Playing Chess with Pakistan

Jean-Luc Racine

The US raid in Pakistan on the night of 1-2 May only partly revealed the shadow war which the Americans and Pakistanis are engaged in; some of its secrets remain hidden.
Under the Bush administration, Pakistan in 2004 joined the privileged category of major non-Nato allies (MNNA), a club with fewer than 15 members, including Australia, Israel and Japan. Now, after the killing of Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad, near Pakistan’s most important military academy, there is a question mark over the real state of US-Pakistan relations. A week earlier in Abbottabad, General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, Pakistan’s chief of army staff, told a passing out parade that they had “broken the terrorists’ back.”
After Bin Laden’s assassination, Leon Panetta, head of the CIA, made it clear that Washington did not tell the Pakistani authorities about the raid in advance because “it was decided that any effort to work with the Pakistanis could jeopardise the mission. They might alert the targets.” The United States decided to conduct a military operation in a sovereign country without its permission.
For months dialogue between the countries has been fitful. The US military has been dissatisfied with their Pakistani counterparts’ apparent inability to intervene in the tribal area of North Waziristan, the region from which the Haqqani network, the descendants of the Afghan mujahideen, carry out missions against Nato troops in eastern Afghanistan.
Panetta’s statement, in conjunction with the increased tension since 2 May between the Pakistani military and the CIA, contradicts the theory that there was a covert joint operation in which the Pakistani army played their Bin Laden card -- under pressure or voluntarily -- realising it would become worthless if secret contacts were established between the United States and the Afghan Taliban.
Official statements from Pakistan suggest that the presence of Bin Laden, however long he had been there, was the result of a failure in the intelligence services of all the countries that had tracked him, not just of the directorate of Pakistan’s army-controlled Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). The head of the ISI, General Ahmad Shuja Pasha, expressed regret before parliament over the failure of Pakistan’s entire security network, and also blamed the provincial government and the local police. It is almost impossible to believe that an organisation as powerful as the ISI could have been unaware of the occupants of the incongruous compound building in a garrison town.
That does not necessarily mean that the CIA failed to cross-check its information with the ISI before the trail led to Abbottabad, especially to confirm that Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti, a Pakistani born in Kuwait who had been identified by a source in Guantánamo, was Bin Laden’s intermediary. On 3 May Pakistan’s president, Asif Ali Zardari, reminded readers of The Washington Post that terrorism has claimed tens of thousands of victims in Pakistan and said that “we in Pakistan take some satisfaction that our early assistance in identifying an al-Qaida courier ultimately led to this day.”
Since then, the language has changed. Some brave journalists have risked asking about the army’s version of events or saying aloud what many think silently: “If we didn’t know, we are a failed state. And if we did, we are a rogue state.” A few figures called for a rethink of Pakistan’s whole strategy, but public rhetoric, expressed by the authorities as well as political leaders and the media, quickly focused on the issue of national sovereignty and denunciations of US interference. The question of possible complicity by the army and the special services was replaced by reactions to the security failures that allowed an airborne commando unit to operate deep within Pakistan and, having accomplished its mission, to leave without losses.
In an unusual departure, the army decided to explain itself to parliament. But the direct criticisms of a few MPs -- such as Nisar Ali Khan, a member of the Pakistani Muslim League-Nawaz Wing and leader of the opposition in the National Assembly -- did not feature in the resolution passed unanimously on 13 May. This condemned the “unilateral US action” and US drone attacks in the tribal areas. Parliament reiterated, again unanimously, its “full confidence in Pakistan’s defence forces.”
The army is more preoccupied with denouncing the “campaign of calumny launched against Pakistan” than the presence of the head of al-Qaida in a military town. The ISI leader offered to resign, but the president, prime minister and parliament did not think that necessary; though he may be replaced soon, as an exception had already been made to extend his contract. The independent investigative commission that was announced has not yet been set up nor its mandate defined, which raises doubts about the extent of its powers. Some sceptics have pointed out that previous inquiries into the assassinations of former prime ministers, Liaquat Ali Khan in 1951 and Benazir Bhutto in 2007, did not produce results.
Pakistan aims to soothe “national honour” despite embarrassing questions and criticisms from abroad. Opposition leader, Nawaz Sharif of the PML-N, which governs Punjab and won 66 out of 259 seats at the general election in 2008, has called for a review of relations between Islamabad and Washington, but he also asked for future military and secret service budgets to be discussed in parliament. He pointed out that it is up to the government, not the intelligence services, to determine foreign policy. The army, whose position is delicate, intends to use Pakistan’s prevailing anti-Americanism, also found in the army, to its advantage.
US leaders have weighed their words carefully. Barack Obama spoke only of “networks” that could have helped Bin Laden, without specifying his suspicions or making accusations. He intends to oppose the Republicans, and also a number of Democrats such as Dianne Feinstein, chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, who want to cut the considerable funds to Pakistan ($20bn in the past 10 years and several billion more in the next budget).
The United State’s difficult relations with Pakistan are played out on different chessboards, both critical for its foreign policy. The US can neither break with Pakistan nor be certain of counting on it. The first chessboard is Afghanistan and Pakistan. Since the London conference in January 2010, the idea of national reconciliation launched by the Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, has been backed by the United States and its allies. The increased US military presence approved by Obama is designed to increase the pressure on the Taliban.
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said this February that the three key points of a possible negotiation with the insurgents were objectives rather than preconditions: “They must renounce violence; they must abandon their alliance with al-Qaida; and they must abide by the constitution of Afghanistan.” After the elimination of Bin Laden, she reiterated that central point: “Our message to the Taliban remains the same, but today, it may have even greater resonance. You cannot wait us out. You cannot defeat us. But you can make the choice to abandon al-Qaida and participate in a peaceful political process.”
