Follow by Email

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

What is cooking between the US and the Pakistani Army ? - Part IV

In the two weeks since I posted the last part, more things have happened on the US-Pakistan front. As usual, the Pakistani civilian government is keeping quiet and is letting the Pakistani Army (PA) handle the developments and set the course for the future. And, true to its nature, the PA is keeping its particular narrow view alone in focus and is taking Pakistan once again to great trouble. Of course, no civilian government in Pakistan had ever felt confident about handling foreign affairs especially with the US and India and have always conceded space to the PA. Not that they had any choice anyway. The present government is no exception either. The foreign governments too, especially the US (and with the sole exception of India), had felt it prudent to deal directly with the PA bypassing the civilian governments even as they eulogised the virtues of democracy elsewhere. This has given the PA the exalted position of being the prima donna within the nation as the masses look up to the army in awe even though the PA has so far excelled only in conquering its own people and has been an utter failure whenever tested in battles with real armies. But, that is another issue for another post later on.

What then are the new incidents that have caused more downturn in the US-Pakistan relationship since the last post ? There are at least three. The most important was the arrest of a leading Kashmiri figure in the US for being an agent of the ISI. The next was the case of restrictions imposed on the movements of the US diplomatic staff within Pakistan and the third was the recall by the US of its CIA Station Chief in Islamabad.

On July 19, 2011, the FBI arrested Ghulam Nabi Fai, the Director of Kashmir Action Council (KAC), in Virgina over attempts to influence US politicians and opinion-makers on the Kashmir issue. The US Justice Department said the Kashmir American Council (KAC) had received up to $4 million in illegal contributions from the ISI. Ghulam Nabi Fai was arrested on the charge of having violated laws (Foreign Agents Registration Act, FARA) which prohibit work for foreign governments without registering with the Attorney General. The modus operandi for such funding involved illegal money transfer, known as hawala or hundi, in which money was paid by rich American Pakistanis in the US to the KAC and these people were then reimbursed the equal amount in Pakistan by the ISI. Ghulam Nabi Fai's 25-year liaison with the ISI came to a sudden and unexpected end. The US had been well aware of his activities for decades and the timing of the action against him clearly proved the steep downturn in the US-Pakistani relationship. The Justice Department also charged a second man, Zaheer Ahmad, with recruiting dummy donors for the KAC, through whom the ISI routed the funds. The chargesheet said that Dr. Fai reported to several ISI officials, identified as Brigadier Javed Aziz Khan, Brigadier Sohail Mehmood, Lieutenant-Colonel Tauqeer Mehmood Butt and the former head of the organisation's security directorate, Major-General Mumtaz Bajwa. This was quite unprecedented as the ranks and names of serving ISI officers were revealed for the first time by an US agency, something that was not done even after the horrendous 26/11 Mumbai attack. Another irritant in this episode is that Fai's partner-in-crime, Zaheer Ahmed, is in Pakistan and the latter may not extradite him to the US to stand trial. This has the potential of causing another diplomatic row. Understandably, everyone from Pakistani President and Prime Minister downwards have come to the defence of Fai and termed the episode as another conspiracy to tarnish the fair image of Pakistan.

By end of July, Pakistan had placed restrictions on the movements of the US embassy staff. Now, they require prior permission to travel to other cities. Pakistan refused permission recently for two groups of US embassy staff when they tried to enter Peshawar city last week. The Karachi-bound US Ambassador, Cameron Munter, was stopped at the Islamabad airport and was demanded to show the Pakistan Government issued No-Objection Certificate (NOC) for his travel. He strongly protested the demand and later took the matter up with President Zardari. Pakistan has clarified that such restrictions were imposed to provide more security for the foreign diplomats and were there for diplomats of all countries and not specifically for only the Americans. The Americans, protected by their own security detail and ever wary of protection from Pakistani policemen (like Mr. Qadri of the Punjab Special Police), are used to enjoying unprecedented liberties within Pakistan for six decades now are not buying this argument. An American official termed this as 'harassment'. Since the 'You-will-be-bombed-to-stone-age' threat issued by the tough Richard Armitage in the wake of 9/11, Pakistan has given extraordinary license to not only the US diplomats but also their intelligence agents. In the new tactically brilliant bravado that seems to be sweeping across the top leadership of the PA, decisions have been taken apparently to prick the US. The US has threatened to impose counter restrictions on the Pakistani embassy/consular staff in the US.

