Has Obama fossilized US relations with Pakistan?
by Ramtanu Maitra on 03 Feb 2012 21 Comments

Washington is in a quandary over how to re-establish a functional relationship with Pakistan. The question perhaps also includes with whom would Washington start such a process: the military, or the civilian government? Since Pakistan’s internal situation is presently on hold over a three-way tussle between the Asif Ali Zardari–led civilian government, the Kayani-Pasha duo-led armed forces and a Supreme Court that continues to assert itself as an arbiter, Washington has apparently concluded that nothing can be done now.


The problem is of particular significance because the US-Pakistan relationship has never been a state-to-state matter; it has always been highly personalized. One reason for this may be that since Pakistan has not been able to establish stable democratic institutions, Washington has for decades dealt with individuals, based either in Islamabad or in Rawalpindi, and never with the state itself.


At the same time, it is worth noting what Khalid Iqbal wrote in the Jan. 24 Pakistani Spectator. In “The Receding Empire,” Iqbal said: “On the global dimension, underlying economic meltdown of America is translating into an enormous scaling down of American military capability. Expensive weapon acquisitions like F-35 have been deferred, option of changing the composition of force from all standing to a combination of standing and reserve components is being considered. Affordability appears to be main driver behind the presidential review, ‘Sustaining US Global Leadership: Priorities for 21st Century Defence,’ issued on 03 January.”


In other words, a bankrupt United States is now over-extended and its international role, which resembles that of a global policeman in parts of the world, is bound to narrow. That could be the reason why the broken US-Pakistan relationship remains fossilized. But, in all likelihood, it is not - and this is why.


Backing the Civilian Government


Reading between the lines of statements issued from Washington about Pakistan in recent days, it becomes apparent that the White House is now hoping for the survival of the Zardari government, if not outright backing it. Washington does not want the Pakistani military to take over lock, stock and barrel. Yet Washington must realize that the Pakistani military will continue to be the most powerful element in Pakistan. At least for now, Washington does not seem willing to face up to that reality.


The Obama administration hopes the military and the Pakistani Supreme Court will not topple the Zardari government, at least not until the scheduled March elections. If the government survives, and is not substantially enfeebled, the Obama administration believes it will get a chance to repair the tattered US-Pakistan relationship, and that may help put in place whatever immediate plan the White House has in mind for Afghanistan.


But, here is the caveat. In the personalized form of relationship that Washington established with Pakistan over the decades, it was almost always the case that the Pakistani Army was recognized as Pakistan’s sole official, or unofficial, spokesperson. Even after Gen. Musharraf was shown the door, the Obama administration remained only outwardly supportive of Pakistan’s civilian government; but it interacted always with the military on matters that concern Pakistan and its people. The Obama administration may justify adopting that form of relationship because of the ongoing war in Afghanistan along the Pakistani border and the presence of at least 100,000 US soldiers in Afghanistan.


But the fact remains that as far as the US relationship with Pakistan is concerned, President Obama simply took up where his predecessors left off: namely, bypassing Pakistan’s civilian government and, instead, dealing with the army and Inter Services Intelligence agency on all matters, including those that were surely beyond the military’s jurisdiction. The Pakistani Chief of Armed Services (COAS) was always more important to Washington than whoever happened to be in the prime minister’s office. Indeed, as Benazir Bhutto pointed out years before her death: civilian government in Pakistan takes office, but not power.


Conflict with Rawalpindi


This time around, however, things have become considerably more dicey. Two events in particular - the killing of the superannuated terrorist Osama bin Laden by American Special Forces next door to the prestigious Pakistani Military Academy in Abbottabad, and the killing of at least 24 Pakistani soldiers by NATO inside Pakistan along the Afghanistan-Pakistan borders last Nov. 23 - led to a seemingly irreconcilable conflict between Washington and Pakistan’s COAS and his powerful intelligence agency, the ISI. It is likely that, although highly unnerving, neither of these American actions altogether surprised Rawalpindi. But because of the change in Pakistan’s internal dynamics as a result of the rise of anti-American jihadis within the country, and even within the Pakistani military, Rawalpindi was forced to react very differently than it might otherwise have done.


That development has thrown Washington into an altogether new geometry. The COAS and the DG ISI had always smoothed over America’s often-roughshod ways with Pakistan. But these two events put Washington into a corner, and the COAS and the DG ISI have no interest in escorting it out. That doesn’t, however, mean that all the old ways of doing things have been altogether abandoned. For instance, when the Taliban was trying to open its office in Qatar, an emirate-state where the United States has an air base at Al Udeid, and Afghan President Karzai was stonewalling that move, Pakistan’s DG ISI showed up in Doha to facilitate the opening of the Taliban office. He also met with the Americans in Qatar.


In addition, a senior Pakistani official told FOX News in mid-January that Pakistan will allow US military trainers, including Special Forces teams, back into the country - perhaps as early as April or May - and resume close cooperation with the CIA in targeting militants who use the Pakistani side of the tribal belt as a safe haven and breeding ground for extremism. The trainers, who were earlier operating on Pakistani soil, were told to leave after the Nov. 26 incident in which NATO helicopters killed Pakistani soldiers. Pakistan will make clear that new stipulations will not permit covert CIA or military operations on the ground in Pakistan or unauthorized incursions into its airspace, the official told the FOX news.


