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Wednesday, June 15, 2011

What is cooking between the US and the Pakistani Army ?

The uncovering of the residency of Osama bin Laden close to the Pakistani Military Academy in the garrison town of Abbottabad and his subsequent elimination by the US Navy SEALs in a stealth operation have created many ripples, some within Pakistan and some between Pakistan and the US.

The close bonding between the US and Pakistan had existed at multiple levels, the most important of which had been the ties between the US and Pakistani armed forces. This relationship started in the early 1950s and bloomed quite rapidly. The US made it a consistent policy to support Pakistani military dictators, whether it was FM Ayub Khan or Gen. Yahya Khan or Gen. Zia-ul-Haq or more recently Gen. Pervez Musharraf. The US Presidents and the State Department stood solidly behind these usurpers of power even as the US preached virtues of democracy to the rest of the world. In the 1970s, another important relationship also developed between the US and its client state Pakistan. The turmoil in the region meant that the US sought close partners. The bitterness after the 1962 arms-supply to India and the arms embargo of 1965 had already been overcome by 1971 when Pakistan helped the US normalize relationship with an isolated China and in return, the US condoned Pakistani genocide in East Pakistan and later sent a carrier task force of the US Seventh Fleet to the Bay of Bengal threatening India as an act of solidarity with Pakistan. As the trusted US ally, the Shah of Iran was deposed by Shi'a fundamentalists who also held Americans as hostage in Teheran, as the Communists assumed power in Afghanistan who later invited the armed forces of the USSR into the country and as an insurgency developed in Yemen in the late 1970s, a worried US forged close intelligence tie-up between the CIA of the US and the notorious ISID of Pakistan. The relationship reached its pinnacle during the decade of the 80s when the CIA worked in extremely close proximity with the ISID in avenging the American defeat in Vietnam a decade earlier and pave the way for the unravelling of the Soviet Union in particular and Communism in general.

As the general usefulness of Pakistan waned upon the termination of the Afghan jihad, the US-Pakistan transactional relationship cooled off. That was probably also what the Pakistanis themselves wanted. A US that was so far helping the Pakistani nuclear programme both actively and passively, was suddenly becoming apoplectic with Pakistan's frenzied activities on the nuclear front. Since their clandestine nuclear and missile dealings with China, North Korea, Libya, Saudi Arabia and Iran were on an upswing, the Pakistanis would have been rather uncomfortable with the presence of the born-again Americans. The terrorism and violence against India from ISI and PA-sponsored terrorist groups were also growing exponentially and it was prudent to keep it away from the prying eyes of the USA which probably was not so amenable as it was during the decade of the 80s when it even helped the Khalistani terrorism. Things were going smooth for Pakistan in the 90s, until fate intervened in the form of Osama bin Laden and 9/11 as the US and its Army got entrenched in Af-Pak once again.

The US Army on the ground in Afghanistan as part of NATO forces had never been comfortable with the Pakistani Army (PA). The CIA has been wary of ISI's double cross. The Pentagon voiced its consternation frequently. American Presidents have been forthright at times regarding their mistrust of Pakistan. Secretaries of State of US administration of various dispensations have been frustrated by the games played by the PA. There are very sound reasons why they all felt so. New York Times of June 15, 2011 reports that the CIA Deputy Director rates ISI's co-operation at 3 on a scale of 1 to 10.

For those who watch Pakistan closely, this perfidious behaviour is not surprising at all. Let's go back to the start of operations on the Pakistani side after Operation Enduring Freedom was launched by the US and allied forces. The Pakistani approach can be slotted into two different time periods, one BD or Before Democracy and the other AD, After Democracy. Initially, during BD, the PA refused to commit its forces in the FATA (Federally Administered Tribal Agencies) area of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (KP) province. Instead, it entered into a series of 'Peace Treaties' with the Taliban and various warlords in order to avoid fighting them. No Peace Treaty lasted more than a few weeks. From the very beginning, the PA was not interested in COIN (Counter Insurgency) operations in FATA and was leaving that to the local Frontier Corps (FC), Levies and Khasadar forces that are both ill-equipped and ill-trained as well as reluctant to fight their own tribes.

The first time, the PA decided to take on the Al Qaeda and Allied Movements (AQAM) was in c. 2004 when it proudly announced that PA will complete the operation in a few weeks. But, the drubbing the PA received from the AQAM was such that Lt. Gen. Safdar Hussain, Corps Commander, Peshawar, had to personally meet Taliban commander Nek Mohammed to sign the peace deal (at Shakai in South Waziristan in April 2004) and even give him USD 540,000 {a fact he admitted in the press meet}. Thus, PA's casualties were not only its men but also its prestige. Again, in February 2005, another deal was signed and this time with with Baitullah Mehsud after he took over power following Nek Mohammed’s assassination in a US drone attack near Wana. The six-point deal, mediated by Maulana Fazlur Rehman of JUI-F, while specifically forbidding him from sheltering foreign terrorists or attacking Pakistani government installations, did not stop him from attacking the US forces. Even as he signed the deal, he openly declared that under Mullah Omar, Islam will spread all over the world even as he derived satisfaction from the jihad. Similarly, in February 2008, the Pakistani Army struck another peace deal with Baitullah Mehsud after another unsuccessful army operation in late 2007. The operations by the Pakistani military in Waziristan were dubbed as “Operation Enduring Failure’ following a severe mauling of the Pakistani Army. All three Army operations - 2004, 2005 and 2007 – resulted ultimately in the Army suing for peace after suffering heavy casualties.

