When, in mid December, 2009, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen told US journalists accompanying him he “couldn’t give the Pakistani Army anything but an ‘A'” for how they’ve conducted their battle so far (in Swat and Waziristan),” there was a context to it; together with Pakistan’s Chief of Staff General Ashfaq Kayani, Mullen had spent several hours flying over 3000-3500 m high mountains and through the gorges in the Swat region.
“He planned well, and he’s been very deliberate about how much he can get done and when he can get it done,” Mullen said. “I think that’s a very realistic approach to the operations,” a CBS correspondent had quoted Mullen as saying after the tour.
So impressed was Mullen that, before leaving Islamabad, he requested Kayani to take Gen.Stanely McChrystel, the US commander in chief in Afghanistan, on the same tour so “Stanley can get a sense of how and what you need to fight in such a difficult terrain.”
McChrystel hopped over from Kabul a few days later and took a detailed aerial and ground view of the Swat’s hilly and forested topography that had served as a natural sanctuary for the terrorists of Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP).
Gen.McCrystal also left Islamabad with appreciation for Pakistan army’s counter-insurgency campaign.
“That’s a new way of fighting for the Pakistani army, and one many U.S. military analysts and officers had publicly doubted they could pull off,” Mullen had said in what many US officials and commentators had described as “unexpectedly high praise from American’s top military commander in uniform.”
For General Kayani, who had taken charge in November 2007 after General Pervez Musharraf stepped down as army chief, this was a hard-earned praise from the top man of an establishment that had been pushing Pakistan to pursue the Afghan Taliban, Mullah Omar, as well as the militant Haqqani tribe, which straddles Afghanistan and the Pakistani territory of Northern Waziristan?
For years, US and other lead western countries have been wary of Pakistan army and its intelligence affiliates such as the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) for “not doing enough against certain Afghan militants.” One of the allegations related to the nexus that, according to critics, had existed between the army and the militants.
“During our counter-terror campaign we have lost 2273 army and para military soldiers including three Generals, five brigadiers, as many as 73 senior intelligence operatives, and also faced the blow-back from Islamist militants,” Kayani told us during a briefing at his office in Rawalpindi south of Islamabad.
The Pakistan army has been conducting counter-insurgency campaigns in 11 tribal regions plus Swat since 2007, conducted some 209 major military operations, and has committed almost 150,000 of its army to this effort in the northwestern border regions.
Internal instability, spate of suicide bombings (87 in 2009 alone) and the direct adverse impact on the economy are some of the factors that Kayani listed as the blowback of Pakistan’s anti-terror cooperation with the United States.
India’s Pakistan-specific military capability (six of India’s 13 strike corps are currently deployed along the border with Pakistan), talk by Indian leaders of a “limited conflict with Pakistan under a nuclear overhang”, and its involvement with the Afghan army and intelligence institutions, he said, are some of the concern for Pakistan, the general said.
“ I explained to NATO leaders in Brussels (during a late January security conference in Brussels) that understanding Pakistan’s strategic framework would help them understand the situation in a much better way.”
Before his presentation in Brussels, Kayani had made a similar forceful case before the US secretary of defense Robert Gates at GHQ.
Kayani bluntly told Gates that “ if you care about India getting upset, care about us as well. You have to balance the concern for India with concern for our interests as well,” was the message.
Gen Kayani also pointed to the Cold Start doctrine propounded by arch-rival India and the talk of limited war with a nuclear overhang (suggested by the outgoing Indian army chief in January), saying this rhetoric and the pursuit of Cold Start doctrine do alarm Pakistani security apparatus.
“You plan on adversary’s capability and not intentions,” Kayani explained. While the capability takes years to build, intentions may change overnight and we simply cannot depend on other’s intentions.
Kayani reiterated Pakistan’s commitment to a “peaceful, stable and friendly Afghanistan. “We cannot wish for Afghanistan anything that we don’t wish for Pakistan”.
In this context he brushed aside the old allegation of Pakistan pursuing “‘a strategic depth policy in Afghanistan. “This does not imply controlling Afghanistan. If Afghanistan is peaceful, stable and friendly we have our strategic depth because our western border is secure … You’re not looking both ways – as simple as that.”
Responding to the oft-repeated demand by the US that Pakistan move against militants also in North Waziristan, Kayani said Pakistan’s operations were currently in a transitory phase. “We must consolidate our gains and fully stabilize the areas secured, lest they fall back to terrorists. Constraints of capability to absorb and operate, limited cutting edge counter-intelligence and counter-terrorism capability and limited budgetary space should be factored in,” he said in reference to the Oct.17 2009 advance of the Pakistan army into South Waziristan region, which had until then served as the den of terrorism involving Pakistani, Arab and Uzbek Islamist militants.
Gen.Kayani explained that the army had managed to block logistics of militants, restricted their spaces to operate and obstructed their movement to a great extent. We will keep squeezing space and resources on them, he said.
But, one can discern from Kayani’s arguments, his army would itself chose the scale and timing of any full-scale military campaign into north Waziristan, rather than being dictated what outsiders want. The army insists, “ Any military adventure into the tribal areas requires extreme caution and consideration for the future.” The bulk of the foreign troops will most probably be gone in a few years, so runs the argument. It would leave Pakistan on its own to fend for itself and also to co-exist with the very tribes that will be hurt when the army moves against the militants nestled among them.
Kayani has been explaining to his US and NATO interlocutors that Pakistan has to balance the US-NATO short term interests i.e. containing and eliminating the insurgency, and its own ’s long-term objectives i.e. securing the western border lands without offending the tribes that straddle this region. How can we compromise our own long-term interests for the sake of others’ short-term goals, he seems to imply.
Interestingly, within days of Admiral Mullen’s Pakistan visit, President Obama asked the Congress for an additional 700 million dollars to support Pakistan.
If approved, the Pakistan Counterinsurgency Capability Fund’ would jump to $1.2 billion in 2010 fiscal year beginning on October 1, and the money under the fund would be used to train and equip the Pakistan military to fight militants more effectively along the Afghan border.
“The 2011 budget increases US resources in support of the president’s strategy to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat Al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan. “For Pakistan, the budget also increases security assistance and funds a new signature energy project,” according to the White House document.
Pakistani generals believe the praise by Mullen and the consequent request by Obama for additional counter-insurgency funding for their country reflects a new understanding among the coalition of Pakistani concerns and constraints. They think the language and vocabulary emanating from Washington and London has changed, a pre-requisite for creating greater trust among the coalition partners, they think. Let us see what wonders does the changed vocabulary work in the coming months.