I must admit I have been a supporter of getting on with the Americans. My reasons have been pretty straight: stopping the war in Afghanistan is key to bringing about some control over the violence that has engulfed Pakistan. And this can only happen if a semblance of stability takes hold in Afghanistan giving enough confidence to the Americans to be reassured about their 2014 withdrawal as planned, if not a year earlier. Withdrawal of foreign forces will nullify the primary cause of Afghan resistance and could lead to increased chances of peace and stability. That is also the key to the Afghans vacating Pakistani territories and proceeding back to their own country. Left with its own deviants, Pakistan can then employ the necessary means to bring them back to the normal fold, or at least, have a clearly defined ‘Enemy of the State’ that it must put down.
For the war to stop then the Pakistanis and the Americans must work together and that is only possible if they are talking to each other. The inverse is true as well. Any reason given to the American military machine to hang on to Afghanistan means a continuation of the war and the associated strife; which really means Pakistan remains in the hot-house that it has been in ever since this war against terror began. I mean that much more in the socioeconomic sense, which then becomes the perpetuating factor of both the war and the associated socioeconomic strife by providing easy recruits out of an increasingly dispossessed population. Obviously we want out of this dark hole. Pakistan must do all to make it easier for the Americans to leave, even if that means working with them in the face of popular anti-Americanism — despite Salala and the drones.
Why can’t we get on with the Americans? Simply, because the combined wisdom of parliament among other things has suggested that the Americans offer an apology over Salala, and that the Americans must cease drone operations over Pakistan? When these prerequisites are met, will the relationship be reestablished along some agreed lines and supplies from Pakistan begin to flow?
The apology bit first.
The Americans played hard with Pakistan after Salala by first refusing to accept their obvious mistake when they killed 26 Pakistani troops in a deliberately targeted attack that violated all precepts of war by using disproportionate force, practically picking out each soldier in engagement with gunship helicopters. Their effort to browbeat Pakistan into accepting their rather innocuous inquiry into this homicidal adventure was successfully thwarted. They have reluctantly come around to a popular Pakistani position that has demanded an unqualified apology over the incident. However, this was some time back.
Feelers began to arrive sometime in February that the US indeed might offer a public apology. It was widely believed that this might happen when Hillary Clinton and Hina Khar were to meet in London somewhere around that time. But by then, Pakistan had taken a popular public position that relations with America were now to be guided by parliament — and the government sought a delay with a view to time it with a parliamentary committee’s completion of the review process, as well as to accrue political gains domestically. Pakistan missed an opportunity which, though largely symbolic, would have added space for a reset of the bilateral relations. Both sides need to get through this despite the distinct possibility that each will now need to pay a political price for it.
Next on to the drones: the other beast that is complex in strategic effect, yet brilliant in tactical utility. Both sides frame the proposition on drones in a different light and it is important that the contexts be clearly understood. First, whom does the strategic negativity of using drones affect? Not the US, since to the Americans its application is purely tactical, meant to gain tactical benefit, and feeds into their larger military objective of weakening the Taliban and eliminating al Qaeda. The adverse strategic fallout is for Pakistan which must face up to a local reaction when such disproportional force is used to eliminate a few militants (and which ends up taking the lives of a few more in the vicinity of the target(s) — the unintended collateral damage). Drones provide to the Americans a disproportionate advantage that tilts the battlefield in their favour. Do the Americans mind that? This mismatch of the nature of effects to both sides, tactical versus strategic, makes it a rather complex issue to agree on. Parliament’s insistence that this remains an essential precondition makes matters worse.
Drones are a bonafide tool of war, and a brilliant one at that. Their use — at times in support of Pakistan’s own operations against militants — has given beneficial dividends. Any side which perceives being aggressed upon by the presence of drones though has the right to intercept those and bring them down. Pakistan is wary of such a route because of the implied consequences and because that may give reason to the Americans to first, expand the war and drone targets to the Pakistani territories, and two, make them stay longer in Afghanistan (which would end up countervailing Islamabad’s strategic interest in seeing the Americans leave Afghanistan sooner than later).
As for parliament’s role, it has to be said that parliamentary enunciations of popular sentiment as a policy guideline is not a good idea. Even if the advice is not binding, such formulations can exercise a regressive pull if the negotiations towards such a policy are meant to find an agreeable mean. That flexibility must stay with the negotiators and is the space in which agreements can be decided upon. So what is the solution? We should avoid insisting on any of these as quid pro quo if the intent is to indeed find a workable framework with the US. We need to work around them; negotiate an agreeable operational methodology for the drones; it may be the more acceptable evil when compared with the alternatives that an ongoing war can throw at us.
Published in The Express Tribune, May 8th, 2012.