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The Pasha-Panetta puzzle

April 14, 2011

ISI chief Ahmed Shuja Pasha, fresh off obtaining his second one-year extension, went to Washington for a meeting with his CIA counterpart Leon Panetta making demands that are completely unobtainable. Leaks to the media, as the Pasha-Panetta talks got underway, indicate that the Pakistan Army wants a complete halt to drone strikes in the tribal areas and the removal of all CIA agents currently roaming the country.

On the face of it, both demands are the right ones to make. Drone attacks, while being promoted by the US government (always through anonymous sources since the Americans do not officially confirm that it is using drones) as the most effective way to kill militants, is effective only in the sense that is risk-free for the country using them. Unmanned drones ensures that no American lives are lost in the hunt for militants; the lives of Pakistani civilians do not factor into the equation. Equally, no Pakistani patriot likes the idea of trigger-happy spooks traipsing around, bound by no law.

Let’s get real though. Making demands is one thing. Expecting those demands to be fulfilled is quite another. The alliance between the US and Pakistan is often called a “transactional relationship.” The US pays for what it wants and we give it to them, holding our nose and counting the cash. In such a relationship you don’t get to have your complaints heard.

Before making demands, we need leverage. Cash-strapped as we are, we cannot tell the US to keep its foreign aid and we’ll keep our sovereignty, thank you very much. The problem is we do not have any other kind of leverage either. The US has two fears about Pakistan: that the country will be taken over by terrorists or that they will get their hands on our nuclear arsenal. As much as we use the Taliban threat – and it is a very real threat, although not one that will take over the government, as panicked Westerners fear – to wring more strings-attached aid out of the US, ultimately everyone knows that it is equally in Pakistan’s interest to keep the Taliban at bay. Sure, we may use them and keep them alive to bolster our misguided policy, but the Taliban is as much a threat to the military and civilian leadership here as it is to the US. Similarly, we cannot bluff the Americans into agreeing to our demands by implying that we will hand over a nuke or two to the militants. Basically, it all boils down to having no leverage.

There is one negotiating tactic the military could use, although its chances for success are slim. Pakistan is a vital supply route for Nato forces in Afghanistan, one that the army could threaten to shut down if some of their concerns aren’t addressed. It would be inconvenient for the US to rely solely on Central Asian routes to supply the coalition forces so perhaps this threat could get us a minor concession or two. For that, too, the window of opportunity is narrow. If President Barack Obama follows through on his promise to begin withdrawing troops from Afghanistan next years, Pakistan’s role as a hub will diminish.

The army, for its part, knows that its complaints amount only to public posturing. We went through this whole charade with army opposition to the Kerry-Lugar Bill, where it was made clear that the army did not like being dictated to by the US. Yet it, and the country, ended up accepting the aid and the conditions attached to it and the issue is a forgotten one. As was the case then, the army’s main motive was to make its displeasure known domestically. This essentially boils down to the army trying to maintain its sense of self-pride by telling everyone that they know they have to accept American control but they certainly don’t like it. Everyone fretting about the US-Pakistan alliance should just keep that in mind and tone down the alarmism.

Nadir Hassan is a journalist based in Karachi and can be found on Twitter.

The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.