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Still at Odds: Pakistan-US Relations

By 13 November 2010 No Comment


More than heated debate: NATO tankers burning in the night in Pakistan are a potent symbol of the state of relations between Pakistan and the US. Photo: AFP

The distrust characterising relations between Pakistan and the United States deepened following the NATO attack on a Pakistani border security post in Kurram Agency and the retaliatory move by Islamabad to block supplies to the US-led foreign forces in Afghanistan for 10 days. The NATO supply route from the Karachi seaport to Afghanistan via the key Torkham route was reopened by Pakistan after it received apologies from the US government and NATO military authorities.

The death of two Pakistani soldiers of the paramilitary Frontier Corps in the gunship helicopter attack on the border post was condoled, and promises were made that recurrence of such cross-border raids would be avoided in the future. There is, however, no guarantee that such attacks won’t take place again, and there is a history of similar attacks. In 2008, 14 Pakistani soldiers were killed in a similar attack on the Gorparai security post on the Afghanistan border in Mohmand Agency. Before that, helicopter-borne US special forces entered Pakistani territory twice in Angoor Adda in South Waziristan and Saidgi in North Waziristan and killed and captured Pakistanis. US drones continue to launch missile strikes in the tribal areas, particularly in North Waziristan, without being challenged. In fact, these attacks have registered a sharp increase in recent months. Now, any militant, whether linked to Al-Qaeda or the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban, along with those harbouring them and tribespeople residing in that particular neighbourhood, can be attacked on the basis of suspicion.

Unlike in the past, when Pakistan merely protested the violation of its borders by NATO forces – or the US to be more specific – and didn’t do anything concrete even when its soldiers were killed in cross-border attacks in the tribal areas, its reaction this time was strong and quick. It halted Afghanistan-bound supply trucks and oil tankers meant to replenish NATO forces’ stocks using the Karachi-Peshawar-Torkham-Kabul route. However, the government was careful not to completely block supplies by ensuring that the Karachi-Quetta-Chaman-Kamdahar route was kept open. Also, flights by NATO planes using Pakistan’s airspace weren’t stopped either and no real objection was raised against the US drone strikes raining death and destruction in North Waziristan with their lethal laser missiles. Islamabad also hesitated from publicly admitting that its action to block NATO supplies via the Torkham border was in retaliation for the death of its soldiers in the cross-border attack in Kurram Agency. Instead, it argued that sentiment was running high after the NATO attack on its border post and the decision to block the NATO supply convoys was necessary due to security concerns, as the trucks and oil tankers driving through Pakistani territory could be attacked. NATO supply convoys were indeed attacked not once, but four times in Nowshera in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Bolan in Balochistan, near Islamabad and, surprisingly, also in Shikarpur in Sindh where no such attack had taken place in the past. It was a revelation – though still unbelievable – that militants are active in this part of Sindh and that they managed to reach Shikarpur from somewhere else to undertake such a daring attack.

Nobody was fooled by Islamabad’s line of argument, however. It soon became obvious that Pakistan’s reaction was simply meant to send across a strong message to the US that it wanted the “red lines” drawn by it to be clearly defined and respected. The “red lines” include no cross-border operations, raids or landings by NATO and US forces on Pakistani soil. Islamabad argued that there was no agreement with NATO forces about “hot-pursuit” operations in Pakistan. This was an argument repeatedly propelled by NATO military authorities, which claimed their forces were acting in self-defence after being attacked by militants active in the border areas. However, Islamabad challenged this version of events and it was pointed out that the Pakistani soldiers who were attacked by NATO gunship helicopters in their clearly marked and flagged border posts had even fired warning shots when the choppers intruded into Pakistan’s airspace. In any case, acting in self-defence doesn’t mean crossing an international border and killing soldiers defending their country’s borders.

