x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

US forces Pakistan's generals to flaunt their independence

Obama's decision to withhold military aid to Pakistan was made with domestic politics in mind.

President Barack Obama cannot seriously imagine Pakistan will be more cooperative with the US agenda in its neighbourhood as a result of his withholding military aid as punishment for its transgressions.

Of course, those transgressions have been many, in US eyes: Pakistan continues to provide sanctuary to the same Taliban forces fighting the Americans in Afghanistan; it pushes back against CIA drone strikes and human intelligence operations on it turf; and then, most egregiously, it inadvertently (or not?) played host to Osama bin Laden in the military hamlet of Abottabad - and then responded to the US raid that killed the Qaeda leader by arresting Pakistanis suspected of assisting, ordering an end to various US military support operations in the country and threatening to cut supply lines into Afghanistan.

Many Americans have long suspected that the Pakistanis are giving them the runaround in Afghanistan, but the bin Laden raid was the last straw. Punishing Pakistan has become a cause célèbre in Washington. Almost a third of legislators in the House of Representatives last week voted for a resolution sponsored by conservative Republicans that would have cut all aid to Islamabad.

Then came The New York Times "leak" - soon confirmed by the White House - that Mr Obama has withheld some $800 million (Dh2.9 billion) in aid to the Pakistani military, making clear that normal service would resume only if Pakistan demonstrates active support for the US campaign in Afghanistan.

But the very fact that this gesture was made in public suggests its purpose may have been grounded in US domestic politics rather than strategic concerns. The public ultimatum, after all, actually makes it even more difficult for the Pakistanis to heed US demands, even if they had been inclined to do so, because their public is demanding that the military leadership break with Washington, rather than reconcile with it.

Being seen to back down for financial reasons would be a further humiliation for Pakistan's generals. But there are plenty of other reasons for Pakistan's refusal to take on the Afghan Taliban and other militants on its own soil.

The Pakistani public have been incensed by their military leadership's support of US troops in Afghanistan, and that hostility has only deepened over the years as the CIA mounted drone strikes against militant suspects, some of which resulted in Pakistani civilian casualties. Anti-American sentiment reached a fever pitch last January when the CIA contractor Raymond Davis shot two armed Pakistanis in Lahore. Then came the humiliation of the US Navy SEAL raid on Abottabad.

Pakistan's generals, who effectively make their country's foreign policy, have walked a tightrope between US requirements and their own national interests - believing that the American presence in Afghanistan would be a temporary ordeal. Still, their own interests dictate their red lines, one of which precludes fighting the Afghan Taliban. Pakistan sees the government of President Hamid Karzai, based on the India-backed Northern Alliance, as representing a strategic nightmare - a pro-India regime on its western flank. As a result, the Afghan Taliban and other US-targeted militant groups such as the Haqqani network are seen as guarantors of Pakistan's interests in Afghanistan after the US departs.

So Pakistan has confined itself largely to fighting only those elements of the Pakistan Taliban that target the Pakistani state. Even that rebellion is seen by many senior officials as part of a backlash against Pakistani cooperation with the US in Afghanistan. They see Pakistan as having lost thousands of security personnel as a result of its support for the US campaign. And they believe their domestic turmoil will die down only once the Americans leave. Nor have Pakistan's generals made a secret of their view that the US strategy in Afghanistan is ill-considered. Even if they were embarrassed (on both sides of their high-wire act) by Abottabad, there's little reason to believe that Mr Obama's funding cut would alter their calculations.

The generals' defiance of Washington carries overwhelming support from within the uniformed ranks and among the broader public. If the US is trying to make General Ashfaq Kayani choose between his own force and the public that backs it, and its key foreign source of arms and treasure, it's hard to imagine him choosing the latter.

Instead, Pakistan's burgeoning military and strategic relationship with China is likely to deepen, and Islamabad will likely look to Beijing - and other traditional benefactors such as Saudi Arabia - to fill the gap. Besides, the Pakistanis also know that US reluctance to cut loose a nuclear-armed state sets limits on how far Washington will be likely to push.

But publicly castigating Pakistan may serve a domestic political purpose for Mr Obama, whose re-election prospects are increasingly imperilled by unemployment rates above 9 per cent. The job numbers have eaten away at the bump in the polls Mr Obama received as a result of killing bin Laden; the last thing he needs now is to be pummelled by Republicans for allowing Pakistan to make the US look foolish.

The problem with playing domestic politics on such a strategically complicated terrain, however, is that his adversary also has a vote in how the crisis plays out. Mr Obama may be hoping that his shot across the bow yields results. He'd better hope that Pakistan doesn't opt to retaliate by, for example, carrying through on its previous threat to choke the supply lines through its territory through which the bulk of food, fuel and ammunition for the Nato mission in Afghanistan are run. After all, a dangerous escalation with Pakistan that he wouldn't necessarily even win - in support of an increasingly futile war effort - is hardly going to help his re-election chances.

 

Tony Karon is an analyst based in New York. Follow him on Twitter @Tony Karon