WASHINGTON, Feb 22: Three key allies in the war against terrorism — the United States, Pakistan and Afghanistan — begin a series of crucial talks in Washington on Monday to devise a common strategy for fighting terrorists.
They have a common goal — defeating terrorists — but differ on threat perceptions.
The United States remains focussed on eradicating Al Qaeda and Taliban hideouts from Afghanistan and Pakistan’s tribal areas. Pakistan too wants to uproot the extremists but is worried about the future, particularly when US troops are no more there. They fear that soon they will be forced to face a host of angry tribesmen and religious extremists without outside support.
Afghanistan too wants to get rid of the Taliban militants but doubts Pakistan’s sincerity and seems unsure if the Americans will stay long enough to help Kabul extend its rule to other parts of Afghanistan.
Like Afghanistan, Pakistan has sent a high-powered delegation, headed by Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi. The delegation includes two senior military officials, Director General ISI and Director General Military Operations.
The Pakistani delegation will focus on two major issues: the fight in Fata and the truce in Swat. On both issues, the Pakistanis have some differences with the United States, although more on Swat than Fata.
There seems to be an agreement between Pakistani and US authorities that Pakistan alone cannot defeat the militants in Fata. It needs US military support. That’s perhaps why Pakistan has never officially opposed US drone attacks inside Fata, although publicly Islamabad condemns such attacks vociferously.
On Thursday, Fox News quoted a senior US official as confirming Democratic Senator Diane Feinstein’s claim that the drones that hit targets inside Fata are flown from a base in Pakistan. Also last week, The Times of London published a Google Earth image showing three US drones at the Shamsi airbase in Balochistan as early as 2006.
But the Pakistanis have made it obvious that US ground troops should not enter Fata because such an intrusion could seriously damage the government’s image at home.
Despite these agreements, Pakistan seems to have serious concerns about the US strategy for Fata. The Pakistanis fear that once the Taliban and Al Qaeda militants are eradicated, the Americans will either quit the region or reduce their presence to the minimum, leaving Pakistan to face the consequences on its own.
Meanwhile, continued US drone strikes and Pakistani military actions in Fata would have annoyed the tribesmen to an extent that they might turn their guns against Islamabad once the Americans leave.
The Americans have assured Pakistan that they are not going to quit and that they will stay as long as it takes to stabilise Fata but given the history of US engagements abroad, the Pakistanis fear that the Americans may not be able to keep this promise.
The Pakistanis are also reluctant to believe the US assurance that India is no more an enemy and that Pakistan should move its forces away from the eastern border and to the northwestern border.
The Pakistanis say they have concrete evidence of Indian involvement in Balochistan and fear that India will also try to stir troubles in Fata once the Americans leave; particularly if continued US military operations destabilise the tribal region.
Pakistan also has serious differences with the United States over Swat. The Pakistanis feel that to bring peace to the restive region, they must engage the local militants in peace negotiations. The US opposes such talks.
Besides, the Pakistani military does not want to get sucked into a situation where it has to fight a long war with its own people. The Pakistanis also say that besides the Taliban and Al Qaeda, other ‘foreign elements’ are involved in both Fata and Swat.
They suspect that both Russia and India have already established contacts with some of the militants and are likely to exploit these contacts if the situation worsens.Pakistan also is concerned about the unprecedented increase in Indian influence and involvement in Afghanistan after the 2001 US invasion and fear that India is likely to use its presence in the country to squeeze Pakistan from both western and eastern borders.
The US administration, however, finds such concerns unfounded and is likely to use the Washington talks to convince Pakistan to get rid of its ‘India phobia’.
US special envoy for Pakistan and Afghanistan Richard Holbrooke has blamed the Pakistani military for the country’s preoccupation with India and has also questioned its sincerity to President Zardari’s commitment to fight terrorists.
The United States is likely to urge Pakistan to increase its anti-terrorism efforts, shift its focus away from India and on to Fata, to increase its cooperation with the US forces, and to address Afghanistan’s concerns.
This leaves little room for the Pakistani delegation to negotiate a favourable deal in Washington. The best it can do is to return home with more pledges of US financial assistance and continued political support for the new government.