x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Mixed signals turn friends into foes

Saeed Shah on the strained ties between Pakistan and the US after missile strikes in the tribal region.

Activists protest against the recent missile strikes in Pakistan's tribal areas.
Activists protest against the recent missile strikes in Pakistan's tribal areas.

Pakistanis are now asking themselves: is the war on terror about to become a war on Pakistan? If Adm Mike Mullen came to Pakistan this week to soothe Pakistani anger over American incursions, his visit had the opposite effect. An American missile strike on Wednesday inside Pakistan's tribal area, which lies along the Afghan border, came just hours after Adm Mullen had issued a statement saying that the United States "respects Pakistan's sovereignty". It was the sixth such attack, from a "drone" aircraft, this month.

"Drone attack pokes fun at Mullen's assurance" ran a front-page headline in The News yesterday. Dawn newspaper took a similar line on its front page: "Drone attack belies Mullen's assurance". A crisis in Islamabad-Washington relations has been triggered by the American ground assault into Pakistani territory this month, the first documented instance of hostile US forces on Pakistani soil since the two countries became antiterror allies after September 11. The frequency of the missile strikes have added to the indignation in Pakistan but clearly signal that Washington has decided that a changed strategy and new tactics are required and that Pakistan has no choice but to go along.

Shah Mehmood Qureshi, Pakistan's foreign minister, yesterday rejected claims from Washington that it had been pre-warned of the latest missile attack. Mr Qureshi also accused Washington of giving contradictory signals. "It's a clear comment to respect Pakistan's sovereignty," said Mr Qureshi, referring to Adm Mullen's statement. "I'm not saying that, Admiral Mullen is. If having said that, there has been an attack later, that means there's some sort of institutional disconnect on their side, and they have to sort it out."

It is true that the pilotless drones that are used to fire missiles at suspected militant hideouts in Pakistan are usually directed by the CIA, not the US military. However, it seems highly unlikely that the CIA was breaching policy with the new strike. Washington made its point in a different way. Richard Boucher, the US assistant secretary of state, launched an extraordinary attack on Pakistan's premier intelligence agency, the ISI, just as Adm Mullen arrived in Pakistan. He said reform of the ISI "has to be done" and suggested that the agency, the main military intelligence outfit, was dangerously out of control.

"The whole Pakistani state apparatus, the politicians, the security, economic development folks, is it properly lined up towards a single goal, and that's beating the terrorists and stabilising Pakistan?" Mr Boucher said. "As long as you have organisations, or pieces of organisations, that work in different directions, then it's harder for the government to accomplish that goal." There may be rogue elements in the ISI, but it comes under the military chain of command and is ultimately under the army chief, Gen Ashfaq Kayani. It is therefore incongruous for US commanders and political leaders to heap praise on Gen Kayani, as they do, and yet voice grave concerns about the operations of the ISI.

Washington believes the ISI is still protecting, perhaps even aiding, its old jihadist friends, the numerous Islamic militant groups that it used to fight proxy wars for Pakistan in Afghanistan and India. Some people in Pakistan suspect the same that, if true, would put the country's army in an extraordinary position of fighting some militant groups, in Bajaur, part of the tribal area, and Swat, a valley in the north-west, but maintaining links with other extremist groups.

And, if the new civilian government is sincere about going after the insurgents, then it is also going to have to fight its own army. That sandwiches the administration between the army and the ISI on one side, and Washington on the other. "Is the ISI dictating policy to Pakistan?" said Talat Masood, a retired army general turned analyst. "Or is it the Americans which are trying to dictate policy to Pakistan?"

The United States is no longer going to wait for Pakistan to act. Its war in Afghanistan has spun out of control, and it seems convinced that the reason is the sanctuary that the Taliban and al Qa'eda enjoy in Pakistan's tribal area. Worse, there is a presidential election looming in the United States, and George W Bush is concerned about his legacy. It seems that the sudden increase in missile attacks in the tribal territory is a desperate attempt to land a big al Qa'eda scalp before the Bush administration ends. Osama bin Laden and Ayman al Zawahiri are thought most likely to be hiding in the tribal belt. A lucky strike might just get one of them.

Asif Ali Zardari, newly installed as president of Pakistan, is now under enormous domestic pressure to make a definitive statement against American incursions, with many looking to his planned address to parliament tomorrow for a strong position on the country's territorial sovereignty. So far, only Gen Kayani has made a blunt statement of Pakistani affront. This month, Mr Zardari will travel to the United States, where he is expected to hold his first talks with Mr Bush. While no Pakistani leader can expect to survive if he allows the United States to operate freely in the country, signs that Mr Zardari is closer to Washington than domestic opinion will be very closely watched and could yet undermine the fragile restoration of democracy in Pakistan.