America’s whipping boy

Updated 15 May 2016


The writer is a former Pakistan ambassador to the UN.
The writer is a former Pakistan ambassador to the UN.

THE kings of yore often kept a whipping boy who could be used to vent their frustrations on and be blamed for their mistakes and misfortune. Today, America appears to have adopted Pakistan as its favourite whipping boy.

Pakistan’s historically close relationship with the US is on a divergent path due to America’s growing alliance with India designed to contain China’s rising power. This process of divergence is likely to be accelerated by US pressure on Pakistan to do three things: release Shakil Afridi, the doctor recruited by the CIA to take DNA samples from Osama bin Laden’s Abbottabad hideout; take military action against the Haqqani network and refrain from deploying theatre nuclear weapons against India.

The demand for Afridi’s release may be designed to secure continued publicity for US ‘success’ in killing Bin Laden and to assure current and potential CIA spies that they will enjoy American ‘protection’. The expectation that Pakistan would override its own judicial system and overlook Afridi’s treasonous behaviour reflects the normal American arrogance. Unfortunately, there are precedents where Pakistan has allowed other traitors to exit the country. Many known foreign agents roam free in Pakistan.

In Afridi’s case, it has become difficult for Pakistan to compromise on its ‘principles’ because of public American coercion. Perhaps some gestures from Washington, such as finally offering a formal apology and adequate compensation for the ‘accidental’ killing of 29 Pakistani soldiers by US gunships in November 2011, may have enabled Afridi’s quiet extraction on ‘humanitarian’ grounds.

The American pressure to take action against the Haqqanis is a more serious issue. The network has become an important component of the Afghan Taliban after Sirajuddin Haqqani was appointed as deputy to Mullah Mansour, the new Taliban leader. President Ashraf Ghani’s declaration that he no longer wants Pakistan to bring the Afghan Taliban to the negotiating table but only to attack them is an expression of frustration and desperation. The international consensus remains that a negotiated settlement between Kabul and the Afghan Taliban remains the only road to peace in Afghanistan. Pakistan’s prime minster rightly pointed out during his last visit to Washington, that “Pakistan cannot be asked to bring the Afghan Taliban to the table and kill them at the same time”.

The design seems to be to have Pakistan fight the US and Kabul’s fight against the Haqqanis.

In any event, Pakistan’s Zarb-i-Azb operation has destroyed the infrastructure of the several militant groups which were located in North Waziristan, including the Haqqanis. Most of the group’s fighters and commanders have moved into the adjacent areas of Afghanistan. Some remnants may be holed up in the forests and valleys along the border.

The cross-border flow of fighters, whether Afghan Taliban or Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), can be restricted significantly by fences and other barriers along the Pak-Afghan border. However, Pakistan’s plan to fence the border at certain points has been vigorously opposed by the Kabul government. Nor has Kabul (or the US) been forthcoming in responding to Pakistan’s proposals to establish an effective coordination mechanism to control cross border movements.

The design seems to be to have Pakistan fight the US and Kabul’s fight against the Haqqanis, and if it does not, to blame it for their military reversals and failure to halt the Taliban’s ascendancy in Afghanistan. At the same time, Kabul at least, if not the US, wants to keep the border open, thus enabling the TTP — which is apparently sponsored and supported by Afghan and Indian intelligence — to continue its cross-border attacks in Pakistan from its safe havens in Afghanistan.

It is notable that the areas where the TTP has established safe havens were vacated by the US and Afghan forces just as Pakistan was launching its Zarb-i-Azb operation. Islamabad cannot but conclude that the US demand regarding the Haqqanis not only lacks a coherent political and military rationale, but amounts to a measure of complicity in the Indian design to destabilise Pakistan’s frontier regions.

US pressure on Pakistan to halt the deployment of tactical or theatre nuclear weapons amounts to a pre-emptive strike to prevent Islamabad’s response to India’s Cold Start doctrine which prescribes a sudden and massive attack against Pakistan.

At the recent (and final) US-sponsored nuclear security summit, President Obama admonished India and Pakistan for “moving in the wrong direction” (in their strategic programmes). Yet, the pressure for restraint is applied only against Pakistan. If the desire is to avoid a dangerous nuclear scenario, priority ought to be accorded to addressing the cause of Pakistan’s planned deployment of theatre nuclear weapons: the Indian ‘operationalisation’ of its Cold Start doctrine. Indian strike units have been moved to forward positions and equipped with the capabilities to undertake a rapidly mobilised general offensive against Pakistan.

Pakistan can display restraint on theatre nuclear weapons only if India reverses this process of operationalisation of this aggressive posture. Far from dissuading India, Washington is vying to supply it with all manner of advanced arms and technologies which will inevitably further enhance New Delhi’s capacity for military aggression against Pakistan. The US is thus attempting to prevent a crisis which it is itself helping to create.

In response to the US demarches, Pakistan should clearly outline what steps of restraint and reversal it expects India to take in order to convince Islamabad to hold back from deploying the theatre nuclear weapons. Since the US has intervened on this issue with Pakistan, it can be asked, in the absence of a Pakistan-India dialogue, to secure India’s agreement to such measures of restraint which would be reciprocated by Pakistan.

Despite America’s slings and arrows, Pakistan is obliged to avoid a confrontation with Washington. On the other hand, the US would be ill advised to continue bullying Pakistan into compromising its vital interests. In extremis, even a whipping boy can ‘turn’ on his tormentor.

The writer is a former Pakistan ambassador to the UN.

Published in Dawn, May 15th, 2016