I HAD originally planned to write about the Democrats’ National Convention. As part of the national security presentation, I had expected to hear some confirmation that President Obama, if re-elected, would maintain a residual military presence in Afghanistan for an extended period after the bulk of the US and all other Nato forces had been withdrawn in 2014.
One only heard, however, that President Obama had, as promised, ended the war in Iraq and was on course to do likewise in Afghanistan. His exact words were “We’ve blunted the Taliban’s momentum in Afghanistan and in 2014 our longest war will be over … Al Qaeda is on the path to defeat and Osama bin Laden is dead”. No mention was made of the envisaged post-2014 arrangement.
This does not necessarily mean that the plan for a residual presence has been dropped. The need of the campaign was to emphasise the positive — ‘bringing the boys home’ and focusing on nation-building at home rather than in a far-off land — without mentioning a residual presence and that, absent reconciliation, the war would continue.
Many neutral analysts believe that this was the only reason for the omission. I am not entirely sure, given the insider attacks and Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s scarcely concealed distrust of the Americans, that this is a settled question. Prudence would dictate that all affected parties and particularly Pakistan take into account the situation that would arise if, following the Iraq example, a re-elected Obama decides to withdraw the American military presence lock, stock and barrel in 2014.
One question that does appear settled, however, is that national security and Afghanistan are not going to be more than minor blips in the remaining two months of campaigning. It is developments outside the campaign that one will have to watch.
The most important development in that context has been the announcement on Friday that, in response to the congressional demand, Secretary Hillary Clinton agreed that the Haqqani network was a terrorist organisation and started the process for designating it as such.
The designation was not entirely unexpected, given the absence of developments on the reconciliation front. This designation has the effect, according to the official announcement, of a “prohibition against knowingly providing material or resources to, or engaging in other transactions with, the Haqqani network and the freezing of all property and interests in property of the organisation that are in the United States or come within the United States or the control of US persons”.
It is important for us in Pakistan to understand what this designation means for Pakistan and, perhaps equally important, for the currently stalemated reconciliation process in Afghanistan.
The official American perspective was provided at a special briefing by anonymous but authoritative State Department officials where, in response to reporters’ questions, the following significant points were made:
— The designation gives America a stronger tool for going to other countries and asking them to take the same level of action against the group. They would talk to governments of countries where the Haqqanis have assets, and mentioned specifically in this context talks, past and continuing, with Pakistan. (While these officials denied the timing of the designation had anything to do with the talks a US treasury official had with our financial managers last week, it would be reasonable to assume that he brought up the subject of assets in Pakistan identified as belonging to the Haqqani network and asked they be frozen. Additionally, it can be assumed that the Gulf states and the financial institutions based there will also be faced with similar requests given earlier assessments that the Haqqani network had important fund-raising capabilities in the Gulf countries.)
— Over the last few weeks they have consulted with senior Pakistani military and civilian leaders, who expressed no concern about this designation. Pakistan remained committed to battling extremism in Pakistan. In the coming weeks, a series of other important bilateral senior meetings were expected both in Pakistan and the US, including in the lead-up to the UN General Assembly session.
Ambassador Sherry Rehman has been quoted in the press as saying that this designation was an internal US matter, that the Haqqani network members were not Pakistani nationals and that “this is not our business”.
Other reports suggest that President Zardari is looking forward to meeting President Obama when he is in New York for the UNGA session. These reports seem to provide corroboration for the American assertions.
— This designation is targeted specifically at the Haqqani network. It is not targeted in any way at any organ of the Pakistani government.
— There is “absolutely no effort to begin a process to designate Pakistan as a state sponsor of terrorism”. Pakistan “has been an extremely valuable ally in countering extremism and terrorism” and America is “committed to continuing and maintaining and increasing that coordination and cooperation”.
— It is a misperception to believe that there is some kind of relationship between a foreign terrorist organisation (FTO) and one that is state-sponsored. There is none. As regards a statement by then chairman, US joint chief of staff, Adm Mullen in which he described the Haqqani network as a “veritable arm of the ISI”, the focus should have been on the second part of his statement, which called for continued engagement and continued efforts and this is what the administration was doing.
— It is not anticipated that this designation will have any impact on reconciliation efforts. These will continue in an “unabashed” manner. The legislation does not prohibit meetings or dialogue with members of a designated FTO, so it does not prohibit talking with one at some future date.
For Pakistanis it may be reassuring to learn that our leadership has not opposed the designation and that no deleterious consequences for the chequered US-Pakistan relationship will follow. But there can be no doubt that this step will make reconciliation talks more difficult not only with the Haqqanis but even with the Afghan Taliban. The Taliban website has apparently condemned the American action, calling it “inhumane and criminal” by a “deceitful America”.
Equally important, if Pakistan’s efforts to promote reconciliation by such means as offering safe passage to Taliban negotiators and discreet persuasion of such of the Taliban leadership as is within reach do not succeed, congressional demands for action against Pakistan will increase.
In such an eventuality, I fear that despite what the administration officials have said now, and despite knowing how ugly the consequences could be, a beleaguered administration may well accept congressional demands. Pakistan’s difficulties have been compounded.
The writer is a former foreign secretary.