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Millennium Post

Implications of US-Pakistan downswing

Ever since Pakistan army’s duplicitous post 9/11 u-turn of hunting with the hounds and running with the hare, while the US giving it the status of ‘frontline ally in the war against terror’, kept giving it arms and monetary aid, this writer often asked how long this flawed equation could continue. Most of the arms Pakistan received from the US were not applicable for counter-terrorism operations and got added to Pak army’s arsenal meant for use against India. It took ten years and the loss of almost 2,800 coalition casualties for the US to decide upon course-correction vis-a-vis Pak army and Inter Services Intelligence agency. The fissures following the killing of Osama bin Laden in the meticulously planned operation by US special forces on 2 May 2011, at Abbottabad, widened over the months, causing serious problems between Pakistan’s ever-powerful army and its civilian leadership.

Two recent developments marking a recorded low in the plummeting US-Pak relationship happen to be rather ironically timed coincidences. The first was the US attack killing 26 Pakistani soldiers on 26 November 2011 exactly three years after ten Pakistani terrorists attacked Mumbai and the second was US announcing a cut in aid to Pakistan almost exactly 40 years after sending its 7th Fleet into Indian waters to support Pakistan, which had provoked the third India-Pakistan War in December 1971. Pakistan waged both the 1965 and 1971 wars against India with weapons doled out to it by the US.

Ratcheting up pressure on its 'troubled strategic ally', leaders of the US negotiating panel comprising armed services committees from both parties in the House and Senate including Republican Senator John McCain agreed to freeze $700 million in US aid to Pakistan until it offers to help in the fight against improvised explosive devices (IEDs) in the region.

IEDs used by terrorists have been the cheapest and most effective weapons against US and coalition troops in Afghanistan as they struggle to fight a resurgent Taliban. Many are made using ammonium nitrate, a common fertiliser shipped across the border from Pakistan to Afghanistan. The freeze on US aid was agreed as part of a defense bill that is expected to be passed this week. 'The vast majority of the material used to make improvised explosive devices used against US forces in Afghanistan originates from two fertilizer factories inside Pakistan,' McCain said in the Senate recently.

With US $20 billion allocated for security and economic aid since 2001, much of it in the form of reimbursements for assistance in fighting militants, Pakistan has been one of the largest recipients of US foreign aid. While the cutback announced is only a small proportion of the $20 billion, it may lead to greater cuts as calls in US grow shriller to penalise Islamabad for not only failing to act against militant groups, but worst, helping them.
 
By July 2011, the strain in US-Pak relations increased after US Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen reportedly said that  Pakistan government had 'sanctioned' the kidnap, torture and murder of journalist Saleem Shahzad. Later in September, prior to his retirement, Admiral Mullen while addressing  a US Senate panel accused Pakistan’s Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) of supporting the Jalaluddin Haqqani militant network which attacked the US Embassy in Kabul.

Pakistan was reported to have subsequently arrested military officers suspected of spying for US intelligence agencies and decided to expel more than a 100 US military trainers and tighten the process of granting visas to US military personnel. That move provoked an immediate reaction of slashing US aid, already a subject of heated debate within the US administration since the killing of bin Laden. Expressing increasing frustration with Pakistan's efforts in the war against terror, US lawmakers reportedly made numerous proposals to make US aid to Pakistan conditional on more cooperation in fighting militants such as the Haqqani network, which Washington believes operate out of Pakistan and attacks US troops in Afghanistan.

In July, there were further reactions of  bluster and threat by Pakistan.

The bluster came after Washington’s announcement of suspension of $800 million worth of security aid, when Pakistan’s military spokesman Major General Athar Abbas told a foreign news agency: 'The army in the past as well as at present has conducted successful military operations using its own resources without any external support whatsoever.' Abbas referred to an extraordinary statement issued by Pak army chief General Ashfaq Kayani on 9 June as part of the bin Laden fallout which recommended that US military aid be redirected towards civilians. The suspended aid reportedly included about $300 million to reimburse Pakistan for some of the costs of deploying more than 100,000 soldiers along the Afghan border, Pakistan claims to have deployed 140,000 troops in the northwest, but to do more to crack down on militants, such as the Al-Qaeda-linked Haqqani network, who use its soil to attack within Afghanistan, the army says its troops are too over-stretched. The US also depends on Pakistan as a sea port and land corridor for moving its military supplies in convoys of trucks by road into Afghanistan, which Taliban and other terrorist groups have attacked umpteen times.

