President Barak Obama talks. Prime Minister Gilani listens. And when Gilani talks Obama nods in agreement. This was very evident when the two leaders met on the sidelines of the Nuclear Safety Summit and exchanged notes on what the Washington Post terms as the divisive issue of North Waziristan. ‘Launch a campaign in North Waziristan this spring’, Obama told his Pakistan interlocutor.
Gilani told him what his army chief had asked him to tell the Americans and that is that ops in North Waziristan is neither practically feasible nor strategically wise. The mighty American president huffed and puffed. He turned to his charming Secretary of State, who took the cue to signal the end of the mini summit side-by-side the big summit.
For close observers of United States- Pakistan relations, the April 12 meeting does not come as a surprise. For quite too long the Americans have been content playing a second fiddle to the Pakistani military leadership with all the attendant frustrations. The White House, Pentagon and the State Department have the means to force the GHQ in Rawalpindi to fall-in line. Yet they remain mute witnesses to the stunning display of one-upmanship Pakistan army chief has been staging directly or through the Zardari-Gilani civilian facade.
North Waziristan is where the Afghan centric Taliban and al Qaeda leaders have pitched their headquarters. Americans know this. Just as they knew all along that Mullah Omar’s Shura (advisory council) was sheltered near Quetta (Balochistan province in Western Pakistan bordering Iran). These leaders were allowed to go to Quetta at the fall of Kabul after 9/11, as a recent media leak aimed at stymying Islamabad in its stride revealed. Though unintentionally, the leak also nailed the lie that the United States of America was not in the know of the facilitation.
What trade off facilitated the migration is wrapped in a mystery with neither side willing to go on record. It is, however, a clear example of the Americans refusing to look beyond the immediate, always.
The Pakistani Army, which is the prime mover of men and matters in the country, has been exploiting the American weakness to the hilt. In fact, it sets the agenda. Americans follow. Right from the day the wily Gen Zia-ul-Haq donned the mantle of Cold War bull willing to enter the Soviet Glass House in Kabul.
CIA outsourced the ‘war against the reds’ to Mujahideens and basked in their reflex glory. It never had any control whatsoever over these freedom fighters, who were pitch forked from the Pakistani Madrasas to the front line to hoist the flag of American capitalism.
In fact, Zia and his men were the mid-wives for the Mujahideens literally and figuratively. It was they who had organised them and mounted the attacks. Even the arms the CIA brought all the way for the Mujahideens did not go to the Mujahideens. Zia ensured that the arms were routed through the Pakistan army or its proxies. This is one reason why ‘stingers’ later found their way to Kargil heights.
For the Americans, the Pak based ops against Soviet occupation of a country which was in a time warp what with its quaint value system and an unfathomable pride every Afghan carries lightly on his or her shoulders, was an extension of McCarthyism and the fear of Soviet ingress into the warm waters of the Middle East.
For the Zias and his successors, the motivation was different. It is of securing strategic depth beyond Pakistan’s western border. For them, an Afghan base was a launch pad for securing political, economic and military interests in Central Asia. In short oscillation between friendship and alienation is inherent in the relationship United States cultivated with Pakistan. Both the Republican and Democratic administrations glossed the divergence of perceptions and allowed Zia’s successors – civilian and military – to exploit the volatility in the friendship with vile and guile.
The art was perfected by Musharraf, the loquacious general. It is not double speak of which he is a consummate practioner, but pampering the Americans. At the height of his generosity, Guantanamo Bay had more Pakistanis and Afghans than all those put together in the Pak and Afghan jails. As a front line ally, he was generously rewarded with fighters and tanks for a war against the suicide squads of al Qaeda -Taliban combine in rugged hills of Waziristan and the lawless FATA. But when Lal Masjid happened, Americans could not prod the General. The all-weather Pakistan friend alone could nudge Musharraf into action.
So much for the clout of the Great A that is a part of the A trinity that guides the destiny of Pakistan.
