Sep 23, 2011
Until they ‘bluff our call’
Mehreen Zahra-Malik “I eat US threats for breakfast.” Would it be so far-fetched to imagine a top Pakistani general thinking this as he sat down to breakfast Thursday morning? News had just rolled in that a US Senate committee had voted to make aid to Pakistan conditional on going after the Haqqani network. All week long, across-the-board ultimatums of unilateral action were heard from the highest sanctums of the US administration. The voice of the tiny minority in the US government still willing to sympathise with Pakistan had lowered to a mousey squeak. What was going through General Kayani’s mind in the midst of this? The prime minister, often dangerously flippant, told journalists recently, “Now, it’s time that they [United States] do more.” The quip was ironic. ‘Doing more’ is precisely what the Americans are threatening to do. Unilateral action is, after all, a form of ‘doing more.’ And there is one other thing just as expensive in international relations as threats when they fail: promises when they succeed. This time round, it seems, there’s a promise wrapped up in the threats that Pakistan has since long learnt to shrug off with a scoff. So, will a Pakistan used to American cage-rattling consider this impasse any different from the last one? The old hands – retired generals, former emissaries, jaded journalists – will all tell you the same thing: There’s a huge chasm between total breakdown and positive engagement and Pak-US ties will continue to hover somewhere over this vast murkiness. The Americans want to enlarge the operational and tactical space to pursue their strategic goals in Af-Pak and bullying Pakistan is one way to do it. They used the same approach two months ago and two years ago and in the larger strategic scheme of things they haven’t gotten very far. No need to panic. Are they right? Maybe not. In at least two respects, this stalemate is conspicuously different. One, the good cops and the bad cops are all speaking with one voice. Hilary Clinton, who has come to the rescue whenever others in the administration have sought to haul Pakistan, was severe in her advice to Hina Rabbani Khar this week: Pakistan was fast losing friends in Washington, including herself. Sources extremely close to the meeting say Clinton was particularly frustrated about the concerted Pakistani campaign to downplay the money the US has been giving it. ‘What’s the point if even the carrot means nothing anymore?’ seems to have been the take-home message. That’s one good cop down. The other good cop, Admiral Mike Mullen, who has always been uncomfortable with the State Department’s short-term stupidities and CIA’s bravado, has also joined bad cop Leon Panetta in the tongue-lashing on links between the ISI and the Haqqanis. Then there’s Gen Petraeus, known for deliberately sending his men into hot pursuit of suspected Taliban fighters as part of a broader plan to test the Pakistani reaction before intensifying the US military campaign into Waziristan. Now, everyone is speaking the language of Gen Petraeus and this is what it sounds like: you can make your sovereign decisions, and so will we. Till now, the Americans have been able to bully and pressure Pakistan into helping them meet their immediate purpose. And that’s the second factor that sets this stalemate apart: this time round, the Americans are no longer just interested in an immediate purpose. How many CIA folks are allowed into Pakistan; how many trainers get visas; how many joint aid projects and counterintelligence raids are conducted – who cares about the minutiae? Pakistan has been fatally locked into a static strategic worldview and that is what needs to change. Enough tweaking and tuning. The US wants a fundamental shift now. The Pakistan army argues that a military operation in North Waziristan is a ‘problem of ‘capability.’ The Americans increasingly see it as a ‘problem of will.’ Behind closed doors, and ever more in front of the cameras, this is the argument: if the Pakistanis have the capability to help us catch senior Al Qaeda types, why can’t they rein in the Haqqanis? It’s a fair question. But all this is not to say the Americans will go for an operation in Wazirsitan. On that one, even those most plugged in say we’ll just have to wait and watch. But what we do know is that the options for Pakistan have tremendously shrunk. If we have influence over the Taliban, we should use it to bring them to the table; if we don’t have influence over them, we need to fight them – there is no third option. We can either use our sway to reconcile them or use our power to weaken them. Take them on, or take them to the table. Not convinced we’re capable of making the right choices when we need to? The Lashkar-e-Taiba was long considered one of the most important instruments of Pakistan’s foreign policy in the region. Could anyone have predicted Pakistan would arrest Zakiur Rehman Lakhwi as the foremost mastermind of the 2008 Mumbai attacks? The idea of going after the Haqqanis occupies the same plane of unthinkability at the moment. But for how long? Right now, one can imagine the security establishment whispering into worried American ears: In the worst-case scenario, the very groups you’re most worried about now may be completely beyond our control later; the jihadists out of work after the coalition’s exit from Afghanistan will need something to keep themselves busy... So perhaps we’ll keep calling the United States’ bluff – but only until they bluff our call back.