What strategic dialogue? US-Pakistani cooperation in Afghanistan

Ehsan Azari questions the value of the US' unbalanced relationship with Pakistan.
Ehsan Azari
7 April 2010

The fourth round of ‘strategic dialogue’ between the United States and Pakistan ended on 25 March 2010 in Washington, hailed as a win-win exchange. The US seems upbeat as its key ally in the region has finally intensified its efforts to root out al-Qaida-affiliated Islamist militants on its own soil and truly distanced itself from its proxy, the Taliban in neighbouring Afghanistan. Likewise, Pakistan seems happy to receive a massive civilian and military aid package and the assurance from Washington that it will be given a central role in the Afghan endgame.

It is a strategic mistake for the US to impose a Pakistan-centric solution to the Afghan tragedy. Pakistan will find it impossible to play any constructive role in Afghanistan, for it is a country which is facing an existential threat from within. The Pakistani ruling elite has no other choice but to reaffirm continuously the existence of Pakistan in opposition with India and a dream of controlling Afghanistan.

Pakistan presented two lists to US officials ahead of the two-day summit. One was a 56-pages long wish-list and the second was a list of heavily-bearded Taliban leaders arrested recently in Pakistan. The US has already pledged a $7.5 billion, five year assistance package for Pakistan’s energy, water, agriculture and education sectors. One billion dollars worth of reimbursements for fighting the Pakistani Taliban will also begin flowing to Pakistan more quickly. In addition, Pakistan will receive significant defence supplies in the coming years, including P-3C Orion maritime patrol aircraft, five 250 TOW anti-armour missile systems, six AN/TPS-77 surveillance radar, six C-130E transport aircraft, and twenty AH-1F Cobra attack helicopters and new F-16s. The wish-list also included Pakistan’s plea for a civilian nuclear deal similar to that concluded with India but this remains unfulfilled.

The US has recognised Pakistan as a central player in Afghanistan, a role it played with horrible consequences during the 1990s; precipitating the rise of the Taliban in Afghanistan which provided a launching board for al-Qaida. Pakistan has a history of undertaking some tactical combat operations, including even mock operations, against limited groups within the Taliban insurgency in order to attract US policy makers and increase the cash flow. It has now become clear that the recent arrest of Taliban leaders in Pakistan was designed in part to punish those Taliban who enter into negotiation in Kabul bypassing Pakistan. Kai Edie, the former UN special representative to Afghanistan, accused Pakistan of sabotaging clandestine discussions with senior Taliban leaders. Pakistan rarely chooses to harm those Taliban who are Pakistani military strategic partners, since it relies on their support. At the very moment that Pakistani civilian leaders pledge to cut off the Taliban bases in Pakistan, shadowy ISI agents are secretly giving assurance to the Taliban that Pakistan is supporting the Taliban in the ‘anti-American Jihad’.

One such irreconcilable group with close links to al-Qaida and ISI is the Haqqani’e network, headquartered in North Waziristan. North Waziristan is a Pakistani no-go zone from where fighters are sent into Afghanistan and the Haqqani network operate with near impunity. Under increasing US pressure, it is possible that the ISI may turn against Haqqani if the upcoming US and NATO major June offensive in southern Kandahar province proves to be successful. But given the weight of Pakistan's historical ties with the Taliban, any such change would be conditional and limited.

The ISI is a complex organisation containing with a visible and invisible intelligence presence. There is an ISI within an ISI that remains invisible; most of its members are retired generals who deviously play the Afghan game from behind the scenes. When I want to update my knowledge of Pakistan’s policy vis-à-vis the Taliban, I look for the latest statements by retired ISI generals, not official statements by Pakistan’s prime minister or foreign minister.

Before the battle for Swat Valley which started in early 2009, a peace agreement between the Taliban and Pakistani military was awaiting Zardari’s approval. The Pakistani Taliban in Swat insisted that they didn't need Zardai’s signature as long as the ISI endorsed the agreement. In mid March 2010, Punjab's chief minister, Shahbaz Sharif, made a plea to the Taliban not to attack the province since Punjabis and the Taliban were united against Western intervention in Pakistan: “General Pervez Musharraf planned a bloodbath of innocent Muslims at the behest of others only to prolong his term in office, but we the Pakistan’s Muslim League-Nawaz opposed the former president’s policies and rejected the dictation being received from abroad.  If the Taliban are also fighting the same cause, then they should not carry out acts of terror in the province of Punjab.”

On 29 March, the Pakistani foreign minister, Shah Mahmood Qureshi, boasted in an interview to Newsweek that Pakistan had, “eliminated 17,000 terrorists.” “The myth was that,” he added about Pakistan’s military success in South Waziristan, “it had never been occupied by any force and that it was impossible to do it. We have done it.”  Pakistan continues to think that the predominantly Pashtun Northwest Frontier Province — formally renamed Khyber Pakhtunkhwa last week — is still a colony.

Pakistan’s double game in the war on terrorism, fighting those who are dangerous to its state security and those who disobey, while offering clandestine support to the most virulent Anti-western extremists among the Afghan Taliban, is designed to entrap the US; offering a handful of Taliban in exchange for bags of cash and weapons. This so-called strategic dialogue elicits a strong sense of déjà vu. It is unlikely to be the last such bargain; experience shows that are likely to be more arrests of unfavoured Taliban in exchange for ongoing support in times to come. As Tariq Ali was right to note in his The Duel: Pakistan on the flight path of American power, “Milton’s Satan was convinced that it was ‘better to reign in hell than serve in heaven’. Pakistan’s rulers proved it was possible to do both.”

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