General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, who succeeded Musharraf as the Army Chief on November 29, 2007 is quietly pursuing the Zia-Musharraf line. A former director of Inter-Services Intelligence, and Director General of Military Operations, he had made the mandatory visit to Pentagon and the State Department to let the Americans vet his name before his appointment was announced. But what a pay back by this ‘quiet man’ who is ranked 20th in the Times list of ‘Leaders & Revolutionaries’ of the world and the News Week list of ‘Top 50 Global Elite’.
With Kayani around, the US finds any of its pro-active moves resisted bluntly as never before. It s diplomats are no longer the blue-eyed guests; they are, in fact, shadowed; police harass them even for traffic violations. The media is used to whip up antipathy towards the Americans. Kerry-Lugar bill and the security firm, Dyncorp ended up as Kayani’s punch bags to unnerve the Americans.
A couple of more examples will suffice to rest the case. First the arrest in late January (not in February as the US is led to believe) of Taliban’s number two Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar in Karachi. The arrest scuttled the quiet talks President Karzai had initiated with a section of Taliban whom the Americans consider as good people to do business with.
It also signalled that GHQ will not countenance unilateralism. Simultaneously, Pakistan released quietly at least two senior Afghan Taliban figures ISI had captured on its own without any inkling to the American radars. Americans would have loved to have them in their custody.
As the US officials ruminate on Pakistan’s raison d’etre, it is clear that Kayani is doing a Zia as a part of deliberate strategy but with a minor difference. While Zia looked for pliable proxies in Kabul, Kayani is working on his post-US withdrawal options through the Taliban, which is, like many other Islamist outfits, is an ISI creation.
This is the reason why Kayani’s army is unwilling for an offensive in North Waziristan. The operations in South Waziristan, Bajaur, and Swat Valley last year were to teach a lesson to some Islamists who had become loose cannon balls. These ops are coming in handy now to convince the Americans of Pakistan’s good intentions.
Americans are being told to back off and be content with the on-going push (it started on March 21st when Pakistani artillery fired a barrage at the village of Arghanjo) to ‘bottle’ the Taliban insurgent groups in the Orakzai valley. ‘True to Orakzai’s name, they (Islamist insurgents) will be lost in the 700 sq mile area’, a Pakistan official was quoted as telling his American interlocutor. Orakzai literally means lost son. The new leader of Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) Maulana Toofan is believed to be sheltered in the Orakzai.
The US is worried about Toofan no doubt but its overriding concern is Jalaluddin Haqqani based in North Waziristan, along with other Afghan insurgent groups. Two Washington Post reporters Karen DeYoung and Griff Witte, who visited the restricted area on a ‘guided tour’ this past week, offer interesting insight into Pakistan army’s approach. ‘If Haqqani were so easy to catch, why haven’t the Americans, with their superior surveillance, found him so far’, Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas, Pakistani military spokesman, remarked with them. Haqqani spends at least half his time in Khost, Paktika and Paktia (Afghan provinces closest to the FATA) where his forces regularly challenge American and NATO troops.
So, after funneling for a decade hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars to Pak Army and the ISI, the US of A finds itself in a state of helplessness in tweaking the offensive to meet its goals. It is forced to keep itself at arm’s length from Pakistan operations scared by the fear of losing whatever leverage it has over Islamabad.
Also worrisome is the threat perception etched by Pakistan strategists. Antagonizing the Afghan Taliban rooted in North Waziristan would create a monster since they had entered into a ‘no attack’ agreements with Pakistan.
Obama administration has no stomach to challenge these strategists. Its goal is not smoking out Osama, Haqqani and Toofan but tryst with May 2010 withdrawal from Afghanistan. Towards that end, it is willing to play second fiddle to Pakistan constrained by the reality that the ISI-Taliban connection is active, as the Washington Post reported on April 14.
Even after so many years of working closely with ISI, the CIA operatives in Pakistan have no access to the activities of “S” directorate, which maintains ties to insurgent groups, are under wraps. All the more reason for the sole super power to pay obeisance to General Kayani and gift him with military goodies.
Latest Kayani wish is satellite telephone intercept capability. He wants it badly to end dependence on the Americans for signals intelligence. When he is not targeting Afghan Taliban and when Pakistan Taliban is an ISI gene, what will he do with the new boon? That is no concern for America.