The killings of the two young Frontier Corps soldiers who were martyred in the NATO attack are now in the past and will soon be forgotten by most people except by the families of Lance Naik Nawazish Khan and Sepoy Shahinshah, or by their four wounded colleagues. It is business as usual now, as more than 500 trucks and oil tankers are once again daily transporting food, fuel and other supplies for NATO forces in Afghanistan via Pakistan. In fact, 75-80% of all NATO supplies for its 150,000 troops in Afghanistan pass though Pakistan, which offers the shortest and cheapest transportation route. Efforts to find alternate routes haven’t made much progress even though the longer and costlier route through Russia and some Central Asian republics is also being used now. However, lethal weapons under the agreement cannot be transported through that land route, and it has also become insecure like the one in Pakistan due to attacks by Taliban militants and allied groups in the northern Afghanistan provinces of Kunduz and Baghlan.

The growing strength of the Taliban resistance in the non-Pashtun provinces in northern Afghanistan, where they were traditionally weak, has come as a surprise. This has led many observers to believe that sections of Tajiks, Uzbeks and other non-Pashtuns are also becoming fed up with the presence of the foreign forces due to their strong-arm tactics and operations that have been causing an unacceptably high number of civilian casualties, and they are joining or assisting the Taliban and other resistance groups.

As the situation in Afghanistan is entering a critical phase ahead of the July 2011 date given by President Barack Obama for beginning the withdrawal of some American troops from Afghanistan, the pressure on US and NATO military commander, General David Petraeus, is mounting to show results and reverse the Taliban momentum in time to force them to make a deal with President Hamid Karzai’s beleaguered government on the latter’s terms. Petraeus has been pursuing an aggressive military campaign against the Taliban since he replaced the disgraced and sacked General Stanely McChrystal more than five months ago, and claims to have made gains.

It is true that the military operations in and around Kandahar city have inflicted damage on the Taliban and forced them to retreat. The efforts to secure Kandahar – the birthplace of the Taliban and their spiritual capital – is important as Mulla Omar and his fighters have been posing a threat to the city and preventing the population from making a choice of whether or not to throw in their lot with the Afghan government and its foreign patrons. However, the Taliban have been known to bounce back just like they did in the neighbouring Helmand province in the spring of this year, when a big military push by around 25,000 NATO and Afghan troops in the small farming district of Marja forced them into retreat. They are once again active in Marja and inflicting heavy damages upon the foreign and Afghan forces, and could make a similar comeback in Kandahar too.

To succeed in Afghanistan, General Petraeus and the US policy-makers in Washington are convinced that they need to target militant sanctuaries in Pakistan. This is being done through the record increase in the strikes by unmanned planes in Pakistan’s tribal areas, particularly in places like North Waziristan where the Pakistani military is hesitant to launch any major offensive, and by pressuring Islamabad to take action against the Afghan Taliban leaders including the Haqqanis hiding in the country.

The blockade of NATO supplies passing through Pakistan was a setback to US efforts, though the Americans finally relented by apologising for the deaths of Pakistani soldiers in the attack on the border security post in Kurram Agency and tried to placate Islamabad further by offering $2 billion in new military aid in place of an earlier package of assistance that has expired. The new assistance, spread over five years, will not be available until 2012 and might not get approval from the US Congress after the midterm elections of November 2010 where the Republicans retook the House of Representatives, but the offer has made Pakistani rulers pretty happy and enabled them to claim – despite widespread misgivings in the country – that the strategic dialogue with the US was a success.

Soon after the announcement of the promised $2 billion military assistance to Pakistan by the US, militants in North Waziristan sent a warning to the Pakistani government against scrapping the peace accord and starting a military operation. They threatened to migrate to Afghanistan and wage an endless war against the Pakistani state from there if the accord was broken. The local Taliban militants led by Hafiz Gul Bahadur – and not part of the Hakimullah Mehsud-headed Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) – viewed the new American pledge of military aid as directly linked to the Pakistani military’s operation in North Waziristan and their shura (council) promptly issued a statement to warn the state of its consequences. They even offered to raise the $2 billion through donations and give it to the Pakistan government to stop it from scrapping the peace accord that it signed with the North Waziristan militants in 2008 – the second of its kind to be made with militants in North Waziristan. The first accord that was signed in September 2006 collapsed following a failed military action and unprecedented criticism from the US and the Afghan governments.