In recent months two CIA Station Chiefs based in the US Embassy in Islamabad had to leave suddenly after their identities were revealed to the public, something that could not have happened without the help of the ISI. The latest was just last week.

In the meanwhile, strange political developments are taking place within Pakistan. By a quirk of fate, the PA has come closer to Pakistan People's Party (PPP), its arch enemy since the 70s and moved away from the usually closer Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N). Nawaz Sharif, in a public meeting in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (POK), chose to describe the current governance as 'military democracy'. He has also been portraying PPP and the PA as friendly towards the US, thus trying to cash in on the prevailing atmosphere of complete hatred towards the Americans. The PML-N has also damned the intelligence agencies for the death of Syed Saleem Shahzad. In the current dire economic and political situation, the opposition (read PML-N) enjoys a natural advantage over the ruling PPP. The PPP is trying to close the gap by co-opting strangely the support of the PA. The PA is willing too because the PPP appears to it as the lesser of the two evils at the current juncture. The PA knows that the other alternative, Imran Khan of PTI (Pakistan-Tehreek-e-Insaf) is a political light-weight. In a speech to his PPP jiyalas at Naudero, the place of burial for the Bhutto clan, Zardari referred to Nawaz Sharif as a 'Maulvi' and said that he was 'maligning the armed forces' and accused him of "creating differences between the people of Pakistan and the army which was sacrificing the lives of soldiers and officers for the sake of the country". For his part, the Interior Minister, Rehman Malik said that the institutions which were "arms and strength of the nation should not be criticised". After an unlikely ally in the form of PPP (forced by circumstances beyond their control), it was MQM's turn to support the PA and the ISI. Since the MQM and the PPP have been on a killing spree against each other in Karachi and with a frequently-breaking alliance too, the MQM used the opportunity to support the PA/ISI and take a swipe at the PPP simultaneously. MQM Chief Altaf Hussain said, "the government is plotting against the armed forces, the ISI and institutions responsible for the national security in collusion with the United States." MQM is the creation of the PA to blunt Sind nationalism in the 80s.

Thus, the recent and fresh wave of American hatred, which actually goes back to the mid-1960s, is being exploited by all power players of Pakistan. But, none of them is pragmatic and has interests of Pakistan in mind though they claim otherwise. At this most critical juncture in Pakistan's history (it is another matter that every passing day has been a critical juncture for Pakistan since Independence), Pakistan simply cannot afford to antagonize the US but it is once again displaying in abundance its tactical bravado and strategic stupidity.

Back to the actions of the PA. Before laying down office as the CIA Chief and taking over new responsibilities as the Defence Secretary, Leon Panetta visited Pakistan in mid June and exposed the Pakistani perfidy. He had earlier decided to test their sincerity by sharing intelligence on two Improvised Explosive Device(IED)-making facilities, one in Miramshah in North Waziristan and the other somewhere in South Waziristan, and asking the PA to take action. This was a test for the PA which always demanded 'actionable intelligence' whenever anybody accused it of 'protecting' terrorists. The PA once again proved that it cannot change its spots. It promptly leaked the intelligence and that too within 24 hours of receiving it from the CIA and forewarned the terrorists who vacated their bomb-making factory before the PA raid. The CIA Chief showed Gen. Kayani and the ISI Chief Lt. Gen. Pasha a 10-minute video clip of the terrorists evacuating the two 'facilities'. When Pakistani troops later arrived at the scene of the two bomb-making facilities, the militants were gone and the PA promptly claimed that the US intelligence was inaccurate. It was no coincidence that the bomb-making facilities belonged to the 'good Taliban', namely Sirajuddin Haqqani and Gul Bahadur. Panetta quit his CIA post after nailing once again the Pakistani syndrome of 'running-with-the-hares-and-hunting-with-the-hounds'. All these caused so much downturn in the CIA-ISI relationship that Pakistan had to eat its brave words.

