ntil recently, the US-Pak “strategic” relationship had been “tactically” shrouded in many “engagement” ambiguities for each other’s sake. Air corridors for US planes; national customs exemptions and highway routes for NATO containers; Drone takeoffs, landings and targets; airbases; trainer boots on ground; CIA footprint, joint operations, diplomatic immunities, visas for various categories of US Aid and Intel personnel. Even the rules for reimbursement of expenses from Coalition War Funds were not subject to too much haggling. On the political side, both partners had only agreed that Al-Qaeda was the common enemy. But there was never any formal agreement on the exact status of the Haqqani Network or Mullah Umar’s Shura, with the US openly targeting them and Pakistan discreetly protecting them. Pakistan also obsessed about the Pakistani Taliban while the US remained indifferent to them. The Pakistanis visibly balked at the prospect of any significant future Indian role in Afghanistan while the Americans secretly approved of it.
But after OBL’s capture by the US from the Abbotabad armpit of the Pakistan Army, all that is in the past. Both America and the people/media/ opposition parties in Pakistan want the Pakistani military and civilian government to come clean about the their rules of engagement. Ambiguity is the problem, not the solution any more. Worse, the problem is accentuated by the fact that the US wants to enhance the relationship while Pakistanis seek to diminish it. Thus the Pakistani military’s chickens have come home to roost: damned if it comes clean for Pakistanis and damned if it doesn’t for America. So it has chosen to hide behind the skirts of a besieged and discredited civilian government and a parliament that is all sound and fury signifying nothing. Will this doublespeak and subterfuge succeed in avoiding the movement of reckoning at home and abroad? No, we don’t think so.
Nawaz Sharif and the independent media are making three unprecedented demands. First, they want an independent inquiry commission to quickly determine what happened on May 2 and fix responsibility for the fiasco. Second, they want to overturn the national security paradigm of India-centrism on which the military’s political supremacy over the civilians and economic stranglehold over the national budget is based. Third, they want to ban drone flights over Pakistani airspace, failing which they insist on blocking NATO supply routes to Afghanistan.
The American position was articulated by Senator John Kerry after he visited Pakistan last week and stared his Pakistani interlocutors in the eye: “Pakistan must take concrete, precise and measureable steps to combat terrorism… in very, very short order… [wherein] the relationship will be measured exclusively by actions and not words”. He reiterated that the US would remain at liberty to take whatever action it deemed fit to protect its national security concerns.
The only thing that Pakistanis and the US have in common is this message to the Pakistani military: come clean, lay your cards on the table, don’t dissimilate. Unfortunately, Pakistanis want an end to the transactional relationship between the Pakistani military and the US while the US wants an enhancement of its tactical partnership with it. The military is trying to leverage the Zardari government against the opposition and clutching at China in place of the USA. But this wont work.
What might work is something altogether different. That is a strategy to get the USA out of Afghanistan in the interests of the people of Afghanistan and the region instead of one designed to bog it down for the dubious rental purposes of the Pakistan military. Instead of protecting Pakistani assets like Haqqani and Mulla Umar, it is time to loosen up on them so that they are amenable to sitting at the table in Kabul and sharing power with the other Pashtun and Non-Pashtun stakeholders. Instead of squabbling over the sovereignty issue vis a vis American Drones, it is time to take it head on vis a vis Alqaeda and the Afghan Taliban who have “occupied” Waziristan. Instead of worrying about American boots-on-ground in Baluchistan or Waziristan, it is time to put Pakistani boots-on-ground there. Instead of continuing to manufacture an anti-American mindset among the Pakistani public for leveraging with America, it is time to take the Pakistani people, media and opposition into confidence about the necessity to wage our war, not their war, against the terrorists. Instead of constantly asking a weak civilian government to take “ownership” of a deeply flawed national security policy, it is time to own up to it and share the burden of changing it with the civilian leadership of the country.
If this is a tall order, the alternative is worse. First, the military’s shine is wearing thin in the eyes of the people. Second, any confrontation with the USA would definitely precipitate dangerous consequences for the state and people of Pakistan. Nor is the slogan of spurning the US by becoming self-reliant overnight a sustainable substitute for urgent security-paradigm change. Forget about the “old enemy” India. Pakistan is more distrusted and disliked today by its friends and allies than at any time in its history. Can any nation be at peace with itself when it is at war with the rest of the world?