Local militants who have found sanctuaries in North Waziristan after fleeing military operations in South Waziristan and elsewhere constitute a threat to the Pakistani state. The foreign militants, on the other hand, pose a challenge primarily to the US and its allies fighting in neighbouring Afghanistan. The Pakistan military, with some 34,000 troops in North Waziristan, hasn’t ruled out military action there but its priorities are different than that of the US. In fact, it is a matter of dispute between Pakistan and the US and is one more reason for mistrust between the allies.

In terms of priorities, Pakistan would first want to go after the Mehsud militants aligned with the TTP and its allies, including the Punjabi Taliban, who have flocked to North Waziristan. Taking action against the TTP-linked militants would constitute follow-up action to the military offensive launched in October 2009 in parts of South Waziristan populated by the Mehsud tribe, as the mission would be incomplete unless the fleeing Taliban are tackled. US priorities in North Waziristan, however, are different.

While the Pakistan government and military, despite occasional problems, have presently no major dispute with the Hafiz Gul Bahadur-led militants as they don’t fight the security forces outside North Waziristan and refrain from attacking the country’s cities, the Americans consider them as their enemies because they give refuge to Al-Qaeda-linked fighters in their areas and sometimes fight the US-led coalition forces in Afghanistan.

More importantly, the top US priority and the foremost target in North Waziristan is the Haqqani Network, a group that is part of the Afghan Taliban but is so powerful that it is sometimes mistakenly mentioned as separate and distinct from the Mulla Omar-led Taliban. There is no doubt that the US is also concerned about the presence of some Arabs linked to Al-Qaeda and a sizeable number of Uzbek militants associated with the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) in North Waziristan, but it appears to be worried more about the ability of the Haqqani Network to use this tribal region as a staging post to launch attacks in Afghanistan. Although sometimes the Americans tend to overplay the threat posed by the Haqqanis to push Pakistan to act against it, the fact remains that the US and its allied militaries have suffered many casualties in attacks organised by this group’s fighters in Kabul and several other provinces. The elderly and ailing Maulvi Jalaluddin Haqqani, the well-known Afghan mujahideen commander who fought the Soviet occupying forces and later joined the Taliban, along with his son and the Haqqani Network leader Sirajuddin Haqqani, have survived scores of US drone strikes in North Waziristan that have mostly killed civilians, including their female family members and children, and some ordinary militants.

It is unlikely that the Haqqani Network will suffer any damage even if Pakistan were to launch a military operation against it in North Waziristan, as the network isn’t based in one identifiable place and is, in fact, scattered. In any case, whatever assets it has in North Waziristan would be relocated to Afghanistan or somewhere else in Pakistan by the time the operation is undertaken. The expected military action – which would focus on certain selected targets instead of being a large-scale one like the previous ones in Swat and South Waziristan – would not achieve much in terms of diminishing the strength of the local and foreign militants. At best, it would only evict the militants from their strongholds and force them to find sanctuaries elsewhere. On the other hand, military action would certainly displace the common people and add to the number of IDPs still waiting to be repatriated to their homes after being uprooted by militancy, army operations and the recent floods. It is also unlikely that the US would be satisfied once military action is initiated in North Waziristan, as the Haqqanis would emerge largely unscathed from it and they and other militants challenging NATO forces in Afghanistan would continue to fight despite their losses.

This article originally appeared in the November 2010 issue of Newsline under the headline “Still at Odds.”

Rahimullah Yusufzai is a Peshawar-based senior journalist who covers events in the NWFP, FATA, Balochistan and Afghanistan. His work appears in the Pakistani and international media. He has also contributed chapters to books on the region.

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