Within the PA itself, reports speak of disenchantment of mid-level officers with the top brass. There has been open questioning of Gen. Kayani not only by some of his Corps Commanders but also by middle-level officers. One report spoke of open jeering of Gen. Kayani in a town-hall meeting with a unit of his troops. These are indicators of quite serious things within the PA. It was the mid-level officers of the PA and PAF (Pakistan Air Force) who ousted Gen. Yahya Khan in c. 1971 after the Bangladesh disaster.

So, finally, ISI Chief Lt. Gen. Shuja Pasha decided to visit Washington D.C. on July 14 for a one-and-a-half-day trip and meet with the acting CIA Chief Michael Morrell as David Petraues was yet to take over from outgoing chief, Panetta. Apparently, this was a fence-mending mission as both sides said, after the meeting, that the CIA-ISI relationship was 'back on track'. His very first visit in October, 2008, as ISI chief, immediately after taking over the job, was also to 'remove the distrust' and the latest was also to remove 'more of the same'. In the intervening three years, the chasm of distrust has only grown wider and deeper. Anyway, both sides expressed 'happiness' after the meeting. Considering that it is the US that is holding all the aces, the expression of happiness means that Pakistan acceded to US demands and probably in return got some US commitments against India, a normal US practice in dealing with Pakistan. There were also other meetings in Islamabad at the same time. The US Centcom Chief, Gen. James Mattis, met Gen. Kayani simultaneously in Islamabad. A day later, the outgoing commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, Gen David Petraeus, and his successor-to-be, Lt. Gen. John Allen, met the Pakistani Army chief.

In the meanwhile, a retired US General Jack Keane, while talking to a Washington-based think tank, openly accused Gen. Kayani and Lt. Gen. Shuja Pasha of complicity with the Taliban and Al Qaeda forces. At the same time, the US vice admiral William McRaven, who oversaw the Bin Laden raid, said the US military believes that Taliban supreme leader Mullah Omar was in Pakistan and had asked the Pakistani army to locate him.

