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Sunday, August 7, 2011

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

Since the last installment of this series, things have gone down even more steeply between the US and the Pakistani Army. The relationship between the two is reaching new record lows every passing day. While a recovery is still possible, it is now clear that the relationship would never reach the levels before and the damage will linger for quite a long time to come until another disaster happens that might need the US to take Pakistan's support. If the relationship does not recover within the next couple of months, Pakistan will be hit devastatingly hard by the turn of events as it still needs the US for its economic recovery and military preparedness against India. This also brings into sharp focus the acute transactional and tactical nature of the US geopolitical and geostrategic approach. It is now obvious that the strategic dividends for the US have been diminishing rapidly with this myopic approach. Both sides, the US and Pakistan, have behaved in ways that have only brought them more misery and misfortune. While the US can overcome these, though at a cost to its economy, Pakistan has simply no wherewithal to survive this catastrophe, buffetted as it already is by the spectre of floods, poor governace, continuing internal terrorism, political divisions and its over-dependence on aid especially from Western countries.

Be those as they may, let us look at what has happened on the ground within Afghanistan and Pakistan since early August of this year. It is increasingly becoming obvious that the Haqqani jihadis are swelling in numbers and are wreaking havoc throughout Afghanistan, both against the US/NATO/ISAF interests and nationalist Afghan interests. The aim of the Haqqanis is simple as far as its actions against the nationalist Afgahn interests go. Eliminate leaders who could be influential in anti-Taliban efforts and leave the opponents leaderless and rudderless. This was the tactic that they effectively implemented in the Federally administered Tribal Agencies (FATA) of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa where they killed in droves the jirga leaders. The Pakhtunwali code of the tribes, which took precedence over the Islamic Shariat, was then supplanted with the virulent Salafi, Wahhabi and Deobandi interpretation of Shariat.

The current spate of events started on Aug. 06, 2011, when a US Army Chinook crashed in the Afghanistan province of Wardak on the Af-Pak border killing 30 US service personeel including 22 Navy SEALs, from the same unit that had taken part in the Abbottabad operation (SEAL Team 6 or DEVGRU). This was the single biggest loss in an incident for the US since the start of the Afghan operations. The Washington Post reported that the Chinook was brought down by a Taliban fired RPG. For all intents and purposes, this appears to be a revenge by the ISI for the Abbottabad operation by the USN SEALs. However, the US has so far not accused the ISI of being complicit in this.

Now, it is a no-brainer that the detection of the presence of America's most wanted enemy ever, Osama bin Laden, at Abbotabad angered the Americans. It was later revealed by one of the widows of Osama bin Laden that they had been living there for at least five years and were living at Haripur before that. This strained the relationship between the US and Pakistan. No amount of injured innocence by the Pakistanis can hide the fact that Osama bin Laden could have lived in Abbottabad for five long years without the help of the top echelons of the ISI and the Pakistani Army. As is usual with Pakistan, it tried to punch far above its weight when it threatened to allow the Chinese a close inspection of the downed US Navy (USN) chopper. Visiting Pakistan on May 27 for barely half-a-day and that too only after Pakistan acceded to certain demands like returning the parts of the downed USN chopper and allowing American access to the villa and the widows of Osama bin Laden in Pakistani custody, Ms. Hillary Clinton demanded that Pakistan share intelligence on other five terrorists namely, Ayman al-Zawahiri, Mullah Omar, Ilyas Kashmiri, Sirajuddin Haqqani, and Atiyah Abdur Rehman (Libyan Al Qaeda leader). Ms. Clinton called on Pakistan to support the nascent reconciliation talks with the Afghan Taliban launched several months ago by the United States and Afghanistan. The goal, she said, was “to split the Taliban from al-Qaeda,” a possibility the administration believes has become more likely to succeed now with bin Laden’s demise. She also said that Pakistan had "a responsibility to help" the US. The New York Times described the meeting as grim and tense. It had an immediate effect. Ilyas Kashmiri was killed in a drone attack on June 3 near Wana in South Waziristan, possibly with inputs from the ISI. Being a 'bad Taliban', Ilyas Kashmiri could be sacrificed by Pakistan. Atiyah Abdur Rehman was killed in early August. It also highlighted the Pakistani tactic of not acting against even the 'bad Taliban' or Al Qaeda until after the push came to a shove and possibly some quid-pro-quo was extracted from the Americans.

On June 22, 2011, US President Barack Obama announced explicit plans for withdrawing American forces from Afghanistan. The plan was to withdraw 10,000 troops by end-2011, 33,000 by mid-2012 and the bulk of the remaining 70,000 troops at a steady pace through 2013-14. Though a 170,000 strong Afghan National Army is being formed with equipped with Western arsenal, the ANA will be of a doubtful quality.

