DON’T UNDERESTIMATE THE GENERAL
This week’s high-level talks between the United States and Pakistan are being formally led on the Pakistani end by the country’s foreign minister, Shah Mehmood Qureshi. But the success of the dialogue will hinge less on whether the two countries’ civilian leaders can see eye to eye, and more on whether their military leaders can. As such, most attention will be focused on another Pakistani official: Gen. Ashfaq Kayani, the chief of Pakistan’s army.
It is hardly a secret, of course, that Pakistan watchers in and out of the U.S. government suspect that the country’s army and intelligence apparatus is not exactly on the level with its Western ally. “The bitter truth is that the current state of affairs — in which Washington indefinitely subsidizes Islamabad’s sustenance of U.S. enemies — poses far greater dangers to the United States,” Ashley Tellis, a South Asia expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, wrote this month in Foreign Policy. Meanwhile, things in Afghanistan have already gone from bad to worse, and U.S. President Barack Obama, who still believes he can gradually extricate his troops from Afghanistan, is reportedly offering Pakistan a multi-year military cooperation pact and $2 billion dollars for reinforcing the Pakistani army — not a bad investment, if it works.
f the United States does manage to negotiate a gradual drawdown in troops from Afghanistan after July next year, it will be in part because of this deal. But it also hinges on Kayani and his relationship with the top echelons of the U.S. military. The 59-year-old four-star general has been talking with his American and NATO counterparts ever since he took over the top army job from Pervez Musharraf in November 2007, voicing the usual complaints: The United States and NATO need to trust Pakistan and can’t be seen as ordering its ally around or interfering in its internal affairs. “Partnership [with the United States and NATO] doesn’t mean you say and we act,” he said in a recent briefing. “It is a bond based on consideration of mutual interests. We cannot compromise or undermine our interests by agreeing to your demands.”
Pakistan has to reconcile its long-term interests with the short-term objectives of the U.S.-led coalition forces. Afghanistan will remain fragile, Kayani believes, “until at least 70 percent of security is handled by the Afghans themselves.” And India, as ever, remains Pakistan’s top concern: The latter’s military strategy, he has said, “has to be India-centric because Indian defense doctrine is Pakistan-centric.”
There is little doubt that Kayani, who served as the head of the Inter-Services Intelligence before becoming the army chief, means business. While he acknowledges the value of good relations with the U.S. military establishment, he also keeps reminding visitors of the importance of trust and respect in collaborative efforts such as counterterrorism operations along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. He is very clear about the limitations of his own army as well as the liberty available to the coalition forces across the Durand Line. His outspoken criticism of the U.S. Marines’ “reckless actions” in South Waziristan two years ago — in which a Marine raid on the village of Angoor Adda left 20 people dead — as well as the recent 10-day closure of the strategically crucial supply route across the Pakistani border in retaliation for last month’s U.S. attack on a Pakistani military post in the Kurram tribal region bordering Afghanistan reaffirmed that Kayani’s army will not let such incidents go unchallenged.
But much of the friction, the general insists, stems from what he sees as the West’s — and the United States’ in particular — inclination to view Pakistan through the prism of India. Until that ends, and outsiders empathize with the Pakistani position on India, the Pakistani army will not change its posture toward its eastern border — and with it, the long-term strategic considerations that are affecting its cooperation on Afghanistan.
Kayani will likely repeat this message in Washington. He might also try to warn the Obama administration not to slight Pakistan on the president’s visit to India next month, as President Bill Clinton did in 2000 (Clinton spent five days in India and less than five hours in Islamabad). Skipping Pakistan will only inflame a Pakistani public already seething over the U.S. invasion of Iraq, America’s military involvement in Afghanistan, and of course what is perceived as unquestioning U.S. support for Israel to the detriment of Palestinians. Such slights always feed into the narrative that al Qaeda and its Pakistani auxiliaries love to promote: American disdain for and discrimination against Muslims.
The United States has undoubtedly been generous with its checkbook: It has set aside $400 million to help Pakistan cope with this summer’s devastating floods and has promised another $1.5 billion dollars over the next five years. This money is important — it moves things. But gestures are important, too — and an Obama visit to Islamabad on his way back from Delhi, Pakistani civilian and military officials argue, would go a long way.