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Layers of deceit

September 30, 2011

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THERE is something surreal about the sense of crisis in Pakistan-US relations. Going by media reports and analyses in both countries, it would seem an American attack on the Haqqani network based in North Waziristan is imminent.

People interviewed on Pakistani TV channels, as well as chat show anchors and their guests, are belligerent while newspaper columnists throw terms like ‘national honour’ around in every second paragraph. Government officials from the prime minister downwards all echo the mantra that Pakistani sovereignty is inviolable.

This heightened bellicosity reminds me of the build-up in tension between India and Pakistan before war broke out in December 1971. I lived in Lahore then, and recall the hundreds of drivers who had plastered their cars with ‘Crush India’ stickers in a display of patriotism. When war did start and Indian aircraft appeared over the city, these same cars could be seen crossing Ravi Bridge as their gung-ho drivers hightailed it out of town.

Most Pakistanis are in deep denial about the US accusation that our government has been secretly supporting the Haqqani network. Indeed, both our foreign and interior ministers were quick to reject Adm Mullen’s charge out of hand. But how would they know? It is no secret that it is the military that calls the shots when it comes to security issues. It is also a well-known fact that the head of the ISI reports to the army chief.

Talk of ‘rogue elements’ in Pakistan’s intelligence community is misplaced: while the top leadership of the defence establishment maintains plausible deniability, it is hard to accept that it is unaware of what our spooks are up to. However, they reveal very little to their supposed civilian masters. Partly, this is because they do not trust them to keep secrets, but mostly so they can go before the world and deny any official role in clandestine operations. It is significant that in the ongoing furore over the army’s alleged links with the Haqqani network, our defence minister has been almost entirely silent. The poor man’s probably the last to be informed of anything significant.

Another layer of deniability is created by the active role allegedly played by retired military personnel in the clandestine conflict. Some of them have intelligence experience, and their close contacts with jihadis has radicalised them. But as they are no longer on the official payroll, the army can deny any knowledge or control of their actions. Journalists like the late Saleem Shahzad and Zahid Hussain have written extensively about their close links with terrorist outfits.

So what goes on at this level does not necessarily make it up the chain of command, giving both the military and political leadership ample cover. However, as recent American charges laid out in the open make clear, our allies are no longer buying glib denials from Islamabad and Rawalpindi. For instance, they claim to have proof of our official links with the militants who recently attacked the US embassy and Isaf headquarters in Kabul in the form of cellphone intercepts.

Ever since the Abbottabad raid that killed Osama bin Laden last May, American mistrust of Pakistan’s military establishment has been rising. The Obama administration is also aware that the civilian leadership in Pakistan has little role in security matters, and the man to talk to is the army chief. More and more, the language emanating from Washington is about sticks, not carrots.

As a consensus develops in the US Congress about the need to pressure Pakistan into ‘doing more’, the agreed aid is under threat. Our politicians are in a bind: although they are not responsible for the army’s apparent double-dealing, they are being forced to adopt a tough posture with the Americans because of domestic public pressure.

This popular backlash has been fuelled by the media that, predictably, has taken a knee-jerk anti-American position. And yet, judging from an online poll conducted by this newspaper, it would seem that things are not quite so black-and-white. Replying to the question ‘Is the US justified in blaming Pakistan for cross-border militancy in Afghanistan?” 53 per cent said ‘yes’, while 45 per cent disagreed. Sadly, readers of this newspaper do not represent the wider Pakistani public.The fact is that while we make tall claims about sovereignty, we fail to criticise non-Western foreigners who have been flouting it for decades. After all, the Haqqanis are Afghans who control much of North Waziristan with not a peep out of our TV studio warriors. When Imran Khan offered to negotiate with them, I do not recall him asking why these foreigners have been allowed to operate on our soil in the first place.

Similarly, Chechens, Uzbeks and Arabs of all stripes have infested other tribal areas with impunity, and in many cases, with official connivance. How many of them have valid visas to enter and live in Pakistan? So will the guardians of our sovereignty please go after them before they sound off about the sanctity of our borders?

As a Pakistani, I can see the dilemma facing our security establishment. Given their fixation about India, they can hardly denude our eastern border of troops to face the jihadi threat to our northwest. As it is, their hands are full dealing with the Pakistani Taliban and their allies, and in holding and clearing territory they have won back in certain tribal areas. To provoke a dangerous gang like the Haqqanis is to risk an even bloodier war on Pakistani soil.

Then there is the danger of Pakistani troops refusing to fight fellow-Muslim militants who claim to fight in the name of Islam.

And finally, the bottom line is that our army wants to have a powerful proxy in place when the endgame in Afghanistan begins in the near future.

While I may understand the military’s thinking, I do not necessarily agree with it. To my mind, the basic premise of India being the existential enemy is flawed. The fact is that our neighbour would be relieved if the Pakistan Army were to seriously dent the extremists because they pose a threat to India, too.

And more importantly, the Americans don’t need much of an excuse to cut off aid. Given the worsening economic crisis at home, many in the US Congress would love to turn off the tap. While our pundits and politicians talk vacuously about doing without American assistance, they might change their tune when reality bites.

irfan.husain@gmail.com