It is now two weeks since the US carried out a daring commando raid to kill Al Qaeda chief, Osama bin Laden, in his hideout in Abbotabad. The US appears to have been handed an unexpected and significant leverage to bend its two-faced ally to its will. The message to Pakistan is that it may be spared the worst consequences of its folly (yet again) if it fulfils the following minimal demands from Washington:
One, the Pakistan armed forces must carry out operations in the Waziristan area to degrade, if not eliminate, the Haqqani faction of the Afghan Taliban, which has been carrying out cross-border armed operations against the ISAF forces in Southern Afghanistan.
Two, restrain the Afghan Taliban, associated with Mullah Omar, from proceeding with the current spring offensive against ISAF ; and
Three, prevail upon the Taliban, over which Pakistan has considerable influence, to enter into reconciliation talks with Karzai government, so that some measure of political stability and peace can be restored in Afghanistan.
Pakistan’s compliance with these demands could help the successful execution of President Obama’s exit strategy in Afghanistan, significantly advancing his chances for re-election next year.
The US is aware that this will not add up to dissuading Pakistan from the use of cross-border terrorism as an instrument of State policy against India and and now targeting the US in Afghanistan as well. Nevertheless, the US may have calculated that it would be best to extract whatever tactical advantages it can in the short-term rather than shoot for a more ambitious make-over in the thinking of the Pakistan elite.
Latest reports from Pakistan indicate that its leaders believe they retain enough bargaining chips to deflect US demands. After a week of contradictory and confused responses from both the civilian and military leaders, a consensus appears to have emerged on how to handle the aftermath of the bin Laden affair. This is clearly reflected in the resolution adopted by the Pakistan Parliament on May 14, 2011 and in statements and interviews given by Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani. The main features of Pakistan’s current posture are:
- A rejection of the more damaging charge of complicity (despite compelling evidence to the contrary) and admission to a lesser charge of incompetence and intelligence failure. However, the investigation promised into the latter will focus on the failure to prevent US violation of Pakistan’s territorial integrity rather than the larger question of how the Al Qaeda chief could have been in residence for over five years in a cantonment town close to the capital.
- Deflect attention away from Pakistan’s intimate links with the network of terrorist groups laid bare by the raid and focus instead on the violation of its territorial integrity and sovereignty by the US. This will help tap into the widespread hostility towards the US and overwhelm the uncomfortable questions being asked within Pakistan itself about the sanctuary provided to terrorist groups.The suspension of CIA-ISI intelligence sharing and the threat to disrupt US supply lines to Afghanistan through Pakistan is a reminder to the US of its dependence on Pakistani goodwill for the continued execution of its operations in Afghanistan.
- Flaunt Pakistan’s “all-weather” friendship and alliance with China to suggest that there are limits to the pressures that the US can bring to bear on Islamabad. Gilani is undertaking a visit to Beijing precisely for this purpose. China has been praised for being the only country which has stood by Pakistan in its hour of need.
If this gambit succeeds, then the US will find its new found leverage rapidly evaporating into thin air. Why is this happening?
The US has set itself up for blackmail by declaring in advance that it needs Pakistan’s collaboration in pursuing its Afghan strategy; that it must continue to engage with and support Pakistan because of concern over the fate of its rapidly expanding nuclear arsenal; and because Pakistan’s economic collapse would create a volatile and dangerous situation in an already difficult neighbourhood. Fears are expressed that pressures on Pakistan beyond a certain threshold may tip it into a tighter Chinese embrace, reducing US influence in the country. These articulations at the most senior levels of US Government may have convinced Pakistan that it could, yet again, ride out the consequences from an exposure of its duplicity because of its perceived indispensability. Instead of Pakistan having to restore trust among its allies, Gilani has turned the tables and is demanding that the US strive to win back Pakistan’s trust instead!
There has been tacit acquiescence by the US and its Western allies to Pakistan’s repeated myth-making over its clandestine pursuit of nuclear weapons, its dangerous proliferation of nuclear weapons technology and material to Libya, Iran and North Korea and its pursuit of cross-border terrorism. Throughout the 1980s, there was annual certification that Pakistan was not pursuing a nuclear weapons programme, despite ample evidence to the contrary. Clandestine proliferation was blamed on a private supermarket run by an individual Pakistani scientist, rather than confront the real culprits in the Pakistani establishment. Pakistan has been publicly and repeatedly praised for its support to the war on terror and anti-insurgency in Afghanistan even while its duplicity has been condemned in private.
In an effort to shore up Pakistan’s credentials as an ally, are not the US and our Western partners undermining their own credibility as responsible states? Will the bin Laden affair prove to be too big a lump to swallow this time? Indications are that the Pakistani establishment may be absolved of responsibility and some unidentified rogue elements within it will be blamed.
It will be important to see what level of support Pakistan is able to mobilise in China and Saudi Arabia, its two most critical allies. Will China counsel a shift away from Pakistan’s current posture to Gilani because of heightened concerns over Islamic fundamentalism and terrorism in neighbouring Xinjiang? Will the terrorist killing of a Saudi diplomat in Karachi lead to Saudi pressures to change course? Unless there is a degree of coordinated messaging by the US, China and Saudi Arabia, the strategic calculus in Islamabad is unlikely to change, cross-border terrorism will continue to be an instrument of state policy and Pakistan will remain a breeding ground for violence and terror radiating instability in our region and beyond.
Against this backdrop, India must formulate its own strategy with respect to Pakistan and Afghanistan, drawing upon assets we possess and neutralising the liabilities we confront. The measured Indian response to Abbotabad and Prime Minister’s recent visit to Afghanistan, with its clear-cut assertion of our long term interest in that country, point in the right direction.