Pakistan-USA relations in the post-Usama era

Published in South Asia

By Junaid S. Ahmad

The assassination of Osama bin Laden in Pakistan by US Special Forces was supposed to have been a landmark triumph that would bring peace and stability to the region. A Navy Seal unit executed an unarmed Bin Laden and killed at least four others, including a woman, in an early morning raid on Monday, 2 May 2011. However, instead of bringing peace and stability to the region, the assassination of the Al-Qaeda leader has aggravated the country's volatile political predicament. The hullabaloo over Bin Laden's presence in Pakistan is being used by the US government and military to coerce Pakistan into greater

A breach of Pakistani sovereignty

The fact that Bin Laden was found, rather than being holed up in some cave, in a massive compound less than a kilometre from the Pakistan Military Academy in the garrison town of Abbottabad has led US officials to again question the reliability of Pakistan's military intelligence agency, the Inter Services Intelligence (ISI). They have all but accused the ISI of providing shelter to America's deadliest enemy. John Brennan, counter-terrorism adviser to US President Barack Obama, said that there was much that the US wanted to ascertain with respect to knowledge Pakistani authorities had concerning Bin Laden's hideout. 'We need to understand what sort of network Bin Laden might have had in place,' he said. Moreover, the US has also accused the ISI of having disclosed the name of the CIA station chief in Islamabad to the Pakistani media. (Towards the end of 2010, the former CIA station chief was recalled as a result of death threats after his name was disclosed.)

The constant threat that the Obama administration will hold back billions of dollars in aid to Pakistan lurks menacingly behind the scenes. With each passing day, the scale of the consequences of the raid is becoming clearer. Reports that the operation undertaken to kill Bin Laden involved backup plans for an armed confrontation with Pakistani forces highlight the decidedly dangerous nature of the raid. The operation threatened direct military hostilities between US and Pakistani troops well inside Pakistani territory, and in close proximity to Pakistani military facilities. Yet, the Obama administration has shown no signs of remorse about breaching Pakistan's sovereignty by carrying out the raid mere miles from the capital without any prior consent from the Pakistanis. Since the operation, Obama and other senior administration officials have not only defended the risky raid and celebrated Bin Laden's killing, but have also made it clear that the US was prepared to initiate more such actions inside Pakistan.

Bin Laden's assassination ostensibly came as a shock to Pakistani authorities, who admitted to not being part of the operation to kill the Al-Qaeda leader. Furthermore, Washington immediately confirmed that there was no Pakistani involvement in the mission whatsoever. According to the US, the Pakistani government was only informed of the raid after the event had occurred. However, in an article in theWashington Post, Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari stressed his 'satisfaction that the source of the greatest evil of the new millennium has been silenced'. Moreover, he dismissed claims that Pakistan had been sheltering terrorists.

While Zardari regurgitated the standard mantra of Pakistan's support for the US' 'war on terror', a Pakistani foreign ministry statement expressed 'deep concerns and reservations about the manner in which the government of the United States carried out this operation without prior information or authorisation from the government of Pakistan'. Moreover, it cautioned against the recurrence of such an episode by emphasising that 'this event of unauthorised unilateral action cannot be taken as a rule'.

The 2 May US operation in Abbottabad was deeply embarrassing for the Pakistani military, which rationalises its bloated budget and control over national security policy by asserting that it is the nation's most organised, disciplined, and powerful institution. Undetected, US forces completed a forty-five minute military incursion in a military garrison town not far from the capital or from the Pakistani military's General Headquarters (GHQ) in Rawalpindi.


Strained Pakistani-US relations

In recent months, the relationship between the Pakistani military on the one hand, and the Pentagon and US military commanders in Afghanistan on the other, has become strained due to the frequency of pilot-less drone attacks, CIA activities in Pakistan, and Pakistan's fear of being marginalised in any future political settlement in Afghanistan.

Now well into spring in Afghanistan, US and NATO forces are preparing to begin the latest stage of their 'surge' - a ruthless military counterinsurgency campaign intended to force the Taliban, or sections of it, to agree to a subordinate position in a remoulded US-friendly government in Kabul. The US is intent on pressuring Pakistan to drastically intensify its own counterinsurgency operations in order to prevent the Taliban from seeking 'safe havens' inside Pakistan, and to make the Pakistani armed forces suffer the bulk of casualties, thus minimising the potential of the 'surge' provoking opposition to the war in the US and other NATO countries.

In the past, the Pakistani military has objected to US ground forces entering areas that share the border with Afghanistan. Undoubtedly, this incident raises the allegation of a violation of national sovereignty to the next level, as American helicopters and special forces were not only able to breach Pakistani defences to enter Pakistan, but also carry out the assassination of Bin Laden a kilometre away from the Pakistan Military Academy in what is virtually a distant suburb of the capital, Islamabad.