Further, Pakistan will not allow CIA-operated drones to be stationed within Pakistan. “They will never be allowed back, at Shamsi or anywhere else,” the official added, referring to the base in the country's southwest from which many of the unmanned aerial vehicles were deployed until the NATO incident in November. It should be noted that Rawalpindi had all along denied that the CIA was operating drones from Shamsi, although it was an open secret in the world at large.


In declaring that no American drone will be allowed to operate from Pakistani soil, the Pakistan military has sent a message to Washington. The denial of Washington “Af-Pak” envoy Marc Grossman’s request to visit in January was another strong message. “We understand the Government of Pakistan is still working on its review of US-Pakistan relations, and we have not yet received a formal report from the government. Decisions about the level of Pakistani commitment to our military relationship are obviously theirs to make, and we respect that,” said Capt. John Kirby, a spokesman for the US Office of the Secretary of Defense, in an e-mailed statement. Apparently, during his now-aborted visit, Grossman planned to seek help from Pakistan on peace negotiations with the Taliban.


These concessions, and associated hiccups, will do little to de-fossilize the US-Pakistan relationship. The Pakistani military is deeply suspicious of Washington’s role in what is referred to as “memogate,” which involves an influence-peddling American citizen of Pakistani background, Pakistan’s former ambassador to the United States, and perhaps even Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari. The incident concerns an alleged attempt by the civilian Pakistani government, with the help of the hands-on influential American citizen of Pakistani background, to urge the Obama administration to undermine the ISI. The incident took place following the supposedly single-handed operation by Washington to kill Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad under the cover of night without the Pakistani military’s knowledge. The “memogate” findings are now under study by the Pakistan Supreme Court.


Salting Pakistani Wounds


During his Jan 24 annual State of the Union speech presented to the US Congress, President Barack Obama pointed out that his government’s successful killing of Osama bin Laden was an important success story of his administration during 2011. Citing his impressive list of national security accomplishments early in the address, Obama said: “For the first time in two decades, Osama bin Laden is not a threat to this country. Most of al-Qaeda's top lieutenants have been defeated. The Taliban's momentum has been broken, and some troops in Afghanistan have begun to come home.”


Then, coming full circle, he reiterated at the end of his speech: “One of my proudest possessions is the flag that the SEAL Team took with them on the mission to get bin Laden. On it are each of their names. Some may be Democrats. Some may be Republicans. But that doesn’t matter. All that mattered that day was the mission. No one thought about politics. No one thought about themselves.”


While US lawmakers cheered President Obama, the riled-up Pakistani military must have glowered. Rawalpindi is under pressure from the jihadis, as well as its rank-and-file, on this score and the Kayani-Pasha duo does not like to hear the US president boasting about the incident.


How sensitive is the Pakistan military about the Osama killing? One could find that out by asking the Pakistan High Commissioner to the UK, Wajid Shamsul Hassan. It is not clear why, but that gentleman did indeed tell an Indian TV channel during an interview that the Pakistan government was aware of the operation, and further stated that bin Laden’s presence in the area was known 10 days before the operation took place. Needless to say, Rawalpindi was not pleased with this revelation.


Since then, this senior envoy has made clear that he does not intend to travel back to Pakistan. He did not attend an important December conference of all Pakistani envoys in Islamabad and, now, citing ill-health, has said he cannot come to Pakistan to appear before the Abbottabad Commission set up to investigate the Osama killing.


The Clark Report


The second event, the killing of Pakistani soldiers by NATO helicopters in November, remains a point of conflict between Washington and Rawalpindi. The US review, carried out by Air Force Brig. Gen. Steven Clark, reveals that “pre-mission intelligence analysis” had indicated “possible border posts North and South of the Operation SAYAQA target areas.”


However, those border posts did not show up on the map produced Nov. 23. The planners decided not to check on those “possible border posts” by asking a Pakistani border liaison officer or investigating unilaterally, the report stated. The Clark report tiptoes carefully around the implications of that fact, saying the operation’s planners “did not identify any known border posts in the area of Operational SAYAQA.” US investigators showed no apparent curiosity about what appears to have been the deliberate exclusion of the two new border posts from the map given to the commander of the operation.


The Clark report’s account of US responses to being informed by Pakistani officials that their bases were under attack does nothing to allay Pakistani suspicions about the claim that the attack was unintentional. Clark suggested that there was “confusion” about where the attack was taking place, but there was only one place where US forces were firing at positions inside Pakistan that night, and the International Security Assistance Forces Regional Command East’s border confliction cell could have easily identified that place quickly enough with one or two calls.


Pakistan categorically rejected this review, and has said that holding Pakistan partially responsible for the incident is “unjustified and unacceptable.” Pakistan army officials said that during the incident, Pakistani troops were firing at suspected militants and “at no stage” fired on or in the direction of NATO forces. Pakistan's military called the NATO attack unprovoked and said that the fundamental cause of the incident was the failure of the coalition “to share its near-border operation with Pakistan at any level.”


Moreover, Rawalpindi was particularly angered by the fact that President Obama, who expressed sympathy for the families of the victims, has refused to apologize to Islamabad for what the Pakistan military considers an “unprovoked attack” that killed at least 24 Pakistani soldiers. It is evident that President Obama, unwilling to climb down a rung to make room for fresh dialogue with Pakistan, has chosen instead to fossilize relations with Pakistan.


The author is South Asian Analyst at Executive Intelligence Review 

User Comments Post a Comment

Back to Top