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Getting real


By Imtiaz Gul

 The Friday Times, Jan 11, 2013


Drone strikes on targets in Pakistani border territories remain highly contentious and deeply unpopular particularly among the political right and lower rungs of the security forces, which condemn these attacks as violation of Pakistani sovereignty. 

But during 2012, the CIA carried out as many as 46 strikes, compared to 72 in 2011 and 122 in 2010, according to the CRSS Security Brief 2012 and New America Foundation (NAF) assessments. 

A report commissioned by legal lobby group Reprieve in September estimated that between 474 and 881 civilians were among the 2,562 to 3,325 people killed by drones in Pakistan between June 2004 and September 2012. Various sources in Pakistan put these figures between 2,593 and 3,365 casualties in close to 300 attacks during the last four years of the Obama administration. 

At least three deadly drone strikes in the first week of January 2013 on targets in South Waziristan deliver a strong indication of the CIA's relentless hunt for Al Qaeda and its local facilitators.

In sharp contrast to the past three years or so, official protests over drones - as well as the noises by right-wing political parties - are conspicuously muffled, if not muted. Does this reflect a new realism? A collaborative spirit appears to have upstaged the source of friction not only with the United States but also with India and Afghanistan.

American lawmakers and diplomats familiar with Pakistan discern some "change of heart in Pakistan" and feel the rough patches in relations with Pakistan are over. 

Kabul is also sort of responsive and appreciative of Pakistani moves on reconciliation such as the release of Taliban prisoners and the facilitation of their overseas travel.

Unlike in the General Musharraf years, they think, the Pakistani military seems inclined to go after Al Qaeda and its Pakistani affiliates such as the TTP. The test of that visible inclination will however be discernible actions, they say. 

"We see clear signs of Pakistan's readiness to act as facilitator of the reconciliation process. We welcome it but also expect firm and demonstrable actions, including denying space to Al Qaeda and its local auxiliaries," a US senator said after his Kabul and Islamabad visits. Senators were intrigued as to why aberrations such as FATA and PATA were acceptable in the 21st century.

The Pakistani leadership, including General Musharraf and General Kayani, often shrugged off demands for a more determined hunt for terrorist networks holed up in FATA, saying these special regions demanded special modus operandi. Outsiders therefore legitimately ask how the war against terrorist and criminal networks could be won, when they have a place to hide that is practically a state within a state open to militants and criminals alike. These networks exploit these special areas to dodge the law and the security apparatus. 

One of the intrigued senators wondered why Pakistani leaders did not join hands to remove this paradox. If the people of Waziristan do not welcome or support the Haqqanis or other militant groups, he asked, why is the military reluctant to take on those who continue to jeopardize the interests of the US-led coalition as well as Pakistan? One of the questions the visitors keep asking is whether the TTP figures on the military's hit list at all. 

This also brings to fore the Pakistani leadership's inability so far to articulate its policy on vital issues such as the compulsions prohibiting it from an all-out crackdown on all shades of anti-West militants who also abhor democracy as a code of life.

Another question facing the Pakistani military is how the Haqqani Network can be a tactical ally if it shelters some of the leading TTP rogues. The TTP minces no words about its contempt for the state of Pakistan and its institutions. How can the Haqqanis be of any use for Pakistan if they continue harboring, sheltering and condoning atrocities by the TTP - one of Pakistan's avowed enemies?

This skepticism provides the context for judging the state of the Pakistan-US relations. It demands a critical scrutiny of the resumption of bilateral contacts in the context of the respective narratives that guide this wobbly relationship. 

The Washington Narrative: According to the US narrative, the US-NATO failures in Afghanistan and the difficulties they face essentially stem from an intransigent Pakistani security apparatus. Despite "billions of dollars in economic and military aid" this non-cooperative mindset has not only entailed military and political setbacks but also enforced an accelerated withdrawal plan. The release from "protective custody" of over two dozen partially high-profile Afghan Taliban leaders only confirms assertions that the Pakistani security apparatus shelters and protects Taliban leaders and it held on to these people - and continues to hold on to many others including Mulla Biradar - all these years. The release of Taliban following the trilateral understanding disproves Pakistani claims that they had nothing to do with those nestled in Quetta or Waziristan. The latest developments as well as the past experiences show that the Pakistani military remains the core of political power in Pakistan and hence the need to continue engaging with it out of tactical compulsions rather than lapping it up as a trust-worthy ally. 

Considering this narrative, Washington radiates a rare pragmatism, and is probably guided by caution that veteran diplomats and policy advisors such as ambassador Chas Freeman offer these days. In his remarks to the 27th Class of MIT's Seminar XXI at the National Press Club in Washington on September 4, 2012, Freeman said in the context of the Iraq and Afghan wars: "We are entering a novel period in our history - one in which the United States will be both fiscally constrained and also unable to call the shots in many places around the globe. Ironically, as we search abroad for monsters to destroy, we are creating them - transforming our foreign detractors into terrorists, multiplying their numbers, intensifying their militancy, and fortifying their hatred of us. Freeman probably was also pointing to the surge in the green-on-blue attacks in Afghanistan during 2012.

The Islamabad/Rawalpindi Narrative: According to the Pakistani narrative, the United States - described as the "power of the core which forestalls adverse developments through preemptive intervention" by renowned author Michael Mandelbaum - has forced Pakistan into an unwanted, atrocious war, in pursuit of its own geo-political objectives. The partnership with Washington has entailed a huge human, financial and political cost. The arrogant and self-centered USA hardly bothers about the interests and sentiments in Pakistan. The US clearly remains oblivious to the new reality that the emergence of an assertive judiciary and a broad political consensus against the military establishment has diluted the influence of the armed forces. The military itself is stretched, fighting on multiple fronts as a result of the partnership with Washington, including the CIA, which is pricking the military through its proxies and disguised informants. 

The two conflicting narratives sit at the heart of the relationship. However, if the past four months were an indicator, both nations have moved on under the burden of circumstances. Washington is "fiscally constrained", militarily stretched and devoid of public backing for large-scale aid to the Afghan nation building project.

Pakistan, on the other hand, confronts an economic meltdown, largely due to the insecurity challenges it faces on almost 40 percent of its territory. Its outstretched military is also exhausted. 

And herein lies the synergy as well as compulsion for bilateral tactical collaboration, ie help end Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan in favour of an intra-Afghan negotiated reconciliation process. This will allow the US to extricate itself from the mess that is called Afghan nation-building project. It will also deprive the TTP and the radical right in Pakistan to justify their militant campaign on both sides of the border. The only pre-requisite -military establishments in Kabul, Rawalpindi and Washington will have to stop pricking each other and reign in their proxies.

Imtiaz Gul is the executive director of the independent Centre for Research and Security Studies, and the author of the recently released book Pakistan: Before and After, published by Roli Books, India

Email: imtiaz@crss.pk