What are Pakistan's demands to the US ? It wants the CIA-operated drone strikes to take place only with Pakistani concurrence and after the US had shared with it the targets identified and got its approval. Thus, it wants to ensure that either the US is influenced not to target the 'good Taliban', or if the US refuses, at least be in a position to tip the friends off in good time before the strikes. The US, having seen Pakistani perfidy for years now and in a hurry to drawdown troops amidst on-going talks with the Taliban, are unwilling to oblige them for a change. The PA has also made it clear to the Americans, after the Abbottabad incident, that the CIA cannot mount any independent operations within the Pakistani territory. Pakistan, therefore, is demanding new 'rules of engagement' with the CIA unlike the 'blank cheque' given earlier by Gen. Musharraf which has severely embarrassed both the incumbent civilian and military leadership after the Raymond Davis and Abbottabad incidents. Pakistan is also greatly upset with the US administration over its 'independent' talks with a section of the Taliban by-passing Pakistan. Since the time of the Afghan jihad, when Pakistan insisted that all aid and funding must be routed through its ISI and ISI alone, it has become an unwritten rule that the US would conduct all its Afghan business through the Pakistanis. Now that the US has begun to do things on its own, the Pakistanis are overcome with the fear of becoming less and less relevant. This causes them great grief because the concept of 'strategic depth' to defeat India continues to remain central in the Pakistani scheme of things. It is this same obsession that makes Pakistan fear India re-establishing even a normal relationship with Afghanistan. Pakistan does not want India to train the Afghan Army. The paranoia that dominates Pakistani minds is accentuated these days by the apparent proximity between India and the US that has cut across both Democratic and Republican administrations. It is Pakistan's perception that India is favoured as a strategic partner by the US because it can prove to be a counterweight to China. On the other hand, the PA recognizes that there is no strategic US interest in Pakistan save for two: one, the US certainly does not want jihadi terrorism to go back to pre 9/11 days in the Af-Pak territories and two, the US is averse to a nuclear-weapon possessing nation wracked by Islamic extremism slipping out of its control or failing with disastrous consequences for everyone. Hence, Pakistani Army fears that the US would blunt Pakistan's involvement in managing Afghanistan and correspondingly allow more Indian influence in Afghanistan, a double whammy. Pakistan is also desperately seeking assurance from the US that another Abbottabad-like assault would not be mounted by the US to eliminate other High Value Targets (HVTs) still living comfortably in Pakistan. The US has already said that Ayman al Zawahiri is in FATA and needs to be captured by Pakistan. Pakistan may not know how much intelligence the US has on Zawahiri. Pakistan is therefore in a bind. It cannot move him to safety because Pakistan may think that he may be constantly under US watch. Any move to contact him could therefore expose the ISI hand, which could be disastrous coming in the wake of Abbottabad and the two instances of ISI helping the jihadi terrorists making bombs escape raids. If Zawahiri is not saved, the US could grab him from Pakistani soil and that could cause more serious damage to the US-Pakistan relationship with the US demanding an unacceptable price from Pakistan for normalizing future relationship. Pasha might have therefore pleaded with the US to cut some slack for the PA and the ISI in the business of HVTs.

Pakistan also knows that for all its brave talks of China replacing the US if the latter decided to cut aid, PRC is no match for the US in arms, ammunition, funding and political support for Pakistan in multilateral agencies etc. The defiant posture it struck has to give way sooner than later to a realistic stand vis-a-vis US. At the same time, it has to work out with the US a face saving formula so that the already-dented image of the PA and the ISI is not damaged any further. In confirmation of this hypothesis, the ISPR said the very next day that the US aid was not even on the agenda of Lt. Gen. Shuja Pasha, thus giving away that the aid issue was indeed on the table. The Pakistani Foreign Office spokeswoman confirmed that "negotiations were underway for the resumption of [stalled] military assistance". Another serious issue on the table might have been the 'rules of enagagement' that Pakistan may now want to re-draw with the US, especially after the Abbottabad incident and US reactions to the assassination of Syed Saleem Shehzad. For the Americans, the expulsion of the 120 trainers of the Frontier Corps and the denial of visas to American officials needed to be sorted out. The visa issue has been plaguing the relationship ever since Musharraf disappeared from the scene. In c. 2008, Prime Minister Gilani was rumoured to have overruled Foreign Minister Makhdoom Shah Mahmood Qureshi and issued several hundred visas to US officials without any scrutiny. It is well known that the then Foreign Minister Qureshi represented the PA in the cabinet and therefore the Prime Minister defied the PA diktat in issuing those visas. Pakistani Ambassador Haqqani has been regularly pilloried in the Pakistani press about this. The visa issue again cropped up after the Raymond Davis incident and intensified after the May 2 Abbottabad event. After the recent US announcement of aid halt, a Pentagon spokesman had directly linked that issue with the non-availability of Pakistani visas for US officials. The July 19 arrest of the ISI agent Ghulam Nabi Fai and his indictment thereafter show that the July 14 meeting of the ISI and CIA chiefs at Langley, Va did not go smoothly. Upon his return from the US, the ISI Chief also made an unpublicized visit to China. It could be to seek the Chinese reassurances in the wake of further deterioration in the US-Pakistan relationship, though there was also the Xinjiang Uyghur problem also engaging the Chinese attention.

Interesting times ahead. There is never a dull moment with Pakistan around.

No comments:

Post a Comment