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Pak-US ties in 2012

A series of crises in 2011 set the tone for US-Pakistan interaction in 2012; these included Raymond Davis’ shooting of two Pakistanis and Bin Laden’s killing. However, it was the Salala tragedy that proved to be the final straw with Pakistan closing Nato’s supply route to Afghanistan and demanding a US apology.

The reopening of ground lines of communications (GLOCs) remained a contentious issue, overshadowing the Chicago Summit in May 2012, with media reports of Pakistani negotiators seeking a trucking-fee hike that US officials perceived as extortion.

Days after the Chicago Summit, in which President Obama snubbed President Zardari, Dr Afridi was awarded a 33-year prison sentence for participating in a CIA operation to identify Bin Laden. Within hours the Senate Appropriations Committee attached a unanimously approved provision to dock $1 million from US aid for each year of the sentence unless the doctor was freed.

This tit-for-tat behaviour aggravated anti-American sentiments in Pakistan and opinion polls showed US replacing India as the least favourite nation. The sentiment was of course mutual, with American view of Pakistan becoming increasingly negative. Yet according to American observers, bilateral intelligence cooperation – especially that of targeting Al-Qaeda and the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), – “quietly continued even as government-to-government relations worsened.” For instance, a mid-January strike that reportedly killed a senior Al-Qaeda figure was taken as evidence by analysts that Pakistanis were at some level continuing to assist in targeting terrorists.

The routes were finally re-opened in July 2012 after a watered down US apology and no resolution of the drone issue even as domestic pressure forced Pakistan to close down Shamsi air base. The issue of drone strikes and collateral damage remained an important matter for Pakistan’s public and parliament, even as the US continued the strikes without remorse throughout 2012.

The ‘nod and wink’ policy of Pakistan’s ruling elite further diminished the credibility of the civilian setup within the domestic scene.

Washington continued to pressurise Pakistan to employ force against anti-Kabul militants in North Waziristan even as the US government sought to talk with other insurgent groups. This inherent contradiction in the American approach did nothing to alleviate the ever increasing trust deficit and mutual resentment. Nor did the US pressure to impede the progress of the Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline.

Despite convergence on a negotiated settlement of the Afghan issue, differences on the means to achieve this objective remained in place with Pakistan seeking a friendly Afghan government after US forces leave – a government whose policies do not run counter to Pakistan’s security interests. This contrasted with the US-led coalition efforts toward a pro-America Afghanistan that would not eschew cooperation with India.

Through most of 2012, Pakistan and the US stuck to their key positions in military and diplomatic forums. However, there was also a thawing of sorts despite the US blame games and Pakistani conspiracy theories.

According to a US report, during his April 2012 visit to Islamabad, President Karzai requested Pakistani leaders to influence and prod the Taliban into negotiations. A week later, then prime minister Gilani issued “an unprecedented open appeal to the Afghan Taliban leadership and other militant commanders to participate in an intra-Afghan process,” apparently chaperoned by Nato powers in a bid to facilitate the 2014 Nato and US withdrawal.

In November 2012, the Karzai government presented a model for reconciliation requesting Pakistan’s assistance. Subsequently, Pakistan released more than a dozen Taliban prisoners. The Paris Conference, held as part of the intra-Afghan process, marked the first ever face-to-face talks between the Taliban and the representatives of the Afghan government, the Northern Alliance, and Hekmatyar’s Hizb-e-Islami etc.

The Obama administration has welcomed the developments; but at the same time a recent Pentagon report reflects pervasive US concerns about ‘Pakistani sanctuaries’ and its security agencies’ possible support of certain Afghan insurgent groups as a means to increase their leverage in the reconciliation process.

Yet, judging from the US’ assurance of $600 million worth of carrots in Coalition Support Fund and $200 million for Bhasha Dam, things may have moved towards more conciliatory – and familiar – tactics after Obama’s re-election. Thus, ambivalence continues to mark US-Pakistan relations today as it did yesterday.

The aforementioned developments indicate a long overdue flexibility on both sides, not a sudden change of heart. For Pakistan this may have involved agreeing to conduct joint operations and open talks with India. Pakistan did not protest the terrorist label for the Haqqani network, using it instead to pressure its leadership towards negotiations.

This, along with sharing intelligence regarding Al-Qaeda and TTP operatives, may have created space for Pakistan to get involved in the Afghan reconciliation process. Security cooperation from Pakistan may have induced US facilitation of economic and security assistance and a willingness to accommodate at least some of Pakistan’s national security interests.

Pakistan’s willingness to talk to India and cooperate over Mumbai attacks is a strong indicator that the civil-military leadership is reviewing its priorities. So are Pakistan’s efforts to build trust with Karzai’s government. Foreign Minister Hina Khar has held repeated rounds of discussions with Afghan counterparts. Pakistan has also made efforts to build bridges with Afghan politicians close to the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance.

On December 7, Gen Kayani categorically supported the Afghan peace process at a meeting of top commanders at the GHQ, confirming “a negotiated end to the war in Afghanistan” as his “top priority.” More importantly, he stated, “We are critically looking at the mistakes made in the past and trying to set the course for a better future.”

Kayani’s growing support for dialogue may be largely driven by external factors, ie a realisation that the US is intent on withdrawing troops from Afghanistan. His stance however may also be seen against the backdrop of domestic terrorist attacks, ethnic/sectarian violence, poor governance and economic instability.

To secure national interests, all states take advantage of the domestic weaknesses of non-cooperative governments. In this regard India, Pakistan and Afghanistan are no exceptions; nor is the US. The TTP’s anti-state stance, ethnic strife in Karachi and sectarianism in Balochistan and Gilgit-Baltistan, while having indigenous roots, also offer opportunities for exploitation by foreign intelligence networks.

Insurgencies and counter-insurgencies are by definition murky and amorphous and serve as a smokescreen for many a covert action. A congressional research study mentions reports of CIA’s “years long, multi-billion dollar effort to establish inside Pakistan a network of “secret friends” of the US – security officials, intelligence operatives, counterterrorism fighters, and the like, who could offer an alternative to less trustworthy army and ISI officials.”

CIA’s covert actions are aimed at destabilising Pakistan and bringing the safety of its nuclear assets into question. As such they are sure to have formed part of the Pakistani decision making equation vis-a-vis the Afghan imbroglio.

Prudence and realism are indispensable in 2013 if Pakistan is to emerge as a stable country, once the US withdraws most of its forces from Afghanistan. Such an approach will help Pakistan shift its focus from reliance on proxies to diplomacy and negotiated settlement of thorny issues.

In order to protect its interests in South Asia, the US will have to formulate a more integrated regional policy, rather than an issue-based one. Consequently, a stable and friendly nuclear Pakistan will be indispensable. The US-Pakistan roller coaster ride is likely to continue in 2013 as it is played out against the backdrop of the complex Afghan issue. A lot will also depend on the future political dispensation in Pakistan and Obama’s economic woes.

The writer is a PhD student at Leicester, UK. Email: talatfarooq11@gmail.com

Talat Farooq, "Pak-US ties in 2012," The News. 2013-01-01.