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A conflict of national interests?

By Imtiaz Gul

Friday Times, October 07, 2011

September 2011 has been as unusual for Pakistan-US relations as was the September exactly one decade ago. In 2001, the entire American empire and its people wanted revenge on Al Qaeda for the dastardly attacks on symbols of the American financial and military might. This September saw a 20-hour gunbattle in Kabul between Taliban and the Afghan forces (September 13), the assassination of former President Burhanuddin Rabbani (September 20) and a series of allegations by former US Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman Admiral Mike Mullen and Afghan President Hamid Karzai who stopped short of saying that Taliban are Pakistani puppets.

Nothing describes the context of now-retired Mullen's outrage against Pakistan (that the Haqqani group is a "veritable arm" of the ISI) better than this conclusion that former British ambassador and special envoy to Afghanistan (until 2010) Sherard Cowper-Coles draws in his book Cables from Kabul.

"The unremitting pressure of US domestic politics will still limit the American republic's ability to do the right thing abroad, in this case pressing hard and from the highest level for the political settlement in and around Afghanistan, and between Israel and all its neighbors."

For over three years, Cowper-Coles saw Afghanistan and the American handling of it from very close, before chronicling in his book an extremely insightful account of Afghanistan's descent into chaos - largely because of what he believes the American high-handed and short-sighted approach, dictated by domestic American politics.

Cowper-Coles sounds extremely critical of the way the American government and its security establishment has thrown money around, only to fuel corruption and promote misgovernance. "Sums which may seem quite small in Washington create powerful distortions, and feed much corruption, in economies as poor as Afghanistan's," he says (p. 284).

The ex-British ambassador offers a very measured realitycheck for all those who had believed that they could set Afghanistan right by cleansing it off the Taliban insurgency, realising little that the insurgents were not outsiders, nor were they short on time - unlike the short and pressing deadlines that domestic politics in the US and other NATO countries impose on combat missions overseas.

Cowper-Coles points out that "...thanks largely to the role of Congress, US aid funds are almost as much for Americans as for overseas beneficiaries. Thus, some 40 percent of American aid moneys allocated to Afghanistan are said to find their way back to the United States, in the form of consultancy and security contracts, equipment orders, and so on. That is hardly a good way to win Afghan friends and influence Pashtun people."

Weigh the umbrage flowing out of Washington against Cowper-Coles' assessments and it becomes pretty easy to understand as to why most Americans feel frustrated about the roadblocks they are hitting in Afghanistan, and their propensity to pile the entire dirt on Pakistan.

The latest UN Security Council Quarterly report also abundantly explains the US frustrations and its singular focus on Pakistan as well as on the Haqqani Network being responsible for the Afghan violence; an average of 2,108 "security incidents" each month this year (a 39 percent increase compared with the comparable period in 2010), and about a dozen suicide attacks every month.

How then do we interpret Mullen's "swan song", followed by Leon Panetta and several others? Was is it real brinkmanship arising out of genuine concerns, or a bluster to scapegoat Pakistan for failures in Afghanistan - as the US and allies feel the pinch of the protracted engagement in a seemingly endless conflict? Is it a tripodal Afghan insurgency (Mullah Omar, Hekmatyar and the Haqqanis), or just the Haqqani Network that Americans would have us believe is the only evil attacking the American and Afghan interests with ISI support? This is what Mullen, Panetta and Gen Petraeus project in their official and private conversations. If so, why do they seek talks with Mullah Omar's Taliban? Why are regional commanders of Hekmatyar being approached? Does this imply that Mullah Omar and Hekmatyar are reconcilables and the Haqqanis constitute the only major hurdle?

And the biggest question following this is the motives behind the American fixation with the Haqqanis as the singular source of violence in Afghanistan. Scapegoating Pakistan for the US-NATO failures in Afghanistan? Or does the American establishment want to sink Pakistan in deeper mess by demanding of it a full-scale military operation in North Waziristan?

Will the American leadership stop there, or move the goalposts on targets inside Pakistan?

Most of these questions are subject to speculation but ambivalence as essential part of multi-lateral diplomacy or parleys is an undeniable fact of life. International relations are never linear. Nor are they entirely black and white. This is what the national interest of each country demands. National interest dictates engagement with others.

And Pakistan's problem begins here. Led by its security establishment, Washington sings in unison. Islamabad, on the other hand, is beset to a great extent, by discord within, and therefore lacks clarity and force in enunciating its national interest. The isolation that Pakistan faces today also stems from the GHQ-rooted definition of national interest, which the civilians find extremely difficult to defend when adventures backfire (Kargil, or military coups). One lesson that the GHQ can learn from the latest spat is that if the ownership of the policy rests with the civilians they can fend off crisis; President Obama's reconciliatory remarks on 30th September, and President Zardari's article in the American media simply underscored that together the civilians and the military can enforce a review of thinking in Washington. And together, they must chart the way forward as far as the national interest is concerned. Japan most probably offers the best example of redefinition of national interest; their jingoistic generals, forced the country into a disastrous war, invited the American nuclear bombs and the B-29 bombers and that leveled Tokyo, Hiroshima and Nagasaki to ground, killed and maimed hundreds of thousands. The King then went on air, declared capitulation, asked his people to forget past and work for a new future. A few generals were tried for war crimes. And the entire nation moved on to forge the best of ties with the country that had nuke-bombed them. Japan today lives and thrives off a redefined national interest. And hence one of the most prosperous nations.

Pakistan's frictions and fracas with the US, India, and Afghanistan will keep raising head if the civilians and the military remain divided. It, therefore, needs to take cue from Germany, France and Japan, clearly define its national interest rather than pursuing questionable survival tactics. 

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

Email: imtiaz@crss.pk