All these have emboldened the Taliban to attempt to wrest Kandahar once again from the control of Kabul. On July 12, 2011, Hamid Karzai’s brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai, one of the most powerful individuals in southern Afghanistan, was killed at Kandahar by an assassin, one of his own security bodyguards. A week later, Jan Mohammad Khan, a member of Mr. Karzai's inner circle and a former Governor of the Uruzgan province was killed. Two weeks later, on July 27, 2011, the Taliban eliminated the Mayor of Kandahar, Ghulam Haider Hamidi, in a suicide bombing in which a suicide bomber detonated explosives carried under his turban. Eight weeks later, and using the same turban-suicide-bombing technique, Burhanuddin Rabbani, former President of Afghanistan and Chairman of the High Peace Council (HPC) was killed on Sep. 21, 2011. Exactly a week earlier, on Sep. 13, 2011, the Taliban laid siege to the US embassy in Kabul and the nearby ISAF Headquarters raining rockets on both for 20 hours. Two days before the assassination of Rabbani, and on the same day as the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, a US base at Wardak was attacked by a suicide truck bomber that wounded 80 American soldiers. Simultaneously, there was a rocket attack on the well-fortified Bagram airbase, just north of Kabul. In April, they had killed the Police Chief of Kandahar and in May, they eliminated the Governor of Takhar province, a Tajik.

The US immediately blamed the Haqqani network and the complicity of the ISI for these two incidents. The Pakistan Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani's sudden cancellation of his US visit on September 16 citing flood situation was a harbinger of the subsequent events. Though Gilani cited floods as the reason, the real reason appeared to be the refusal of the US President to meet him. The latest round of the war of words started on September 18 when the US Ambassador to Pakistan, Cameron Munter, said, “There is evidence linking the Haqqani network to the Pakistan government. This is something that must stop.” This was a very serious allegation to make about Pakistan on the Pakistani soil itself. The very next day, the US Secreatry of State, Ms. Hillary Clinton met the Pakistani Foreign Minister, Ms. Hina Rabbani Khar for nearly 4 hours eventhough the meeting was scheduled originally to last just 30 minutes. It was reported that the discussion started and ended with Haqqani. Simultaneously, the ISI Chief flew secretly into Washington for discussion with the CIA Chief, Gen. Petraeus. Speaking the very next day at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Adm. Mike Mullen, Chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, said, “The ISI has been doing this —— working for —— supporting proxies for an extended period of time. It is a strategy in the country and I think that strategic approach has to shift in the future”. There was naturally a great uoroar in Pakistan and the Pakistani Foreign Minister, Ms. Hina Rabbani Khar, still in the US, said that the “US would lose Pakistan as an ally”. The COAS Gen. Ashfaq Pervez Kayani, on whom Spain had bestowed its highest military honour, 'The Grand Cross of Military Merit' only a few days earlier on September 16, termed the US accusations as “very unfortunate and not based on facts”. COAS Kayani had met Adm. Mullen for almost two hours of a one-on-one meeting in Spain after the award ceremony. One can only surmise therefore that Adm. Mullen and Gen. Kayani would have had an unsuccessful and possibly stormy meeting. Adm. Mike Mullen then told the US Senate Armed Services Committee panel on September 22, upon his return from Spain, that the “Haqqani network acts as a veritable arm of Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence Agency. With ISI support, Haqqani operatives planned and conducted a truck bomb attack, as well as the assault on our embassy. We also have credible intelligence that they were behind the 28 June attack against the Inter-Continental Hotel in Kabul and a host of other smaller but effective operations.” There was naturally a great uproar in Pakistan and the Pakistani Foreign Minister, Ms. Hina Rabbani Khar, said that the “US would lose Pakistan as an ally”. The COAS Gen. Ashfaq Pervez Kayani, termed the US accusations as “very unfortunate and not based on facts”. The Prime Minister, Yousuf Raza Gilani, said that “these wrong messages would affct the US-Pakistan bilateral ties”. However, Spokesman for Adm.Mike Mullen, Capt. John Kirby, confirmed that Mullen and Kayani had indeed spoken about Haqqani in Spain and further inflamed the Pakistanis by saying, "All I can tell you is that we are confident that the ISI continues to support and even encourages the Haqqanis to launch these attacks." He went on to give an ominous warning to the Pakistani Army by saying, "We still want to pursue a working, productive partnership with the Pakistani military, and that in large measure depends on their willingness and their ability to disconnect themselves from extremist groups like the Haqqani network".