That is the core of the strategy implemented by General David Petraeus, first in Iraq and then in Afghanistan, where he leads the Nato forces (though he is soon to take over the running of the CIA): decouple the insurgents, who pursue a national programme, from international terrorism. In theory the disappearance of al-Qaida’s emblematic leader should make that task easier. It remains to be seen whether the current tension between the United States and Pakistan will hinder the second plank of US strategy: leaning on the Pakistani services to influence the Afghan Taliban.
A 2010 study underlined the ambiguity of the links between the Taliban and their Pakistani protectors: The links are close -- ISI representatives attended council meetings of the Afghan Taliban held in Pakistan -- but also awkward for some Taliban commanders, who are tired of Islamabad’s dominance. Islamabad does not hesitate to manipulate the Taliban: 20 days after the London conference, the ISI arrested Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the Taliban’s number two, in Karachi. He had been in indirect contact with Kabul. The message was clear: Being cut out of the loop was not on, with a post-Nato Afghanistan in sight in 2014 or later.
For Pakistani strategists, the major objective is to assure Pakistan’s influence in the Afghanistan of the future. Such a scenario presumes that the Pashtuns (40% of the Afghan population) are again predominant and that relations made with the Taliban via the Haqqani network and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar (the old warlord prominent in the anti-Soviet jihad) are sufficiently solid to avoid the revival of claims for Pashtun territory in Pakistan.
Influencing the future of Afghanistan also means limiting India’s role. In cultivating links with Hamid Karzai and supporting the Tajiks of the Northern Alliance, India has been building up credits since 2002. It has set in motion economic and social development programmes with strong symbolism (such as the construction of the Afghan parliament); strategic infrastructure projects (the road to Iran and non-Pakistani access to the sea); and the training of the Afghan elite (bursaries for Afghan students at Indian universities). Visiting Kabul 10 days after Bin Laden’s death, the Indian prime minister Manmohan Singh announced an increase in the aid budget for Afghanistan (more than $1.5bn over 10 years). New Delhi has now accepted the principle of national reconciliation, he said, as long as it leads “without interference and coercion … to a stable, independent Afghanistan at peace with its neighbours.” Pakistan does not have to be mentioned for his meaning to be clear. Though this has not stopped the Indians from pursuing the dialogue they reopened recently with Pakistan.
There is a second, much larger chessboard: emerging Asia. Two priorities meet in the conjunction of the boards. The first is the fight against terrorism, which has bogged down the United States in an Afghan-Pakistani swamp. The US is trying to extricate itself with honour, and without cutting itself off from Pakistan. The concept of AfPak is no longer part of official US discourse but it remains relevant: It indicates that Pakistan seems to be part of the solution and part of the problem. This is exacerbated by the worrying situation within Pakistan. There is no guarantee that parliament and the political class will manage to impose a new strategic model on the military: less disruptive, more favourable to the expected benefits of future regional stability, and taking advantage of the geopolitical benefits of a country that is both Himalayan and maritime, between the energy poles of the Middle East and Central Asia and the emergent nations of China and India.
The second priority, critical for the United States, comes from the rise in Asia’s power, driven by economic dynamism and opening up to world commercial, financial and energy networks: the opposite of the geopolitical tensions and internal crises that affect the AfPak dimension. It is there that the future will be played out. The US needs to find compromise among contradictory interests. It must not overlook India as a counterbalance to China. But in AfPak, Pakistan remains fixated on Kashmir and concerned to keep India out of any Afghan settlement. How far can Washington go along with that? The building blocks of the negotiations slot into place without New Delhi: the Afghanistan High Council of Peace, three-way meetings between the US, Afghanistan and Pakistan, and in the future possibly a Taliban diplomatic office in the Gulf. But there will come a time when progress, if any, will have to be guaranteed by an international conference, which will require the attendance of all Afghanistan’s neighbours, including Iran, India and China.
China has been discreet since 2 May. Beijing hailed the death of Bin Laden, while unambiguously siding with Pakistan, whose contribution to the war on terror it applauded “based on its [own] national conditions.” For some Pakistani analysts, the friendship of a powerful China permits the idea of revamped foreign policy in which Pakistan frees itself from the US embrace and plays the China card -- or the Russian one. On an official visit to Moscow on 11 May, President Zardari mentioned the idea of Russian access to “warm seas,” the dream of the czars. China, the main supplier of arms to Pakistan, has economic interests in that country and in Afghanistan, as it does in Central Asia and the Middle East. China has promised Pakistan a gift of 50 advanced fighter planes, JF-17s.
On 16 May, before his departure for Beijing, Gilani received US senator John Kerry in Islamabad. Their joint declaration underlined the importance of the partners’ national interests and made clear Pakistan’s desire to “renew full cooperation with the United States.” Behind the obvious tensions, there is bilateral dialogue, while the defence secretary Robert Gates has said there is “no proof” of high-level Pakistani complicity with Bin Laden. Three days later, Marc Grossman, Obama’s representative for AfPak was in Islamabad to prepare for Clinton’s visit while the CIA’s number two, Michael Morell was mapping how future joint operations would be run with the head of the ISI.
So the great game goes on. Pakistan’s political forces may not be able to alter the parameters established by the army leadership, which may have weathered another storm, its power intact. -- translated by George Miller Jean-Luc Racine is a director of research at the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS) and teaches at the Centre d’Etudes de l’Inde et de l’Asie du Sud in the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales (EHESS); he is co-editor of Pakistan: the Contours of State and Society (Oxford University Press, Karachi, 2002). Copyright © 2011 Le Monde diplomatique -- distributed by Agence Global