No more business as usual

May 21, 2011

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THE US-Pakistan alliance is fraying. But there may yet be some hope. This is how Adm Mike Mullen, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, put it in his unvarnished words during a press conference on May 18 at the Pentagon:

“I think the investment, certainly that our military has made and I personally have made, has been one that has been very important in terms of working a critical relationship…. Clearly we've had challenges with respect to the long-term strategic partnership. I've gone into this with my eyes wide open. We were not trusted because we left for a significant period of time. And that trust isn't going to be re-established overnight.

“...I think we need to leverage to sustain the relationship — not just at my level or with the military, but, quite frankly, between the two countries.”

And Secretary of Defence Robert Gates spoke candidly about the need to go after Mullah Omar and the Afghan Taliban group of Jalaluddin Haqqani.

Good intentions, no doubt. But neither good intentions nor hope make good policy. Sound analysis and timely action matter. Both Adm Mullen and Secretary Gates recognised the deep sense of hurt, humiliation and anger in the Pakistani army and air force after the unimpeded US SEALs' raid deep into Pakistan to kill Osama bin Laden on May 2. And both recognised the rising anger against Pakistan in the US administration and on Capitol Hill. This is going to make it very difficult to fix things in a hurry, or to calculate the costs to Pakistan of a full-scale war against the Haqqanis and Mullah Omar and the Punjabi Taliban, at a time when its forces are overstretched in the border region.

Both countries have deep divisions within their policymaking circles. In the US, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) calls the shots on the drone attacks. The CIA is not likely to wind up its operations now after years of building up networks inside Pakistan. Even while Senator John Kerry was wrapping up his important visit to Pakistan this week to bring the relationship with Pakistan back on track, the CIA authorised yet another drone attack inside Pakistan. In the US, as in Pakistan, the worlds of intelligence and diplomacy do not intersect. Washington Journal

Last Sunday morning, while I was talking about the US-Pakistan relationship on C-span TV's , the very first caller, from Tennessee, drawled that “we should bring our boys back home and leave behind a desert”. In other words, “bomb the hell out of them!” Many in Washington listen to the hinterland's sentiments about Pakistan. As the US slips into a fresh election season, the lines will harden.

Already the mood is darkening inside the administration and frustration mounts against Pakistan's inability to see the importance of finding Al Qaeda leaders and eliminating the Afghan Taliban and the Punjabi militant groups that foment terror abroad. The voices of friends of Pakistan in these inner circles are dimming and the numbers of Pakistan experts are declining. For example, in the Department of State, the team that once surrounded the late ambassador Richard Holbrooke is thinning out. Vali Nasr has left. Alexander Evans may be going too. Soon there will be no major Pakistan political expert in the special representative's office. Secretary Hillary Clinton is still waiting to see if the strategic dialogue can be started again. It is unclear what the immediate agenda will be.

The situation inside Pakistan is equally fraught. It is a house divided today. The civilian government lives in its own world of political expediency and survival, having outsourced, among other things, the issue of militancy and terrorism to the military. The country does not appear to have a coherent foreign policy. And no foreign minister to help shape it.

Parliament presented a sorry spectacle recently of grand-standing members trying to out-shout each other and taking pot shots at the military at a time when serious debate and discussion would have helped the population understand the enormity of the tragedy that was the Abbottabad raid. Pakistan's frontiers were pierced by a huge force: two Blackhawks and three Chinooks, laden with troops. Then they left, unchallenged and undetected.

No wonder the deep hurt inside Pakistan. And no wonder the questions arose, of collusion or even pay-offs to Fifth Columnists. The parliamentary briefing provided no insight into what happened that moonless night. That only the announced four separate inquiries will provide, if their results ever see the light of day. But the cryptic response from the military has not quelled fears that Pakistan will proceed on its current course.

Meanwhile, inside the ranks, anger and questions well up about betrayal of the national trust and how to continue the fight against militancy that is threatening to rip the fabric of Pakistani society. Some of that anger is directed at the US for mixed reasons: fear and loathing, and for exposing Pakistan's weaknesses, both of leadership and military preparedness. And there are no answers as yet to the questions inside Pakistan: why did we not know where Bin Laden was? If we knew, who knew? And why were we hiding him?

As US Secretary Robert Gates put it: “I have seen no evidence at all that the senior leadership knew. In fact, I've seen some evidence to the contrary. But — and we have no evidence yet with respect to anybody else. My supposition is: Somebody knew.” Indeed. But who?

If the anger continues to rise in Pakistan among the population at large and turns on the civil and military leadership, the results will be disruptive at a time when the country needs to examine its options calmly and craft a new strategy in light of May 2. The danger is that Pakistan will yet again wish to lay the entire blame on external forces rather than focus on its internal weaknesses and demons that help create opportunities for foreign forces. It cannot be business as usual.

The writer is director, South Asia Center, at the Atlantic Council in Washington DC, and the author of Crossed Swords: Pakistan, its Army, and the Wars Within.

snawaz@acus.org