There were reports that Prime minister Gilani had asked the Foreign Minister Ms. Hina Rabbani Khar to cut short her visit and return to Pakistan immediately, even foregoing the speech at the UN General Assembly (UNGA). These reports were later denied and Ms. Hina Khar continued with her sojourn in the US. Probably the new tactic was to give a tongue-lashing to the US on the US soil itself. In an interview to Al-Jazeera News channel, Ms. Khar described the Haqqani network as the "blue-eyed boy" of the CIA. She went on to say, "If we talk about links, I am sure the Central Intelligence Agency also has links with many terrorist organisations around the world, by which we mean intelligence links."

In the meanwhile, Prime Minister Gilani called for an all-party meeting to take a united stand against the American pressure. Simultaneously, Gen. Kayani called for an extraordinary meeting of the Corps Commanders just before he was about to leave for London to address the International Institute for Strategic Studies and the Royal College of Defence Studies. The meeting reiterated that Pakistani armed forces were committed to achieving enduring peace in the region. Then, inexplicably, Gen. Kayani cancelled his UK trip. However, the ISI Chief, Lt. Gen. Shuja Ahmed Pasha was secretely sent to Saudi Arabia probably to explain the extraordinary situation to King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz al Saud and possibly seek his intervention. President Zardari, who has been keeping an inexplicably low profile in the last few months, attended a function in the Saudi embassy in Islamabad and spoke of how the two countries had "stood together in difficult moments of history". This was the first in a series of consultations that Pakistan opened with some of its closest allies. The seriousness of the situation was not lost worldwide. At the same time, the US CENTCOM commander, Gen. James N. Mattis, landed in Islamabad in an unannounced visit. There was also a visit of Meng Jianzhu, the Chinese minister for public security to Islamabad. He met the Pakistani Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Khalid Shameem Wynne and discussed with him the 'emerging geostrategic situation'. The Pakistani Interior Minister, Rehman Malik, assured the visiting Chinese counterpart that "We will strike very hard against them [the Uyghur separatists]. Anybody who is the enemy of China is the enemy of Pakistan." This assurance for action, coming in the wake of the stubborn refusal to act against the Haqqanis, sent a strong message to everyone as to where Pakistani interests lay. The Pakistani Permanent Representative for the UN, Abdullah Hussain Haroon, gave an interview to an Indian news channel where he said that the US was an unreliable ally and asked India to be careful in its relationship with that country as the same fate (as that of Pakistan) might befall her too if she became too close.

However, the deaths of Wali Ahmed Karzai and Burhanuddin Rabbani were clearly meant by the Taliban and Pakistan to sabotage the peace process, eliminate non-Taliban leaders in Afghanistan, and reduce the involvement of those who may not toe the Pakistani line of thinking in the resolution of the Afghan crisis.

Why does Pakistan not want to attack the Haqqanis operating out of North Waziristan ? Some history is in order. Though he is a Ghilzai and a legendary mujahideen commander during the 1979-89 Afghan jihad, Jalaluddin Haqqani is not a Kandahari. The emergence of the Kandahar-based Mullah Omar shifted the power decisively there and though Jalaluddin shares the same worldview as the Taliban, he is not powerful enough within the Talibani hierarchy. He certainly is not a Taliban because he did not come from the madrassah. He should be described more accurately as a successful warlord who is on the side of AQAM. His contacts with the ISI, on the other hand, have been very deep and he comes from the Paktia province and shares affinity with the Pashtuns on either side of the Durand line. During the Afghan jihad, the ISI heavily favoured the non-Durrani groups and Yunus Khalis (of the Hezb-e-Islami) was a favourite, under whom Jalaluddin Haqqani served. None of the seven Afghan jihadi groups to which the ISI distributed money and material during the jihad days was a Durrani-led group. The Karzais (Durranis) were thus discarded by Pakistan and it is very evident from the time Hamid Karzai took over power. The Pakistani aversion to the Durranis is because of the latter's irredentism over Greater Pashtunistan encompassing NWFP within it and their close ties with India. Besides, the ISI has been a reliable supporter of the Haqqanis with funds and arms for three decades now. Certainly, the Haqqanis would abide by any ISI request. Therefore, the adamant refusal to act against the Haqqani network even as the latter continues to kill and maim US, NATO and ISAF soldiers is because Pakistan still believes in the concept of an Afghan 'Strategic Depth' to conquer India and views the Taliban and associated warlords like Haqqani as friends.

Twitter: @SSridharRaptor

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