Could it be that Pakistan has finally been written off as a bad investment by the US, the country’s largest financial benefactor? Or that Washington’s attention has simply moved on?
Much of the musings in recent days has surmised that while Pakistan-US ties have plunged into the trust deficit abyss, both sides somewhat reluctantly recognise their mutual dependence in fighting terror. But this may just be wishful thinking.
Washington is suspending its annual military aid to Pakistan by a third, due to concerns about the latter’s dubious cooperation record on the anti-terror front. And to be sure, American grievances are not without substance. Osama bin Laden was infamously found holed up in Pakistan. Soon after, US officials alleged that intelligence-sharing with Pakistan resulted in terrorists at bomb-making factories being tipped off before any strikes were made.
Thus far, the US State Department has made moves to assure Islamabad that civilian assistance will continue, yet how long this will hold is anyone’s guess. Admiral Mike Mullen has said — without elaboration — that the Pakistani government “sanctioned” the murder of journalist Saleem Shahzad. It is unlikely that the top American military officer could issue such on-record comments without a green light from Washington.
Unfortunately, this seems lost on the Pakistani civilian leadership, which appears to be outsourcing responsibility to keep the dollars flowing. The ISI chief was dispatched this week to Washington to meet the interim CIA director. At the same time, General Petreaus, who is set to take over the CIA, was in Pakistan to meet the army chief.
Yet none of this may actually mean much. The US has demonstrated that it does not need Pakistan’s cooperation in taking out high-level al Qaeda operatives based in its territory, as underscored by the Osama bin Laden raid. This will likely prove equally true when it comes to the new al Qaeda chief, Ayman alZawahri, whom the US believes is in North Waziristan. The Pakistan Army has refused to go into that tribal area, opting instead for Kurram Agency. Thus, from the US perspective, if it is doing all the heavy lifting, what need is there to pay Pakistan for a deal not done?
The most significant indication of the American take on the bilateral relationship has come from Leon Panetta, the former CIA director, who is now defence secretary. True, he may have sounded like a broken record when, in Kabul, he yet again declared that the US was in reach of “strategically defeating al Qaeda”. However, this time a new verse was mixed into the long play. The greater threat to the US, he said, hailed from Yemen and going after these targets was one of Washington’s top priorities.
The US first launched a covert drone programme in Yemen in December 2009. US sources credited nearly a decade of intelligence gathering in Pakistan, making the task in Yemen that bit less daunting.
Indeed, it could be said that the Pakistan foray has proved a constructive learning curve in other ways too. Like Pakistan, Yemen has also been accused of diverting US military hardware, as well as a US-trained counterterrorism unit, from the fight against al Qaeda. And like Pakistan, the Yemeni president agreed to CIA drone strikes, while publicly lying to his people about the programme’s existence.
Panetta has also singled out Somalia as a target for taking out al Qaeda. Local militant group, al Shahab, which the US considers a terrorist organisation, has aligned itself with al Qaeda elements in the country. It is also believed to be sheltering the masterminds of the 1998 US embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania.
But while it remains to be seen whether Yemen and Somalia will become the new AfPak, one thing is clear. Islamabad has failed to recognise the dwindling currency of its geostrategic importance to the US. It has also spectacularly failed to learn from past lessons; when this happens, the dollars almost immediately dry up.
Published in The Express Tribune, July 16th, 2011.