US-Pakistan ties under strain
Their aims are contradictory
With the US and NATO forces in Afghanistan now coming under increasing attack from Taliban fighters comfortably based across the border in Baluchistan and the federally administered tribal areas (FATA) of Pakistan’s Northwest Frontier Province (NWFP), the contradictions in national aims of the US on the one hand and its client state Pakistan, on the other, are coming into sharp focus. These contradictions are being extensively documented both by western writers like Adrian Levy and Catherine Scott Clark and by courageous Pakistanis like Shuja Nawaz, Ahmed Rashid and Amir Mir, who are alarmed at the looming disaster the ambitious army establishment is leading the country into.
The roots of the present US-Pakistan tensions lie in the alliance which was forged by the Reagan Administration with General Zia-ul-Haq in the 1980s, under which Zia and the ISI received virtually unlimited military and economic assistance to bleed and oust Soviet forces from Afghanistan. With no accounting or accountability the ISI used the aid thus provided to arm and train rabidly fundamentalist forces both in Afghanistan and in Pakistan. General Zia’s strategic aim was to create “a pro-Pakistan Islamic Government in Kabul to be followed by the Islamisation of Central Asia. In military parlance, this was Pakistan’s strategy to secure “strategic depth” in relation to India”.
This strategy found use when the Taliban ruled Afghanistan and Jihadis from groups like the Harkat-ul-Mujahideen and the Jaish-e-Mohammed were trained in Afghanistan, with its rulers aiding and abetting the hijackers of IC 814 in 1999. Shuja Nawaz has revealed that he was told by the then ISI Chief Lt. General Ziauddin that when the ISI approached the Taliban “President” Mullah Mohammad Rabbani in 1999, asking for 20000 to 30000 volunteers to wage Jihad in Kashmir, Rabbani smilingly said he was willing to offer even half a million Afghan Jihadis for Jihad in Kashmir to the ISI.
It was largely due to American military bungling that following the American backed takeover of Kabul by the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance in 2001, the Taliban leadership led by Mullah Omar fled to Quetta, while its military commanders like Jalaluddin Haqqani along with Osama bin Laden escaped into FATA. General Musharraf, often described by Americans as their “best bet,” then took over at his duplicitous best. While on the one hand he pretended to be a staunch ally in America’s “War on Terror,” he secretly set up an elaborate network of former ISI officers to regroup, rearm and train the Taliban on Pakistan soil.
The Pakistan army establishment was just not willing to end support for the Taliban, or groups like the Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammed, which had been cosmetically “banned” by General Musharraf.
Use of radical Islamic groups to achieve strategic objectives in Afghanistan and India remains the cornerstone of the strategic culture of the Pakistan army, irrespective of whether power is wielded by a fundamentalist like General Zia-ul-Haq, or an ostensible “moderate” like General Ashfaq Pervez Kiyani. Pakistan thus has the unique, though dubious, distinction of being the only country in the world that has attempted to use radical Islamic groups to “bleed” two superpowers in Afghanistan — the Soviet Union and now the United States.
The duplicity of Musharraf and his fellow Generals in ostensibly cooperating with the US, while providing a safe haven to the Taliban has had disastrous consequences for Afghanistan, Pakistan and the US. 28 US soldiers were killed in Afghanistan in June 2008 – the largest number in any one month since 2001. President Bush said on July 15 that the US would work with Afghanistan’s intelligence services to “get to the bottom” of allegations by President Karzai of Pakistan promoting terrorism in Afghanistan, including in an attempt to assassinate him and in the attack on the Indian Embassy in Kabul. Bush added: “There is no question, however, that some extremists are coming out of parts of Pakistan into Afghanistan.”
Echoing what President Bush had said earlier Senator Obama proclaimed: “If another attack on our homeland comes it will likely come from the same region where 9/11 was planned.” He added: “We must make it clear that if Pakistan cannot or will not act, we will take out high value terrorist targets like Bin Laden if we have them in or sights”. These warnings were personally conveyed bluntly when Admiral Mike Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, visited Pakistan.
An enraged President Karzai has repeatedly warned Pakistan of retaliatory and punitive action, calling Pakistan’s military and ISI as the “world’s biggest terrorists”. Within Pakistan, virtually the entire NWFP stand Talibanised, with barber shops, video parlours, music, cinemas and girls’ schools forcibly shut down. The Provincial Government led by the moderate Awami National Party has set “defence committees” at district level against a complete Taliban takeover. Even in provincial towns in Punjab like Bahawalpur Jihadis like Maulana Masood Azhar of the Jaish-e-Mohammed spit venom vowing Jihad against India, Israel, and United States and in Afghanistan. In early June, some 300 fighters from various Jihadi groups met secretly at a venue not far from Army Headquarters in Rawalpindi. They vowed to set aside differences and commit more fighters to Afghanistan. Toor Gul, a representative of Kashmir’s Hizb-ul- Mujahideen proclaimed that the message from the Rawalpindi meeting was that “Jihad in Kashmir is still continuing, but is not the most important one right now”. In these circumstances, American and NATO officials are saying the situation in Pakistan is “dysfunctional” with radical Islamic groups now challenging the writ of the State.
The attacks on the Indian Embassy in Kabul and on Indian nationals in Southern Afghanistan are an inevitable consequence of the Pakistan army’s determination to convert Afghanistan into a client state for “strategic depth” against India. Can this situation change soon? Tragically, the answer is ‘No”. As Ahmed Rashid notes in his classic book on the “Descent into Chaos,” on Pakistan, Afghanistan and Central Asia: “The Pakistan army has to put to rest its notion of a centralised state based solely on defence against India and an expansionist Islamist strategic military doctrine carried out at the expense of democracy. Musharraf deliberately raised the profile of Jihadi groups to make himself more useful to the United States”.
There is nothing to suggest that General Pervez Ashfaq Kiyani and the military elite have the vision, will or inclination to change the disastrous course the army has adopted for Pakistan from the days of General Zia-ul-Haq.