Nov 6, 2009

The charm offensive

By Arif Nizami

Hillary Clinton's recently concluded visit to Pakistan, her first as secretary of state, has been hailed as a charm offensive. But behind the fa├žade of the sweet talk the iron fist of US imperial might was plainly obvious. The astute politician that she is, Ms Clinton charmed her hosts and impressed her audiences with her candour while remaining strictly on message. In sharp contrast to Mr Zardari and Mian Nawaz Sahrif, who prefer to remain ensconced in their respective ivory towers in the name of security, she shamed her hosts by visiting and meeting all sections of Pakistani society which matter for the US.

Virtually all issues under the ambit of Pakistan-US relations came under discussion during her three-day visit, which took place at a time when the Pakistani state is seriously threatened from within by the worst kind of terrorism in its history. Wherever she went, members of Pakistan's civil society, whether journalists, TV anchorpersons or students, did not shy away from being candid and frank in their discourse. Ms Clinton tried to calm down the resentment in some quarters about the contentious language used in the Kerry Lugar Bill by admitting that better language could have been used.

She made it plain, at the same time, that if the people of Pakistan did not wish to receive $7.5 billion in the next five years as purely development assistance, it was entirely their call. However, Ms Clinton defended the contents of the Bill which purports supporting democratic institutions by espousing the principle of civilian control over the armed forces and placing restrictions on Islamabad's nuclear programme, despite the stated reservations of the Army.

It is another matter whether merely words of support for democracy by the US can save a fragile democratic system or not. It could not when Mian Shahbaz Sharif, in the twilight of the Nawaz Sharif government in 1999, managed to extract from the Clinton administration a supportive statement for democracy and against extra-constitutional change. Within the next two months, Musharraf ousted Nawaz.

This does not mean that the present government is under an imminent threat from the Army, or that its chief, Gen Ashfaq Pervez Kayani, is planning something against the government a la Musharraf. But by all accounts, relations between Mr Zardari and the military top brass, if not actually strained, are not running smooth. The ISPR press release expressing reservations of the corps commanders on the Kerry Lugar Bill was only one manifestation of that.

The military and the ISI's reservations about our ambassador in Washington, Mr Hussain Haqqani, are no secret. He is credited or discredited for the unusually cosy relations between the US administration and Mr Zardari. Even the controversial clauses of the Kerry Lugar Bill are on his watch. The ISI is not happy with him, as it perceives that he orchestrated the negative campaign against the agency in the US media.

Whatever the truth behind allegations against the maverick Haqqani, he seems to be a successful ambassador who is serving his boss well. And Mr Zardari is not quite about to sack him, despite rumours to the contrary.

In this context battle lines in Islamabad are quite clearly drawn and that made the timing of Ms Clinton's visit even more ominous. It is quite obvious that the ruling PPP led coalition has put all its eggs in the US basket. The body language and the effusive speeches made at the head-of-state-level banquet by President Zardari for the US secretary of state said it all.

Ms Clinton called on the Sharif brothers as well, but stopped short of visiting them at their Raiwind estate. Nawaz Sharif has had a good rapport with the Clintons since he dashed to Washington on July 4, 1999, and met President Bill Clinton to provide a fig leaf to the Pakistani Army to withdraw from the Kargil heights. Later on Clinton, intervened with Musharraf to spare Nawaz Sharif's life, by persuading the strongman to send him to exile in Saudi Arabia.

Despite some of the reports in the media, Nawaz seemed quite amenable with the US goals in the meeting. Leader of the opposition Chaudhry Nisar's subdued praise for Ms Clinton in the meeting with parliamentarians the next day further buttressed this impression.

Nevertheless, the PML-N by all accounts is perceived by the US as tilting towards the Islamist parties, and hence not trustworthy. Although Mian Nawaz Sharif's views on relations with India and civilian control over the armed forces in essence do not differ from those of the present PPP lot, he sees his vote bank closer to the more conservative sections of the society, most of them, although not necessarily pro-Taliban, certainly against the US. This stance of hunting with the hounds and running with the hares seem to be working for the PML-N, as is evident from a recent IRI poll which gives Nawaz and his policies a clear edge over Mr Zardari.

The much-hyped meeting between Mr Zardari and Mian Nawaz Sharif just a few days before Ms Clinton arrived in Islamabad was the subject of much speculation in the media. According to one account it was the recent luncheon meeting with Mian Nawaz and Shahbaz in which the chairman of the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Sen John Kerry, persuaded the PML-N supremo to accept Mr Zardari's invitation.

Although nothing was decided at the meeting, it did convey a strong message. Despite their obvious differences on most issues and the trust deficit between the two, thanks to Mr Zardari's reneging on his commitments, Mian Nawaz Sharif is not going to lend his support to rocking the system. After his uneasy relations with virtually all Army chiefs, Mian Sahib has worked with as prime minister, he seems to be firm in his belief that the Army should be kept strictly off limits from playing politics, to the extent of publicly snubbing his brother Shahbaz and leader of the opposition Chaudhry Nisar for their meeting Gen Kayani.

The most interesting leg of Ms Clinton's visit was her three-hour meeting with Gen Kayani and ISI chief Gen Shuja Pasha. While patting the brass on the back for its current operation in South Waziristan and the successfully completed Swat operation, it is stating the obvious that Ms Clinton repeated the US mantra to the Pakistan Army to "do more."

According to the Army's own account, the operation in South Waziristan should be successfully over in the next ten days. But the US wants the Army to take the operation beyond into North Waziristan to nab Al Qaeda's real leaders. Ms Clinton did not mince words that the Al Qaeda leadership was in Pakistan, and, in her meeting with journalists, clearly hinted that the military was not serious in pursuing Al Qaeda. She also underscored the oft-stated US policy that Pakistan should mend its relations with India. According to her, an India-Pakistan detente will bring phenomenal economic dividends for Pakistan.

The US wants Islamabad to revise its strategic paradigm by shifting the emphasis from its eastern borders to the western, and to no longer consider India as its enemy. The Army perceives the Taliban and Al Qaeda as a short-term problem for the US, and sees it leaving the mess behind once its strategic goals are met. Despite fighting the Taliban, at a heavy cost, it is reluctant to do the US bidding. Nor is it willing to abandon the distinction between the so-called good and bad Taliban.

Ms Clinton refused to be drawn into the subject of the US playing a mediatory role between India and Pakistan. Nor did she take note of Islamabad's perception that New Delhi is actively fomenting trouble in Balochistan. Similarly, the abetting of terrorism by the Indian intelligence apparatus on the Pakistani-Afghan border through Indian consulates and front companies did not cut much ice with her. She merely promised quiet diplomacy with India, rather than the US playing an upfront role.

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