In another sign of the Pakistani military's growing bitterness towards the US, Major General John Campbell, the senior commander of US forces in eastern Afghanistan, disclosed that Pakistan's armed forces had halted all contact with the US and NATO for a few days after the US raid, though communication has since been re-established. There has been great anxiety within the US military that Pakistan could once again interrupt supply lines from the port of Karachi to the Khyber Pass through which the bulk of the food, fuel, weapons and other vital supplies for the 140 000-strong US-NATO forces in Afghanistan must pass.

Several days after the raid, Pakistan's army chief General Ashfaq Pervez Kayani finally ended his silence by giving a stern warning to the US. He asserted that, 'any similar action violating the sovereignty of Pakistan will warrant a review of the level of military/intelligence cooperation with the United States.' Kayani characterised the US operation in Abbottabad as a 'misadventure', and promised a rapid military response to any such raids in the future. He also said that US military personnel presence in Pakistan would be curtailed 'to the minimum essential', without elaborating further.

The Pakistani Foreign Secretary Salman Bashir also reminded the US that 'there are red lines in Pakistan's cooperation with the US and other members of the international community, which should be observed.'

Obama's political gain

Whereas the US holds the Pakistani intelligence culpable for not tracking down Bin Laden earlier, Washington's account of the sequence of events leading up to the raid has also been questioned. In addition, the timing of Bin Laden's killing was so precisely attuned to Obama's political needs that it is beyond a small coincidence that things worked out so smoothly for the American president. Moreover, while the CIA claims to have only known about 'the target compound' since August 2010, Pakistani officials maintain that the ISI had been informing the CIA about it since 2009. The reality, however, is that both the US and Pakistani military-intelligence networks have repeated falsehoods about Bin Laden and Al-Qaeda - about their own respective roles and the connections of Bin Laden to their mutual ally, Saudi Arabia.

Even if one accepts the US claim that the CIA only learned about Bin Laden's hideout last August, it is still unclear why the US delayed the operation for nine months and why the appropriate time to hunt down the supposed mastermind behind 9/11 was only now. There have been no major terror threats either prior or subsequent to the killing of Bin Laden. According to all serious analysts, Al-Qaeda has become a much weakened and inconsequential force, except to provide a justification for the US war machine.

Further, the lack of any claims of an impending security threat from Bin Laden underlines the fact that the operation was undertaken by the Obama administration primarily because of domestic political necessity. The plan was that a victorious military action to 'take out' Bin Laden could be exploited to bombard Americans with a deluge of militarist and jingoistic propaganda, in order to deflect and suppress rising popular resentment. It would also enable Obama to re-brand himself as a 'wartime president', detaching himself from the pledge of 'change' emphasised in his 2008 presidential campaign, and bringing his administration ever closer to the military, the intelligence agencies and influential sections of the US ruling elite.

Al-Qaeda - which US officials have themselves conceded has no more than about a hundred members in Pakistan and Afghanistan - and an eliminated Osama bin Laden are marginal to the actual problems between Washington and Islamabad. In the context of the US occupation of Afghanistan, the operation had another function: to increase pressure on the Pakistani government and military to be more cooperative in the faltering efforts to pacify the formidable resistance to the US-NATO occupation.

The US-Pakistan relationship suffered a serious blow earlier this year with the Raymond Davis affair, perhaps the most serious crisis between the two countries since the US invasion of Afghanistan in 2001. Davis, a CIA contractor, was arrested after he had killed two men in a Lahore market in January. From the outset, the ruling Pakistan People's Party (PPP) was willing to give in to US demands to hand over Davis, but faced a massive public outcry over Davis' actions. Eventually, the US pressured Pakistan into handing Davis over in mid-March, but relations between the two countries again soured after the US resumed its drone attacks on Pakistan's Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) the day after Davis' release.

External and internal pressures on Pakistan in the 'Af-Pak' war

However, supporting the US in its 'war on terror' has been a complicated task for the Pakistani government as it has tried to strike a delicate balance between giving in to US demands and placating the bulk of Pakistan's population which has been vehemently opposed to US 'Af-Pak' policies and operations. Such sentiments of hostility are particularly acute in the FATA region that not only has been the target of numerous CIA drone attacks, but also of Pakistani military offensives undertaken after severe pressure from Washington.

