By M K Bhadrakumar
The air strike by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) at the Pakistani military post at Salala in the Mohmand Agency on the Afghan-Pakistan border Friday night is destined to become a milestone in the chronicle of the Afghan war.
Within hours of the incident, Pakistan's relations with the US began nose-diving and it continues to plunge. NATO breached the ''red line''.
What is absolutely stunning about the statement issued by Pakistan's Defence Committee of the Cabinet (DDC), which met Saturday at Islamabad under the chairmanship of Prime Minister Yousuf Gilani is that it did not bother to call for an inquiry by the US or NATO into the air strike that resulted in the death of 28 Pakistani soldiers.
Exactly what happened in the fateful night of Friday - whether the NATO blundered into a mindless retaliatory (or pre-emptive) act or ventured into a calculated act of high provocation - will remain a mystery. Maybe it is no more important to know, since blood has been drawn and innocence lost, which now becomes the central point.
At any rate, the DDC simply proceeded on the basis that this was a calculated air strike - and by no means an accidental occurrence. Again, the DDC statement implies that in the Pakistan military's estimation, the NATO attack emanated from a US decision. Pakistan lodged a strong protest at the NATO Headquarters in Brussels but that was more for purpose of 'record', while the "operative" part is directed at Washington.
The GHQ in Rawalpindi would have made the assessment within hours of the Salala incident that the US is directly culpable. The GHQ obviously advised the DDC accordingly and recommended the range of measures Pakistan should take by way of what Chief of Army Staff General Ashfaq Parvez Kiani publicly called an "effective response."
The DDC took the following decisions: a) to close NATO's transit routes through Pakistani territory with immediate effect; b) to ask the US to vacate Shamsi airbase within 15 days; c) to "revisit and undertake a complete review" of all "programs, activities and cooperative arrangements" with US, NATO and the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), including in "diplomatic, political and intelligence" areas; d) to announce shortly a whole range of further measures apropos Pakistan's future cooperation with US, NATO and ISAF.
No more doublespeak
The response stops short of declaring the termination of Pakistan's participation in the US-led war in Afghanistan (which, incidentally, is the demand by Pakistani politician Imran Khan who is considered to be close to the Pakistani military circles). In essence, however, Pakistan is within inches of doing that.
The closure of the US-NATO transit routes through Pakistan territory may not immediately affect the coalition forces in Afghanistan, as it has built up reserve stocks that could last several weeks. But the depletion of the reserves would cause anxiety if the Pakistani embargo is prolonged, which cannot be ruled out.
Therefore, the Pakistani move is going to affect the NATO operations in Afghanistan, since around half the supplies for US-NATO troops still go via Pakistan. An alternative for the US and NATO will be to rely more on the transit routes of the Northern Distribution Network [NDN]. But the US and NATO's dependence on the NDN always carried a political price tag - Russia's cooperation.
Moscow is agitated about the US regional policies. The NATO intervention in Libya caused friction, which deepened the Russian angst over the US's perceived lack of seriousness to regard it as equal partner and its cherry-picking or "selective partnership".
Then, there are other specific issues that agitate Moscow: US's push for "regime change" in Syria, the US and NATO appearance in the Black Sea region, continued deployment of US missile defense system, and the push for US military bases in Afghanistan. In addition, Moscow has already begun circling wagons over the US "New Silk Road" initiative and its thrust into Central Asia.
The future of the US-Russia reset remains uncertain. Washington barely disguises its visceral dislike of the prospect of Vladimir Putin's return to the Kremlin following the presidential election in March next year. Short of bravado, the US and NATO should not brag that they have the NDN option up their sleeve in lieu of the Pakistani transit routes. The Pakistani military knows this, too.
Equally, the closure of the Shamsi airbase can hurt the US drone operations. Pakistan has so far turned a blind eye to the drone attacks, even conniving with them. Shamsi, despite the US's insistence that drone operations were conducted from bases in Afghanistan, surely had a significant role in terms of intelligence back-up and logistical support.
By demanding that the US vacate Shamsi, Pakistan is possibly shifting its stance on the drone attacks; its doublespeak may be ending. Pakistan is ''strengthening'' its air defense on the Afghan-Pakistan border. Future US drone operations may have to be conducted factoring in the possibility that Pakistan might regard them as violations of its air space. The US is on slippery ground under international law and the United Nations Charter.
A Persian response
The big issue is how Pakistan proposes to continue with its cooperation with the US-NATO operations. Public opinion is leaning heavily toward dissociating with the US-led war. The government's announcement on the course of relations with the US/NATO/ISAF can be expected as early as next week. The future of the war hangs by a thread.
Unlike during previous phases of US-Pakistan tensions Washington lacks a "Pakistan hand" to constructively engage Islamabad. The late Richard Holbrooke, former special AfPak envoy, has become distant memory and special representative Marc Grossman has not been able to step into his shoes.
