The tipping point

Last Updated 13 October 2010, 16:48 IST

The sudden accretion of tensions in the United States-Pakistan ties in the recent days raises several questions. Most certainly, they were contrived tensions and they dissipated as quickly as they gathered. It all began with a dramatic jump in the US’ drone attacks in Waziristan in the most recent weeks.

Actually, there has been a four-fold increase in September as compared to the average during the past six-month period. In a single month alone, the drones rained death and destruction 22 times — almost a daily occurrence. The deafening impact of the laser-guided Hellfire missile inspired the bewildered tribesmen and their women and children to nickname it ‘bangana’ — thunderclap.

No matter the Pakistani military’s alleged complicity in this war crime, the fact remains, as Declan Walsh of Guardian pointed out, “Pakistanis are distinctly less enthusiastic about the strikes… and debate rages, in Pakistan and abroad, about whether they ultimately quell militancy or encourage it.”

Meanwhile, the US also unilaterally extended the zone of operations in the tribal areas of Pakistan without consulting its military beforehand, contrary to past practice. To cap it all, the US mounted a series of cross-border helicopter gunship attacks on Pakistani territory and in one particular instance on Sept 30, three Pakistani soldiers were killed.

To be sure, Pakistan retaliated strongly by closing the Torkham border with Afghanistan and bringing the Nato convoys from Karachi port to a halt. Simultaneously, there has been concerted torching of Nato trucks apparently by the irate Pakistani public but, conceivably, with the acquiescence of the Pakistani authorities.

According to the US reports, as of Friday, 6,500 Nato vehicles have been stranded along the 1,500 km transshipment route from Karachi port to the Khyber Pass. The robustness of the Pakistani reaction shouldn’t have surprised the Americans. But apparently it did.

The US probably estimated that given the vulnerability of Pakistani economy, it held the upper hand and the time was opportune to rachet up pressure by demonstrating that if the Pakistani military dilly-dallied in cracking down on the militant groups, especially the Haqqani group, ensconced in north Waziristan, the US would unilaterally act and create a fait accompli.

Washington also launched a fierce ‘psywar’ with a White House report to the US Congress finger pointing at Pakistan for playing a double game and senior US officials chastising the Inter-Services Intelligence. Of course, the Wikileaks disclosures and Bob Woodward’s book ‘Obama’s Wars’ have embarrassed the US administration and made it appear wimpish — at home as well as in the region.

Dangerous strategy

To what extent the dangerous strategy to tighten the screw on the Pakistani military leadership was adopted as a policy decision by President Barack Obama personally we do not know, but it is inconceivable that at the present sensitive juncture of the war, it could have been otherwise. The intention could well have been to make the Pakistani generals crawl on their knees by the time the US-Pakistan Strategic Dialogue held its third session this year in Washington on Oct 22.

Indeed, the Obama administration is increasingly desperate to show ‘results’ in the war. November is going to be a crucial month. The Nato’s summit is due in Lisbon where the timeline for ‘Afghanising’ the war is on top of the agenda. A long-term US-Afghan strategic cooperation document is due to be concluded in November and, of course, Obama himself will be touring the region. Above all, the US congressional elections in November can impact on the fortunes of the Obama presidency itself.

However, what emerges is that the Obama administration is beating a hasty retreat from the strategy to arm-twist the Pakistani military. Beyond a matter of tactic and strategy arises a question: Is this also going to be the long-awaited ‘tipping point’ in the war?

No one other than the mild-mannered Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani seems to suggest so. He calmly told mediapersons while on a visit to the remote northwestern town of Charsadda on Tuesday that peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban cannot succeed without Islamabad’s help. He reminded the international community of the leverage Pakistan has in the process.

“Look, nothing can happen without us because we are part of the solution. We are not part of the problem.” The message rises far above the din of propaganda: Hamid Karzai can drumbeat about discussions with the Taliban “for quite some time”, et al. The US commander David Petraeus may even claim, “The prospect for reconciliation with senior Taliban leaders certainly looms out there, and there have been approaches at the very senior level that hold some promise.”

But, Gilani underscored, the road to peace runs through Islamabad. Asked about the Afghan government’s constitution of a peace council to broker an end to the war, he was dismissive and plainly disdainful. “When Karzai shares his roadmap with America and they share the road map with us, then we will be in a position to comment on it.”

The velvet glove has come off. The iron fist is out in the open. The immense investments the Pakistani military made through the long arm of the ISI during the past three decades to gain ‘strategic depth’ in Afghanistan cannot and will not be bartered away. The ball, as they say, has been tossed firmly back into Obama’s court.

(The writer is a former diplomat)

(Published 13 October 2010, 16:48 IST)

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