In the AD period, reports appeared that Gen. Kiyani had told the US that the PA would have the focus only on the Eastern borders with India. After his meeting with Pakistan, in a series of back-to-back trips to that country, Mike Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, agreed in June, 2008 with the Pakistani request to train the FC in COIN operations. Three months earlier, in March, 2008, when the contours of the peace deals were not yet clear and when the new government had not yet taken over power, New York Times reported the Pakistan Army’s strategy of concentrating on the India border leaving the Afghanistan border to ill-equipped and ill-trained local forces. It spoke of the kind of equipment in Pakistani shopping list with the US that could possibly not have been used against Al Qaeda and the Taliban. This approach of focussing on India had multiple benefits for Pakistan. For one, the Army’s withdrawal gave a free hand to the Taliban and the NATO-ISAF forces could not hold the Pakistani Army responsible anymore. This also met the Taliban request of non-interference from Pakistan in their activities. Secondly, it took enormous resources and time to train the undisciplined local forces and that gave sufficient lead time for the Taliban to consolidate their hold in these areas. Thirdly, Pakistan demanded and got sophisticated equipment from the US under the guise of providing support and equipping the FC. Moreover, the Pakistani Army which had earned a lot of ill-will from the tribesmen because under “operation Tri-star and Earthquake”, (Op. Zalzala, meaning Earthquake, in the Mehsud area between January and April 2008) it had razed down villages as part of ‘collective punishment’. The Army’s use of artillery and Cobra gunship and even tanks, rather than effective COIN operations, had added to the resentment of the people. In the August, 2008 operations in Bajaur (Op. Sherdil or Lionheart), around Khar, in the area that the Inspector General of Frontier Corps, Maj Gen Tariq Khan called as the ‘centre of the battle’, the gunship helicopters targetted mosques and flattened houses turning people against the Government. The Pakistani masses also saw this as "Muslim Vs. Muslim" in which the PA could not be involved. With fatwas on the non-martyrdom of the Pakistani soldiers in a fight with the Taliban, the Pakistani Army was surrendering rather than fighting. The refusal to engage the PA in the COIN operation was a ploy therefore making a virtue out of necessity and was a fourth reason for the decision to pull out. Fifthly, and most significantly, what appeared to be a decision to increase infiltration across the Indian border in c. 2008 after relative lull for sometime, demanded a concentration of troops in the eastern border especially in view of the ‘Cold Start’ doctrine of India. In hindsight, the Pakistani COAS, Gen. Kayani's insistence on keeping the PA focussed on the Indian border in c. 2008 was because he was aware of the imminent terrorist attacks on Indian interests on the anvil. The July 7, 2008 bombing of the Indian Embassy in Kabul and the urban warfare in Mumbai on November 26, 2008 were jointly organized by the ISI, the PA, the Pakistani Navy and the LeT and so one can safely conclude that Gen. Kayani, under whose watch these terror events had been planned when he was the ISI Chief, wanted to be able to meet any fall-out arising from these events. Gen. Kayani called the Taliban his 'strategic assets', a communication that was intercepted by the Americans in May 2008, a few months before the Indian embassy attack in Kabul, and which confirmed the long-held suspicion that the PA was running with the hares and hunting with the hounds. Later, the newly-elected Pakistani Prime Minister, Yousuf Raza Gilani, used exactly the same idiom to own up Pakistani duplicity.

The above malicious behaviour of Pakistan brings out two Pakistani traits. One, Pakistan's obsession with India and two, its ability to turn that obsession into an advantage vis-a-vis the gullible Americans.

