Islamabad: Nobody else in the Obama administration has been mired in Pakistan for as long as defence secretary Robert Gates. So on a trip here this past week to try to soothe the country’s growing rancor toward the US, he served as a punching bag tested over a quarter century.
“Are you with us or against us?” a senior military officer demanded of Gates at Pakistan’s National Defence University on Friday. Gates, who could hardly miss that the officer was mimicking former president George W. Bush’s warning to nations harbouring militants, simply replied, “Of course we're with you.”
That was the essence of Gates’ message over two days to the Pakistanis, who are angry about the Central Intelligence Agency’s (CIA) surge in missile strikes from drone aircraft on militants in Pakistan’s tribal areas.
The trip, Gates’ first to Pakistan in three years, proved that the history of US foreign policy is full of unintended consequences.
As the No. 2 official at the CIA in the 1980s, Gates helped channel covert aid and weapons through Pakistan’s spy agency to US allies at the time: Islamic fundamentalists fighting the Russians in Afghanistan. Many of those fundamentalists regrouped as the Taliban, who gave sanctuary to Al Qaeda before the 11 September 2001 attacks and now threaten Pakistan.
In meetings on Thursday, Pakistani leaders repeatedly asked Gates to give them their own armed drones to go after the militants, not just a dozen smaller, unarmed ones that Gates announced as gifts meant to placate Pakistan and induce its cooperation.
Pakistani journalists asked Gates if the US had plans to take over Pakistan’s nuclear weapons (Gates said no) and whether the US would expand the drone strikes farther south into Baluchistan, as is under discussion. Gates did not answer.
At the same time, the Pakistani army’s chief spokesman, addressing the media at the army headquarters in Rawalpindi on Thursday, rejected Gates’ assertion that Al Qaeda had links with militant groups on Pakistan’s border. Asked why the US would have such a view, the spokesman, curtly replied, “Ask the US.”
US officials say the real reason Pakistanis distinguish between the groups is that they are reluctant to go after those that they see as a future proxy against Indian interests in Afghanistan when the Americans leave. India is Pakistan’s archrival in the region.
“Dividing these individual extremist groups into individual pockets if you will is, in my view, a mistaken way to look at the challenge we all face,” Gates said.
His final message delivered, he relaxed on the 14-hour trip home by watching Seven Days in May, the Cold War-era film about an attempted military coup in the US.
©2010/The New York Times