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A new gambit, east of the Indus

A new gambit, east of the Indus
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First Published: Mon, Apr 18 2011. 10 24 PM IST
Updated: Mon, Apr 18 2011. 10 24 PM IST
So Pakistan now demands that the US withdraw hundreds of its intelligence operatives and special-ops trainers from its soil and stop the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) drone strikes on Al Qaeda, Taliban and affiliated terrorists. Maybe the Barack Obama administration can inform its friends in Islamabad that, when it comes to this particular fight, the US will continue to pursue its enemies wherever they may be, with or without Pakistan’s cooperation.
Relations between Washington and Islamabad, historically, have never been easy, and now they seem to have reached something of a watershed. The fault is not all one-sided. Congressional potentates have made a habit of criticizing Pakistan publicly even when it was cooperating with the US and deploying thousands of troops to fight elements of the Taliban. And promised American aid has been haltingly disbursed.
Then again, Pakistan’s behaviour hasn’t exactly been exemplary. Its spy agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), has longstanding links to terrorist groups such as Lashkar-e-Taiba and the Haqqani network. The government and military have made no move against the Quetta Shura, the operational nerve centre in Pakistan of Taliban leader Mullah Omar.
Islamabad’s cooperation has also been double-edged. The government of President Asif Ali Zardari allowed the US to increase the number of drone strikes. Yet it has made a point of complaining about them publicly, playing a particularly cheap form of politics to shore up waning popularity with a domestic constituency smart enough to see through the hypocrisy. The Pakistani army was also happy to cooperate with the US when the targets of the strikes were members of the Pakistani Taliban who had their sights set on Islamabad. But the army has been less cooperative when the targets were the Afghan Taliban based in Pakistan or the ISI’s terrorist partners.
Matters came to a head in January with Pakistan’s arrest of CIA contractor Raymond Davis, after he had shot and killed two armed pursuers. Davis, who carried an official passport, ought to have been released immediately to US custody under the terms of the Vienna Convention. The failure to release Davis was an indication of how easily cowed Pakistan’s civilian government has become in the face of an anti-US public. It also suggested a darker turn by its military and the ISI, which were infuriated that Davis was investigating the activities of the Lashkar-e-Taiba now that it has expanded operations to include terrorism in Afghanistan. Pakistan has also complained bitterly about a drone strike in North Waziristan last month that it claims killed tribal leaders meeting with the Taliban.
A more charitable explanation is that Pakistan’s military is angry the CIA is sharing less intelligence with the ISI. In this reading, the mass expulsion of US security officials is really a demand for closer cooperation, even if it’s a peculiar way of eliciting it. It’s also possible that army chief Ashfaq Parvez Kayani is trying to burnish his public image by way of an anti-US tantrum that will pass in time.
Still, if the CIA doesn’t trust the ISI, that’s because it has demonstrated repeatedly that it isn’t trustworthy. The Pakistani army has yet to reconcile itself to the idea that Afghanistan should be something other than its strategic backyard, preferably under the control of clients such as the Taliban, and it harbours paranoid illusions that India will encroach on Afghanistan to encircle it.
The civilian government has also done itself neither credit nor favour by failing to tell Pakistan’s people the truth about drone strikes, which is that they strike with pinpoint accuracy and that claims of civilian casualties are massively inflated for the benefit of Taliban propaganda. The government could also add that insofar as those drones are taking out leaders of the Pakistan Taliban, they are safeguarding its beleaguered democracy.
However Islamabad chooses to act, the US has a vital national interest in pursuing Taliban and Al Qaeda leaders in their Pakistani sanctuaries, both for the sake of the war in Afghanistan and the security of the US homeland. Pakistan can cooperate in that fight and reap the benefits of a US alliance. Or it can oppose the US and reap the consequences, including the loss of military aid, special-ops and drone incursions into frontier areas, and in particular a more robust US military alliance with India.
In the wake of 9/11, the Bush administration famously sent secretary of state Colin Powell to Islamabad to explain that the US was going to act forcefully to protect itself, and that Pakistan had to choose whose side it was on. It’s time to present it the same choice again.
The Wall Street Journal
Edited excerpts. Comments are welcome at otherviews@livemint.com
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First Published: Mon, Apr 18 2011. 10 24 PM IST
More Topics: Pakistan | ISI | CIA | Drone Strikes | Taliban |