Back to the Af-Pak badlands in c. 2008. The US State Department’s annual “Country Reports on Terrorism” released in May 2008, spoke of Al Qaeda having regrouped effectively within Pakistan and posing the gravest threat to Western interests. The loss of control of its own territory by Pakistan prompted the ex-National Security Advisor of India, Brajesh Mishra, to propose a multinational force to tackle terrorism in Pakistan. NATO expressed concern in mid-May, 2008 that the so called peace pacts “struck by the Pakistan government and extremist groups in the Tribal Areas may be allowing them to have a safe haven”. It also said in April 2008, after the peace talks gained momentum, that the incidents of cross-border attacks had increased by 52% from the same period the previous year. NATO also expressed its annoyance that Pakistan was entering into pacts without taking it into confidence, an oblique reference to the MNNA (Major Non-NATO Ally) status of Pakistan. NATO correctly interpreted the peace deals as ‘transfer of troubles from one side of the border to the other’. On the same day NATO issued this warning, Assistant Secretary of State Richard Boucher, testifying before the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on South Asia said that “Insurgents in Pakistan’s frontier region continue to pose a serious threat to the regional stability of the United States and the rest of the world”. In another testimony to the US Congress at the same time, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Michael Mullen, said that the next attack on US in near-term would come from Al Qaeda regrouping in the FATA regions of Pakistan. Afghan Foreign Minister Rangeen Dadfar Spanta called “such [Pakistani] appeasement [of the Taliban] dangerous for Afghanistan” and it was "extremely and infinitely concerned" about Islamabad's moves. Then, on June 11, 2008, the US Air Force attacked inside Pakistani border in Mohmand agency in which several Pakistani Frontier Corps (FC) men were killed. What gave the game away was that several Taliban terrorists were also killed in the attack, as accepted by TTP spokesperson Maulvi Umar, thereby suggesting some nexus between Pakistan’s FC and the Taliban. A few days later, the outgoing US Commander in Afghanistan, Gen Dan K McNeill, questioned the loyalty of the Pakistani forces, especially the FC. The Guardian newspaper later reported, citing classified US reports, that the FC had been heavily infiltrated into by the Taliban and was influenced by it. The displeasure with which the US looked at the peace deals with the Taliban was evident when an hour-long ‘candid, frank, realistic and honest’ discussion between Condoleeza Rice and the Pakistani Foreign Minister, Shah Mahmood Qureshi, ended on June 11, 2008 without any positive developments for Pakistan. Admiral Mullen had repeatedly said that the Pakistani Army was not fighting the Taliban in a sustained fashion. For his part, President Obama made it clear on more than one occasion that the Pakistanis were barking a wrong tree by considering the Indians as the most major threat and that there was no need to station so many troops on the eastern borders with India.

For his part, Afghan President Karzai said that most fighters in Helmand province had come from Pakistan, a concern also echoed by NATO forces. He then followed it up with the threat of attacking the Taliban terrorists inside Pakistan. In anger, it announced pulling out of bilateral talks. India also pulled out of scheduled anti terrorism talks between its CBI and the FIA of Pakistan, after the attack on its Kabul embassy. The Pakistani Defence Minister Mukhtar said that the US President George Bush admitted to him that the US was reluctant to share intelligence information with Pakistan because elements within ISI were leaking them to the Taliban and thwarting US actions. He was even reported to have asked Prime Minister Gilani when he visited the White House in late August, 2008 as to who was in charge of the ISI. On Sep. 16, 2008. US Asst. Secretary Richard Boucher said that the reform of the ISI was a must and it was not happening yet. This led to the removal of Lt. Gen. Nadeem Taj as the Head of the ISI on Sep. 29, 2008. Even the Deputy Chief of ISI was replaced. Finally, with mounting losses of US & other NATO forces approaching the levels of Iraq at its peak, about two dozen US Navy SEALs raided inside Pakistan on Sep. 3, 2008, for the first time and killed 20 people in Angoor Adda, South Waziristan. The US Navy Seals were dropped on ground within FATA and they remained there for a couple of hours destroying targets. There has been speculation that Gen. Kiyani, along with his DGMO (Director General of Military Operations), were told of American intentions of more serious ground operations in a meeting they had with Adm. Mullen held on Aug. 27, 2008 unusually on board an an aircraft carrier, USS Abraham Lincoln, in the Persian Gulf. The very next day, Pakistani COAS Gen. Kayani strongly lashed out at the US proposal to mount cross-border attacks inside Pakistan. The New York Times reported the same day that Bush had authorized in July cross-border attacks into Pakistan with ‘boots on the ground’ within Pakistani territory. It followed the American assessment of Pakistani Army ‘lacking will and ability’. American officials concluded, as per the report in New York Times article dated Sep. 24, 2009, that the ISID was helping the Taliban. The US Ambassador to Pakistan, Ms. Anne Patterson, voiced the disappointment that Pakistan was “certainly reluctant to take action” against the leadership of the Afghan insurgency. Simultaneously, there was a talk of extending the drone attacks to Quetta where the Taliban Shura was supposed to be holed up. Western intelligence sources (Times, Sep. 27, 2009) also reported that the Pakistani intelligence agencies, fearing such an attack, had shifted some members of the Quetta Shura to the much safer Karachi. Pakistan strongly denied the existence of anything called a Quetta Shura at all. However, On Dec. 14, 2009, the Pakistani Interior Minister, Rehman Malik, said that the Quetta Shura has been significantly damaged by the armed forces and was no longer a threat, thus conceding that the Quetta Shura after all existed.

(To be continued . . .)

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