Two Sides of a Prism

November, 2011
By Sahiba Trivedi

Presently, US-Pakistan relations are at an extremely crucial juncture. There are conflicting views amongst analysts about whether or not Pakistan has been pushed into a corner by the US over the issue of support to terrorists. There are theories about whether the Pakistan-US alliance would last till the end of the war in Afghanistan and questions about what Pakistan would ask for in return for getting Taliban to the negotiating table. 

Pakistan’s relations with the US have been deteriorating since the beginning of the year. The Americans have become more demanding and at times, even aggressive in their dealings with the Pakistani establishment. Pakistan, in turn, has attempted to ally more closely with China, even though there is a realization at the higher levels of the establishment that China is not interested in supplanting US as Pakistan’s primary aid-provider. Pakistan is also uneasy with Afghanistan’s growing closeness to India as this means undermining of Pakistani influence in Afghanistan. Internally, the country is battling severe economic problems; rampant corruption in government departments like Pakistan International Airlines and Pakistan Railways; and rising ethnic and sectarian tensions. The most severe blow has come in the form of insurgency, with some sections of jihadists turning on the hand that had fed them until now. The present civilian government has not shown itself capable of making independent decisions and the military is still in charge.

The current US-Pakistan relationship vis-à-vis the war in Afghanistan can be looked at from two distinct angles – one where the US is largely dependent on Pakistan for the outcome of a war that is difficult to finish and two, where Pakistan is not as much in control of the situation as is popularly held and is actually more dependent on the US to handle the situation. 

The first angle is that as far as Afghanistan is concerned, Pakistan still has cards up its sleeve that it wants to use to its best advantage. With the US withdrawal from Afghanistan in sight, Pakistan is aware that the Americans are looking for an exit strategy. Pakistan wants to make sure that its influence over Afghanistan remains unhindered and post the withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan, it is backing the correct side. There are analysts who are of the opinion that the Karzai regime may not survive for long after the allied troops leave Afghanistan and that the Pakistani establishment does not favour the Karzai government.  

This particular angle may also be an explanation for why the Pakistani military, though concerned, did not panic even while speculation was rife that the US forces may cross over the Afghanistan-Pakistan border into North Waziristan this October. After declaring that Pakistan was not doing enough to pursue the Haqqani Network, the US had moved its forces to the Af-Pak border, in order to pursue the Al-Qaeda linked group themselves. 

The Americans are actively looking to reconcile with the Taliban and this is where Pakistan has volunteered to help. With the date for a US pullout from Afghanistan nearing, Pakistan is aware that it can use the Afghanistan card to bargain with the US for benefits like a greater presence in Afghanistan with efforts towards keeping India out of Afghanistan as well as reduced US pressure on Pakistan to act against anti-India jihadi groups. The Pakistani establishment is aware that till the NATO forces are present in Afghanistan, they would require supply routes through Pakistan. As a result of this factor, the US cannot afford to alienate Pakistan entirely. That is also why, despite threats to launch counter-insurgency strikes within Pakistan, there has been no follow-up; instead, the US chose to back down on its demand for Pakistan to launch a full-scale operation against the Haqqani Network. 

The other way of looking at this situation, or the second angle, is that Pakistan realizes that the American presence in the region is beneficial to it; so even though it may not support plans for permanent US bases in Afghanistan, it will support the continued US presence in Afghanistan over the next few years, until the situation settles down to a certain extent. Despite having links to the Haqqani Network, Pakistan’s ISI does not control it; the two may work together sometimes when they have mutually similar goals. Hence, it may not be possible for either ISI or the Pakistani military to ‘order’ the Haqqani Network to stop its activities. 

The recent U-turn in America’s stance towards Pakistan pursuing the Haqqani Network was attributed to President Karzai’s remarks at the time, of supporting Pakistan in case of a US invasion. But the real reason behind it may be more complicated.

It is a fact that Pakistan’s Army does not have enough resources to launch a full-scale operation against the Haqqanis holed up in North Waziristan and then hold the territory. Besides, the evidence from last few years that Pakistan has seen indicates that the repercussions of such a move on the rest of Pakistan, in form of terrorist incidents, would be too massive for the country’s security apparatus to handle. The Haqqani Network, as opposed to a lot of Pakistan-born, Kashmiri jihadi groups, is not dependent on Pakistani sanctuary in any way. It is allied to the Afghan Taliban and has very close links to al Qaeda; hence, it does not require the ISI for funds, weapons, or strategy. Neither does it need Pakistan for recruitment or fundraising activities. Its usage of Pakistan’s tribal areas as a safe haven is mainly due to convenience; the Af-Pak border is porous and the Tribal Areas in Pakistan have a near absence of government writ with the tribal militias reigning supreme. So while Pakistan has agreed to use its links to bring the Haqqani Network to the reconciliation table, it has also put across the disclaimer of no guarantees on whether they will actually agree to reconciliation.   

The Haqqani Network has not yet agreed for the reconciliation as they have declared that the Afghan Taliban, to which they are affiliated, is the actual decision-making body. Depending on how their strategy of reconciling sections of the Taliban proceeds, the Americans may not complete a 100% disengagement from Afghanistan even post 2014. They have seen how such a move could go - it resulted in a civil war and Taliban rule in Afghanistan the last time. 

Either of these angles is equally probable – there are facts to back both. There is an equally large possibility that the situation may be a mix of these two angles. The outcome of the current situation, which may become clearer over the next few months, would be important not only for Afghanistan, Pakistan and the US, but also for other countries in the region that have a stake in it – India, China and Iran.

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