Unlike Musharraf, when he wore two hats, of the president and of army chief, the new head of the military, professional soldier General Ashfaq Kiani, had to listen to the chatter of his men and the intelligence community at grand dinners. What he heard was disturbing. Soldiers from the North-West Frontier Province region were completely in favor of the Taliban, while those from the countryside of Punjab - the decisive majority in the armed forces - felt guilty about fighting the Taliban and reckoned it was the wrong war. Therefore, Kiani decided it was necessary to support peace talks with the militants to create some breathing space for his men. At the same time, the dynamics in the war theater have changed, providing Pakistan with more options and more room to play in its Afghan policy. Pakistan's former ally in Afghanistan, the Taliban, are no longer irrelevant; they have emerged as the single-largest Pashtun opposition group. On the political front, the pro-Pakistan Hizb-i-Islami Afghanistan holds about 40 seats in the 249-seat parliament - a sizeable chunk - and it hopes to put up a candidate in next year's presidential polls. Even if it does not beat President Hamid Karzai, it could serve as a strong opposition catalyst. Antagonism against Karzai and his American masters is also on rise, and Tajik warlords in the north have started negotiations with the Taliban. In this situation, Pakistan has the liberty to make its own decisions and American pressure on it is significantly less effective. Washington is acutely aware of the damage Pakistan could do if it decided on just a minimum of support for the Taliban, such as secretly equipping them with short-range missiles or providing training courses. The top brass at General Headquarters Rawalpindi realize they now hold a strong hand and that every minute of Pakistan's non-cooperation in the "war on terror" is a threat to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization mission in Afghanistan. Boucher has a lot of talking to do when he arrives in Pakistan. Syed Saleem Shahzad is Asia Times Online's Pakistan Bureau Chief. He can be reached at (Copyright 2008 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)

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