Over the past month, the deterioration in the US-Pakistan relationship has become even more evident. On 11 April, Director General of the ISI, General Ahmad Shuja Pasha, travelled to Washington to meet the Director of the CIA, Leon Panetta, but the meeting was adjourned after the first day. Reportedly, Pakistan demanded that the CIA drastically reduce its drone attacks, and cease using the Shamsi Airbase in Baluchistan to launch the strikes. Moreover, there was also a demand for the withdrawal of CIA contractors and all undisclosed CIA personnel, and for a reduction in the presence of US Special Forces in the country. The CIA dismissed claims that these demands had even been made.

Later, on 20 April, the US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Michael Mullen, visited Pakistan for discussions with his counterpart General Kayani at the General Headquarters (GHQ) in Rawalpindi. But before the two men met, Mullen publicly charged the ISI with supporting the Haqqani network of insurgents resisting the US occupation of Afghanistan. Kayani denounced the accusations as nothing more than 'negative propaganda' by the US. On 22 April, following yet another US drone attack that killed twenty-five villagers in North Waziristan, the Pakistani government decided to temporarily block US-NATO shipments to Afghanistan through the Khyber Pass due to an anti-drone demonstration called for by various political parties, including Islamist ones. On 25 April, the US commander in Afghanistan, General David Petraeus, arrived at the Chaklala Airbase to meet Kayani. The details of their discussions have been kept confidential, but the Pakistani daily, Dawn, reported that the exchange was 'short and crisp'. And a day before the Bin Laden assassination, at a gathering at the GHQ, Kayani suggested that US-Pakistan relations had reached a critical stage, where Pakistan might even have to forego crucial US financial aid to preserve the country's 'honour and integrity'.

Pakistan's reluctance to accede to US demands is not only due to the intense level of resentment that the majority of Pakistanis feel, but also due to the larger geopolitics of the region. Over the last few years, the US has implemented its dramatic 'surge' policy in Afghanistan, increasing soldiers on the ground for the counterinsurgency offensive, and recently half-heartedly declared its plan to transfer security to Afghan forces by 2014. However, the US government has made it clear to the Afghan government that American military bases in Afghanistan will remain indefinitely.

Pakistan's rulers, meanwhile, believe they are in a precarious position. The US has evidently baulked at taking Islamabad into its confidence with regard to its strategy for a 'political settlement' in Afghanistan, a country that the Pakistani establishment has always considered essential in giving it 'strategic depth' in challenging India. Moreover, Obama has continued with the Indo-US 'global strategic partnership' initiated by George W. Bush, supporting India's aims in Central Asia and the Middle East. And while the US has virtually acknowledged India as a nuclear-weapons state, as demonstrated by the exception Washington conferred on India by permitting it access to civilian nuclear technology and fuel, Pakistan's nuclear programme is viewed with great distrust by Washington.

 Pakistan's gravitation towards China

Strained US-Pakistan relations resulted, last month, in the Pakistani government strongly advising the Hamid Karzai regime in Afghanistan to refuse the US a permanent military presence in that country and to gravitate more towards Pakistan and China. Indeed, Pakistani Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani is set to undertake a high-level visit to China, a country which Gilani termed an 'all-weather friend' and a 'source of inspiration' in the same media conference in which he denounced the US military operation that killed Bin Laden.

According to the Wall Street Journal, Gilani candidly told Karzai that 'the Americans had failed them both' and that Karzai should 'forget about allowing a long-term US military presence in his country'. The newspaper opined that, 'Pakistan's bid to cut the US out of Afghanistan's future is the clearest sign to date that, as the nearly 10-year war's endgame begins, tensions between Washington and Islamabad threaten to scuttle America's prospects of ending the conflict on its own terms.'

The New York Times commented on the exclusion of the US from the meeting by noting: 'To some extent, the Americans have been coaxing the Afghan and Pakistani leadership to talk to each other, but not at the cost of keeping the United States out of the loop, or of concocting solutions that are against American interests, American officials said.'

As analysts and critics have emphasised, the US 'war on terror' effectively became a useful pretext - and Osama bin Laden a handy bogeyman - for the US to legitimise its invasions and occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq. One of the main objectives of this 'war' has been to reassert American pre-eminence vis-a-vis its European and Asian rivals in the energy-abundant regions of the Middle East and Central Asia. In this light, Obama has continued the Bush administration's policy of keeping China's growing influence in check. There is a deepening suspicion in the US political and military establishment that Islamabad may increasingly be manoeuvring on behalf of Beijing, particularly in Afghanistan. China has been Pakistan's long-standing ally since the early years of the post-World War II period.

 Continued US incursions

The impact of these factors on the timing of the raid that killed Bin Laden is still not entirely clear. Nevertheless, it is important to note that on the day that he was killed, the US Special Envoy to Pakistan and Afghanistan, Marc Grossman, was in Islamabad for scheduled trilateral discussions with Afghan and Pakistani officials. Grossman characterised Pakistan's handling of Bin Laden's killing as 'very good', and claimed that the three countries were demonstrating the unity of purpose necessary to bring 'peace and stability to the region'. But the destabilising drone campaign did not ease up and more strikes have been launched since the killing of Bin Laden.

