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Between defiance and diktat

By Imtiaz Gul

Friday Times, July 29, 2011

"We will guard our interests, come what may," says a top Pakistani general. His posture indicates the defiant mood in the General Headquarters (GHQ) in Rawalpindi.

Army chief Gen Ashfaq Kayani's response to the suspension of $800 million US military assistance to Pakistan must be seen in this context. The underlying message was that the army will not compromise on what it sees as Pakistan's interests.

Pakistan Army wants an Afghanistan that is not ruled or dominated by non-Pashtun power-brokers. It is also concerned about New Delhi's growing influence in Kabul. The biggest threat to Pakistan's interests, the GHQ fears, stems from the strengthening India-Afghanistan-US alliance on Pakistan's western borders.

The military establishment is worried about Indian trainers helping and training the Afghan army and police. Kabul had not shown too much of a response to Pakistan's offer to training Afghan military officers. Since Gen Kayani made the offer to Afghan President Hamid Karzai and his army chief Gen Bismillah Khan more than two years ago, only one Afghan officer has been sent to Pakistan.

At least seven recent militant incursions from Afghanistan into Pakistani border villages ring new alarm bells in Rawalpindi.

Then, the American Federal Bureau of Investigation arrested Dr Ghulam Nabi Fai, the chairman of the Kashmir American Council, on charges of using ISI funds to influence American opinion in favour of the Kashmiri cause - as espoused by Pakistan and the pro-Pakistan Kashmiris.

This, military officials argue, was the American response to Pakistani expression of defiance in the face of weeks of hostile rhetoric by various American leaders including the new CIA chief Gen David Petraeus, since the May 2 raid on the Osama bin Laden compound in Abbottabad.

Fai has lived in the United States for decades and is most probably well aware of how the American system works. Most across the world also know that Fai and several other Kashmiris settled in the Americas and Europe do maintain good relations with the Pakistani military establishment, which also remains fixated on Kashmir's centrality to relations with India and the water that flows into Pakistan from the Himalayan region.

Clearly, the American establishment has been uncomfortable with their Pakistani counterparts and often calls Islamabad an "unreliable and reluctant partner in the counter-terror war". It wants unquestioned compliance from Pakistan.

That is why the US chose to hit back, touching Pakistan's raw nerve - its Kashmir policy. And this is how the military's refusal to comply fully with the American demands (especially regarding the Haqqani network) was responded to with a crackdown on Dr Fai's network in the United States.

In Pakistan last week, half a dozen American diplomats were turned back from Peshawar. There is little doubt both the establishments are caught up in a turf war - both driven by their own so-called national interests and agendas. Despite the ISI chief's Washington visit and the agreement to issue visas to about 87 CIA staff for deployment in Pakistan, the turf wars continue. The primary source of this acrimony is bilateral mistrust that doesn't let the two sides find common grounds.

Instructive in this context is the latest statement from Admiral Mike Mullen, the chairman of Joint Chiefs of Staff. Speaking at his last press briefing (July 25) at the National Press Club's Foreign Press Center before he retires this fall, Mullen conceded that "military ties between Pakistan and the US are going through a rocky phase, but part and parcel of the decision was not to impede, in any way, aid to the civilian side specifically."

Mullen also spoke of a recalibration of relations as the immediate challenge. "We need to work through the details of how this (recalibration) is going to happen."

Based on the course of developments and considering the US desperation in Afghanistan, it looks like the push-and-pull between the American and Pakistani security establishments will dominate the political landscape of the region in the months to come.

The Obama administration is pulled by the domestic compulsions (a hostile Congress and the pressure to cut the budget deficit, which also means drawing down over 30,000 troops from Afghanistan by September next year). The Pakistani establishment is pushed by growing resentment among the conflict-fatigued lower ranks who are questioning the rationale of cooperation in a venture that has hurt Pakistan more than any other country but has only brought it scorn and mistrust.

The deadly attacks by the Norwegian Anders Breivik and his views on Pakistan add insult to injury. As American pressure on Pakistan continues, the resolve of the embattled Pakistani army is likely to stiffen, leaving little space for the much-needed security and foreign policy review. 

The writer heads the Centre for Research and Security Studies, Islamabad

Email: imtiaz@crss.pk