Pak-US tensions and the Afghan endgame

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Remember General Stanley McChrystal, former commander of US forces in Afghanistan? President Obama fired him a little over a year ago because his "conduct, represented in the recently published article, does not meet the standard that should be set by a commanding general."

In an interview he gave Rolling Stone magazine, General McChrystal had ridiculed the president and his men referring to them as "wimps in the White House". The general apparently had sensed that despite 30,000 troop reinforcements (the Americans prefer to call them surge, to avoid the impression of weakness associated with reinforcements) he had wanted and got, things were not going his way. Reflecting his thinking on how the war was going to end, the general's chief of operations Major General Bill Mayville had also told the magazine "it's not going to look like a win, smell like a win or taste like a win" adding that "it is going to end in an argument."

Well, the argument has started. A few days ago, the retiring Chairman Joint Chief of Staff Adm Mike Mullen fired the opening salvo calling the Haqqani network, said to be ensconced in North Waziristan, "a veritable arm of Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence agency." Soon afterwards, administration officials, senators, and congressmen joined the verbal assault on Pakistan, accusing the ISI of colluding with the Haqqani network, suspected of carrying out the September 13 attack near the US' Kabul embassy; a truck bomb at a south Kabul Nato outpost, which left at least five people dead and 77 coalition soldiers wounded - one of the highest tolls for foreign troops in a single strike; and some other deadly attacks in the Afghan capital. A bill introduced in the House of Representatives the other day calls for an aid cut off. For the first time since it became a partner in the US war in Afghanistan, which has surreptitiously shifted to this country, Islamabad stood up to Washington, refusing to accept any part of the blame. The corps commanders held a special meeting resolving to deal with any eventuality; the Prime Minister has scheduled an All-Parties Conference (APC) for today, ie Thursday, while diplomatic activity is on to rally friends' support.

The US has accused our intelligence agency and indirectly the military establishment of using Afghan fighters to undermine its campaign, even targeting its embassy, in Afghanistan. Which is a grave allegation. Pakistan makes no secret of having contacts with the Haqqanis from the time of the US first, albeit proxy, war in Afghanistan. But it is hard to believe that the ISI could have instigated attacks on American targets. Even if it wanted to, it would not be so nave to assume that the Americans would never find out the link and react in ways that could deeply damage the country.

The Haqqanis, no doubt, are a powerful faction of the Afghan Taliban, believed to have a significant presence in Kabul. AS Pak-US tensions aggravated, they issued a statement saying that they were operating from Afghanistan, not Pakistan. That could be seen as an alibi to deflect coercive pressure from Pakistan. But those familiar with on-the-ground situation in North Waziristan say that the Haqqanis did camp in the area previously, not now. Only their families are there. Which seems plausible in view of the fact that the Taliban are in control of much of Afghanistan. It would make sense, therefore, for them to set up their 'command and control centre' there rather than in North Waziristan.

A New York Times report notes that Mullen's remarks "were part of a deliberate effort by American officials to ratchet up pressure on Pakistan" and the reason was to "perhaps to pave the way for more American drone strikes or even cross-border raids into Pakistan to rout out the insurgents from their havens." The reason, though, is not very convincing. For, nothing prevents the US from carrying out drone strikes inside our territory. In fact, just this past Tuesday, missiles fired from a drone hit a house in South Waziristan, killing three persons and injuring four others. As for the much-talked about option of cross-border raids, Pakistan draws a red line there. Besides, if the American forces have failed to defeat the Afghan fighters in the main theatre of war, there is little they can achieve by pursuing them in this country, especially when it entails crossing a pretty hot red line, too.

The real reasons seem to be related to the endgame. For quite some time the US has been negotiating with the Taliban, at one point even with Haqqani representatives, to arrive at a face-saving exit, and also to retain presence in the post-war Afghanistan in the form of military bases. It wants Pakistan to force Taliban groups such as the Haqqanis to attain a favourable outcome. Yet Washington has been bypassing Pakistan in conducting its own negotiations with other Taliban groups, probably because it also seeks a bigger role for India - something unacceptable to Pakistan. There is a clear divergence of interests. Both sides having tested one another's resolve, the present crisis situation is likely to ease off in the days to come, though it may not be business as usual until at least Afghanistan is resolved. Already both sides have softened their rhetoric and are moving towards de-escalation of tensions. The US still needs Pakistan to settle Afghanistan.

The other reason, of course, is an attempt to make the war's end look like a win, which it is not. The US has lost the war. The current year has proved to be its worst in terms of casualties since the fighting started almost a decade ago. The American people are tired of the war, and want the boys back home as soon as possible. The final withdrawal is scheduled for 2014, which is not far off. Meanwhile the war bill is inflating, the economy deflating, and presidential election approaching fast. President Obama had called the fighting in Afghanistan "a war of necessity" and the earlier one in Iraq "a war of choice". He must win the war of necessity. More important, the superpower can ill-afford to be seen losing its longest war in what a senior American official had described a while ago, as a "13th century country." So it must try and create some semblance of a win. Littler wonder then administration officials, top to bottom, have taken issue with Pakistan laying the blame for their difficulties at our door.


Courtesy: Business Recorder

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