Indeed, it is clear that assassinations and bombings by drones have now become a cardinal weapon in modern US warfare and covert activities. In 2010, the Obama administration doubled the number of drone attacks, which Pakistani human rights groups estimate have killed about 2 500 civilians. Also, within days after Bin Laden's killing, there was another US drone attack in Yemen targeting Anwar al-Awlaki, a New Mexico-born Islamic cleric with US citizenship. Obama considers Al-Awlaki to be a 'specially designated global terrorist', and the US last year placed him on a 'targeting list' of individuals who were to be executed extra-judicially.

Speaking exactly one week after the Bin Laden assassination, and in a radically different tone than the conciliatory one adopted by him in the immediate aftermath of the operation, Pakistani Prime Minister, Gilani publicly condemned the unlawful and unilateral US military raid. He also bluntly said that Pakistan maintained the prerogative to 'retaliate with full force' to any future assault on its national sovereignty. 'No one,' declared Gilani, 'should underestimate the resolve and capability of our nation and armed forces to defend our sacred homeland.' To underscore his statement that 'unilateralism runs the inherent risk of serious consequences', Gilani divulged that Pakistan's air force had begun to prepare to scramble F-16 fighter jets upon detecting the US operation in Abbottabad early on the morning of 2 May, but, he said, the response was too late to sabotage the US mission. Washington took strong exception to Gilani's comments. While claiming to 'completely understand Pakistani concerns', White House spokesman Jay Carney upheld the gross infringement of Pakistan's sovereignty, proclaiming that 'we make no apologies'.

 Implications of the assassination for regional stability

The prime minister's stern language, however, was aimed not just at Washington, but also at New Delhi, where the US operation generated a pervasive mood for India to launch similar cross-border raids. In the days following the US operation, India's armed forces flaunted its capability to undertake similar actions against Pakistan. 'I would like to say only this,' Indian Chief of Army Staff General V.K. Singh said on 4 May, 'if such a chance comes, then all the three arms (of the military) are competent to do this.'

Nevertheless, India's incumbent Congress Party-led government rebuffed a demand from the main opposition, the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, to reassess its decision to recommence peace talks with Pakistan. But the strong words of the Indian Army chief, and comparable comments from the chief of the air force, certainly raised alarm bells in Islamabad. The Pakistani foreign minister and military openly cautioned New Delhi that any violation of Pakistani sovereignty would threaten to ignite a war between the nuclear-armed countries. While focused on Washington and New Delhi, Gilani's words were clearly also designed to reassure the Pakistani military high command of the PPP government's staunch support.

In reality, Gilani's remarks addressed various concerns. There is profound popular opposition to the US for its shameful dealings with the Pakistani populace, which includes US backing of a series of military dictators in Islamabad, a semi-colonial relationship with Pakistan's military, the invasion and occupation of Afghanistan, and unremitting and ever-expanding breaches of Pakistani sovereignty. The habitual US predator drone attacks inside Pakistan, ostensibly targeting Islamist leaders, have resulted in heavy civilian 'collateral damage'. Sensitive to the pressure from Pakistan's generals , Gilani also gave the armed forces the authority to investigate their inability to detect the US operation, and appointed an officer close to army chief Kayani to lead the inquiry.

That a government led by the pro-US PPP has been forced to defy Washington demonstrates the Pakistani military security establishment's resentment at both the narrative constructed by the Obama administration about the Bin Laden assassination, as well as the type of dangerous precedent the US raid may be setting. As with all such dangerous undertakings, often the most significant effects are the unintended consequences. In this situation, they involve the inflaming of tensions in an area of the world where five nuclear-armed nations - US, China, Russia, India and Pakistan - are contesting for hegemony and control.

While the implications of Bin Laden's death are still not entirely clear, one thing seems increasingly apparent: instead of ushering in an era of 'peace and stability' in the region, the incident has aggravated the anxieties of Pakistan's ruling elite about the reported US strategy to militarily intervene in Pakistan in order to destroy its nuclear weapons arsenal should Islamists be close to taking power in Islamabad, or in the eventuality that the Pakistani state might show signs of collapse. As the jingoistic US and western media frenzy recedes, this raid may well be viewed as one of a number of American (mis)deeds in the region that are preparing the scene for an even more explosive state of affairs.

* Junaid S. Ahmad teaches in the Faculty of Law and Policy at the Lahore University of Management Sciences, Lahore, Pakistan

Last modified on Friday, 13 January 2017 14:09

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