Saturday, 28 April 2012

Pakistan's long-term balance with ISAF

Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari said Pakistan and the United States should consider building a framework for an agreeable alternative to US unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) strikes, according to a presidential spokesman, Xinhua reported April 27.

Mr Zaradari spoke during a meeting with US special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan Marc Grossman. Mr Zardari said Pakistan is committed to assisting with the international presence in Afghanistan but that the economic cost should be a shared burden. The countries need increased counterterrorism cooperation but the Coalition Support Fund reimbursements need to be addressed quickly, Mr Zardari said.
Pakistan has clearly stated it wants an end to unmanned aerial vehicle strikes, but Washington has paid no heed, Pakistani Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar said April 25, Reuters reported April 26. Ms Khar said she hopes Washington's listening will improve. She said that other methods to combat militants in border regions must be considered, and alternatives need to be found to methods whose cost is far too high.

US forces continue to use UAV strikes in Pakistan to combat various violent Islamic groups despite the airstrike’s high unpopularity among the Pakistani civilians and within the government. US-Pakistan relations have been at their lowest since the November attack on the Salala outpost in northwest Pakistan, which killed 24 Pakistani troops.

While the US has issued formal apologies, they have come up sort of actually taking full responsibility for the displayed aggression, saying instead the attack was made in self-defence. Pakistan responded to the attack by once more closing the supply route into Afghanistan and calling for an immediate cessation of UAV flights from their air bases. The supply route has not yet re-opened.

As the ISAF and United States forces enter the traditional fighting season in Afghanistan, the pressure to make this season militarily successful is enormous. US troops are scheduled to begin the long process of withdrawal at the beginning of 2013 (completion late 2014) and the remnants of the recent “surge” will only bolster troop numbers until then. US commanders must use what little time they have left to secure volatile regions in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.

Islamabad understands the coalition timetable very well. Regionally, Pakistan holds significant influence in Afghanistan and Pakistani military intelligence agency ISI has had a lot to do in the country.

Part of the current tension between the US and Pakistan is a result of the long suspected collusion of the Pakistani intelligence community and the transnational jihadists in the region, such as the Haqqani network and Taliban. Where Pakistan sees a difference between groups of Taliban, the US prefers to lump them together and conduct strikes accordingly.

Each group being just as responsible for insurgent attacks as the other. In Pakistan’s eyes there are the “good” Taliban and the “bad” Taliban. The good Taliban receive training in Pakistan and attack ISAF and Afghanistan targets, while the bad sneak around inside Pakistan and stir up trouble.

For instance, a bomb exploded at Lahore Railway Station on April 24, killing two people and injuring at least 27 others, a Lahore police spokesman said, Dawn News reported. The bomb, which contained 5-6 kilograms of explosive material, was not a suicide attack, the spokesman said.

On the same day, bomb disposal experts defused an improvised explosive device (IED) found in a bag aboard Peshawar-bound Awam Express at the Attock railway station, Geo News reported. Police sources said the 20-kilogram bomb was planted on the passenger train.

Incidents like this are what Islamabad has to reckon with, and expect, as it assists groups of Taliban inside Pakistan. The spill-over effect has so far been manageable since 2004 when Pakistani military operations began in the region.
The wild north-east of Pakistan has been both a thorn and a convenience for Islamabad. Once the ISAF troops depart Afghanistan and the last divisions of US troops leave for their homes, the Pakistanis are preparing to fill the vacuum in Afghanistan. No other country in the region has the potential for influence over the history and future of the Afghan government.

In differentiating the Taliban into these sections, very simply, it gives Islamabad a useful crowd it can legitimately support in Afghanistan politics as the Western coalitions leave. From there it can better pull the strings of any resident Afghan government while extending its influence further west into Central Asia.

Pakistan must be seen to be acting against the highly unpopular UAV strikes along its border region because the people that live there will still be Pakistan’s problem once ISAF departs. Having a disgruntled population, and close to half a million people live in Waziristan alone, could be a simmering insurrection for Islamabad.

US Ambassador to Afghanistan Ryan Crocker said April 19 that thousands of Pakistani citizens have died from terrorist attacks executed by terror groups in such safe haven zones, and said the United States plans to press Pakistan to take action in those areas.

An unnamed Pakistani intelligence official responded to Mr Crocker's comments with concern and said the Pakistani intelligence community was not involved in the attacks. But this is not the full story. Pakistan’s ISI needs to keep a close relationship with amorphous Islamic groups like Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) in the area, which will inevitably lead to cooperation, resulting ultimately in ISI-funded attacks against ISAF troops. Pakistan cannot escape this logic unless it cuts support for the jihadist groups.

This has been the friction for US-Pakistan relations for a number of years as both feel the other is playing a double game. Islamabad fears the US-India relationship, but Washington needs to balance the coming Pakistani influence in Afghanistan with another strong country.

India is the obvious choice. American UAV bases in Pakistan air fields and their strikes are only the most visible diplomatic fighting ground, and they do have immediate repercussions, but the real battle is for who gets what when the US coalition decides they have had enough of the Afghan war.

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