Crisis looms in US-Pakistan ties
08/14/2008 11:01 PM By Patrick Seale Special to Gulf News
A sharp divergence in national aims is driving the US and Pakistan apart. Relations between the two allies are severely strained and seem on the verge of a major crisis.
America's 'war on terror' lies at the heart of the problem. The US is pressing Pakistan to flush out the Taliban from their tribal sanctuaries on the Pakistan-Afghan border - and is threatening to do the job itself, if Pakistan fails to act as vigorously as Washington would like. The US has already launched missiles into Pakistan against suspected jihadist targets, with either scant respect for the international border or for Pakistani susceptibilities.
Both US presidential contenders, Barack Obama and John McCain, have pledged to send more combat troops to Afghanistan. Obama has even threatened to take the war to Pakistan's tribal agencies, whether Islamabad likes it or not.
But the US 'war on terror' has brought Pakistan nothing but trouble. It is deeply unpopular with the public and is inflaming anti-American sentiment; it has drawn the Pakistan army into costly skirmishes with armed Pashtun militants in the unruly tribal areas; and it has prompted the Taliban to strike back at Pakistan, as in the attack on last Tuesday on a bus in Peshawar, which took the life of 10 policemen.
Above all, the US war on the Taliban is at variance with Pakistan's key national priority which is to contain India - and especially to keep Afghanistan, which Pakistan considers its 'strategic depth', out of India's orbit.
So, in addition to the tension in US-Pakistan relations, Indo-Pakistan relations have also taken a turn for the worse in recent days, with lethal exchanges of fire in Kashmir - the most serious violation of a five-year truce. At the same time, India and the US have accused Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate, the ISI, of involvement in the suicide bombing outside the Indian embassy in Kabul on July 7 which killed 58 people, including an Indian defence attachÃ©.
Pakistan has angrily denied the charge, but few observers believe the Taliban - both the Afghan and Pakistan branches of the movement - could recruit hundreds of young fighters and train them at military camps in the tribal areas, not speak of logistics depots and religious schools, without ISI tolerance, if not complicity.
From their rear base in Pakistan, Taliban hit-and-run attacks continue to take their toll of US and Nato forces in the south and east of Afghanistan, in much the same way as the mujahideen harassed Soviet forces in the 1980s, and eventually drove them out.
Mullah Mohammad Oar, the elusive Taliban leader, is believed to have established his headquarters in Quetta, capital of Pakistan's Balochistan province, from where his lieutenants direct the fighting across the border. And Maulavi Jalaluddin Haqqani - who benefited from millions of CIA dollars and ISI backing when he fought the Soviets - is now said to provide a haven for the militants in his base in North Waziristan, and to be a link between the ISI, the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban, and Al Qaida.
General David McKieren, the Nato commander in Afghanistan, has admitted that the security situation is deteriorating, while the Taliban seem to be getting stronger, cowing the population into submission by beatings and beheadings and other ruthless behaviour. Some journalists in Afghanistan speak of a noose tightening around the capital, Kabul.
One predictable result is that Kabul is flooded with desperate refugees. Trapped between cruel Taliban exactions and even more lethal US air strikes, villagers are fleeing from the south in the hope of finding food and shelter in the capital.
The US faces formidable dilemmas in Pakistan, which directly effect the difficult military operations in Afghanistan. Is the ISI under central government control, or is it in the hands of ultra-nationalist Pakistan officers who, in both Kashmir and Afghanistan, use militants against India?
Should the US continue its aid to the Pakistan military, or withhold it until the situation is clearer? Or, on the contrary, should the US triple its non-military aid to Pakistan to $1.5b a year - as some US politicians recommend - in the hope of stabilising the country and winning 'hearts and minds'? Should the US take the risk of extending the war by intervening militarily in the tribal areas?
In a secret - but since much publicised - visit to Islamabad on July 12, Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Stephen Kappes, deputy director of the CIA, held crisis talks with top Pakistani military and civilian leaders. They conferred with President Pervez Musharraf, Prime Minister Yussuf Raza Gilani, the new army commander General Ashfaq Pervez Kiyani, and the ISI director Lt-General Nadeem Taj.
Sever ISI ties
According to press reports, Mullen and Kappes pressed the Pakistanis to sever ISI ties with the Taliban militants and to give the CIA freedom to operate in the tribal agencies of the North-West Frontier Province. It is unlikely that any Pakistani government - even a weak one - could accede to either demand.
Meanwhile, Musharraf, America's main ally in the country, is threatened with impeachment by his political enemies. If proceedings against him go ahead, they could plunge the already fragile country into political chaos.
In 1999, Musharraf overthrew the then prime minister Nawaz Sharif in a bloodless coup and ruled for the next nine years. Sharif was sentenced to life imprisonment, but was then expelled in 2000, when he took refuge in Saudi Arabia. Sharif's party, the Pakistan Muslim League - Nawaz (PML-N), is now in a shaky coalition with the Pakistan People's Party (PPP) headed by Asif Ali Zardari, husband of the late Benazir Bhutto. Zardari spent eight years in prison on corruption charges.
Both Sharif and Zardari now want to punish Musharraf for what he did to them, and drive him out from office. He is accused of rigging last October's presidential elections, of sacking some 60 judges last November and of generally mismanaging the economy.
But impeachment of a president - which has never happened in Pakistan - would require a vote by two-thirds of the combined members of the Senate and the National Assembly - 295 votes out of a total of 440. So far the PPP and the PML-N are short of 65 votes.
Musharraf seems determined to fight back. Will the military back him? Might it intervene and impose martial law as it has done so often before in Pakistani politics? And what would Musharraf's downfall mean for America's 'war on terror'?
The conflict in the Caucasus has temporarily overshadowed the crisis in Pakistan and the war in Afghanistan. But some tough decisions will need to be taken if the US and its allies are to extricate themselves with honour from that Muslim country without further loss of treasure and men.
Patrick Seale is a commentator and author of several books on Middle East affairs.