The threats came from Pakistan’s defence minister Chaudhry Ahmad Mukhtar who piped out that troops would be pulled back from nearly 1,100 check posts set up along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border as his country could not afford to keep forces deployed there following the suspension of US military assistance. Clarifying that $300 million of the suspended aid were specifically meant for troops serving in the troubled tribal region, he further claimed that the proposed US move would sabotage efforts against the Taliban and Al-Qaeda in the region and that if the raids continued there could be cross-border fighting. Referring to the controversy over Shamsi airbase, reportedly used by US drones, Mukhtar said the US, through the UAE, had been allowed the use of the airbase for ‘non-lethal weaponry, such as unarmed drones, and as a logistics support site’.

'The understanding was that the drones would fly from Shamsi base but only for surveillance… They were not supposed to be lethal and the next thing we knew they were using it for military attacks,' he was quoted. While this problem, Mukhtar said, could be resolved if the US and Pakistan came to some 'arrangement', he said American military trainers should leave the country because they were seen to be connected with Raymond Davis, a CIA contractor who was arrested earlier this year in Lahore after he shot and killed two armed Pakistani men. Responding to US’ assertion that Al-Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri was in Pakistan's tribal areas, Mukhtar said hoped that the US would not act on its own like the 2 May raid against Osama bin Laden in the garrison city of Abbottabad. 'This time round, we hope the Americans will work with the Pakistanis and share their intelligence,' he said. However, as per recent reports, Islamabad has closed the border crossings used by US Coalition forces to transfer fuel and other supplies for their troops in Afghanistan.

On 12 December 2011, a senior Pakistani military official was cited by a foreign news agency from Islamabad, stating that Pakistan will shoot down any US drone that intrudes its airspace as per new directives. According to the new Pakistani defence policy, the official was quoted: 'Any object entering into our airspace, including US drones, will be treated as hostile and be shot down.' Pakistan Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani was reported to have warned the US and NATO that any future cross-border attack would be met with a ‘detrimental response’.

'The democratic government would not allow a similar attack on the country’s sovereignty and any attempt in future will definitely meet the detrimental response,' he said.

Afghanistan and the US have frequently criticised Pakistan for not doing enough to target sanctuaries on its soil from where terrorists regularly launch attacks against NATO troops in Afghanistan. The Afghan government has also accused Pakistan of firing hundreds of rockets into Kunar over the past few months and killing at least 40 people, an allegation denied by Pakistan.

Since 2004, US drones are estimated to have carried out more than 300 attacks inside Pakistan. On 28 November Maj Gen Abbas had reiterated that no shots were fired from the two posts in Pakistan’s Mohmand Tribal Agency, that are situated 330 yards behind a mountain ridge, beyond which are Afghanistan’s Nangarhar and Kunar provinces. Pakistan does not believe NATO troops could have mistaken the posts as Taliban militant bases. 'We are not saying that this was a deliberate attack. But we are not ruling out such a possibility.'

According to retired Air Marshal Ayaz A Khan, 'Pakistan’s strong response by shutting down NATO supply routes, and resolve to reduce military, intelligence and diplomatic cooperation with the United States would result in complete break in relations between the two countries. Considering Pakistan’s economic and geo-strategic situation, this is a bold yet risky decision. Washington knows that US needs Pakistan’s cooperation to shut down Taliban safe heavens and bring militant leaders to the conference table.

Washington therefore has adopted a conciliatory posture towards Pakistan. President Obama, Secretary Hillary Clinton and Defence Secretary Leon Panetta have deeply regretted the NATO attack, but Obama has refused to apologise. White House Press Secretary Jay Carney called the Pakistan Army deaths a ‘tragedy’, reiterating that ‘the two nations should work cooperatively on our shared goals’. Washington’s soft pedaling is not enough to curtail Pakistani anger. Any hard posture by Washington will be unwise and against US interests in the region.'

Former US Chief of General Staff  General Peter Pace,  visiting India  in June 2006, had said in response to a question by this writer, that, 'US will stay the course in Afghanistan'. In view of what is transpiring in Pakistan with the dawning of 2012, US must stay on or retain an effective presence in Afghanistan.

While India has welcomed the US decision to withhold or cut military aid to Pakistan by a third, there is nothing for it to feel secure about. President Obama’s belief that the Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan has been substantially weakened and as such, a major troop withdrawal can be done, is not shared by Gen David Patraeus, former force commander in Afghanistan, now heading CIA, and some others. Exit of the bulk of US/ other coalition forces from Afghanistan will give terrorists of all hues far greater freedom of movement and action wherever they want to. Whenever that happens, India will have to be all the more guarded not only in Jammu and Kashmir and the rest of the country, but also for its reconstruction and assistance organisations in Afghanistan. New Delhi must brace up for the summer of 2012.

Anil Bhat is a defence and strategic analyst.
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