Admiral Mike Mullen has retired as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and is now a 'burnt-out case' embroiled in controversies with the Pakistani military. Central Intelligence Agency director David Petraeus isn't terribly popular in Islamabad after his stint leading the US Central Command, while his predecessor as spy chief and now Defense Secretary Leon Panetta always remained a distant figure.
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is a charming politician, but certainly not cut out for the role of networking with the Pakistani generals at the operational level. She could perhaps offer a healing touch once the bleeding wound is cleansed of dirt, stitched up and bandaged. And US President Barack Obama, of course, never cared to establish personal chemistry with a Pakistani leader, as he would with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.
Now, who could do that in Washington? The horrible truth is - no one. It is a shocking state of affairs for a superpower with over 100,000 troops deployed out there in the tangled mountains in Pakistan's vicinity. There has been a colossal breakdown of diplomacy at the political, military and intelligence level.
Washington trusted former Pakistani ambassador Hussein Haqqani almost as its own special envoy to Islamabad, but he has been summarily replaced under strange circumstances - probably, for the very same reason. At the end of the day, an intriguing question keeps popping up: Can it be that Pakistan is simply not interested anymore in dialoguing with the Obama administration?
The heart of the matter is that the Pakistani citadel has pulled back the bridges leading to it from across the surrounding crocodile-infested moat. This hunkering down is going to be Obama's key problem. Pakistan is boycotting the Bonn Conference II on December 2. This hunkering down should worry the US more than any Pakistani military response to the NATO strike.
The US would know from the Iranian experience that it has no answer for the sort of strategic defiance that an unfriendly nation resolute in its will to resist can put up against an 'enemy' it genuinely considers 'satanic'.
The Pakistani military leadership is traditionally cautious and it is not going to give a military response to the US's provocation. (Indeed, the Taliban are always there to keep bleeding the US and NATO troops.)
Washington may have seriously erred if the intention Friday night was to draw out the Pakistani military into a retaliatory mode and then to hit it with a sledgehammer and make it crawl on its knees pleading mercy. Things aren't going to work that way. Pakistan is going to give a "Persian" response.
The regional situation works in Pakistan's favor. The recent Istanbul conference (November 2) showed up Russia, China, Pakistan and Iran sharing a platform of opposition to the US bases in Afghanistan in the post-2014 period.
The Obama administration's grandiose scheme to transform the 89-year period ahead as 'America's Pacific Century' makes Pakistan a hugely important partner for China. At the very minimum, Russia has stakes in encouraging Pakistan's strategic autonomy. So does Iran.
None of these major regional powers wants the deployment of the US missile defense system in the Hindu Kush and Pakistan is bent on exorcising the region of the military presence of the US and its allies. That is also the real meaning of Pakistan's induction as a full member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, which is on the cards....
In Mel Brooks' 1974 comedy Blazing Saddles, a welcoming committee for a new sheriff turns into a lynch mob when it discovers the man is black. He points his gun at his own temple and says, ''One step closer and the [N-word] gets it!'' The townspeople back off, rather like the American government every time it catches Pakistan supporting the Taliban or other enemies of the United States. Pakistan menaces the United States with the prospect of its own failure.
Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum summed up the Washington consensus at last week's national security debate, ''Pakistan must be our friend'' because it has nuclear weapons. America can't do without Pakistan, that is, because if Pakistan breaks up, nuclear weapons might reach the hands of terrorists. The flaw in this argument is that Pakistan itself is governed by terrorists. That is why it has been so successful. It scares its neighbors. American policy, instead, should force the burden of uncertainty onto Pakistan.
Last week's North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) air strike on Pakistani frontier outposts prompted Islamabad to stop resupply of NATO forces in Afghanistan, leaving Washington to apologize for the ''unintended tragic'' deaths of 24 Pakistani soldiers. Rather than calling Pakistan to account for the attack on the American embassy in Kabul by the al-Haqqani network, which outgoing Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Admiral Michael Mullen September 22 called ''a veritable arm'' of Pakistan's ISI, America finds itself on the defensive. If the Pakistanis fired on NATO forces before the latter called in an air strike, as the Afghan government claims, we should infer that Pakistan provoked the incident in order to wrong-foot the United States.
Considering that the United States wants Pakistan to pursue military operations against a largely Pashtun insurgency in Afghanistan, while Pashtuns comprise a fifth of the Pakistan's people, friendship seems an odd choice of words. American policy threatens to tear Pakistan apart, and Islamabad's double-dealing is understandable under the circumstances. The only way to make Pakistan behave is to convince Islamabad that it will be torn apart if it does not accommodate American demands. Absent the threat of encirclement and dismemberment, Pakistan will do everything to avoid exacerbating what already amounts to a low-level civil war. America's strategic objective in the region - eradicating Islamist terrorists - poses an existential threat to the Pakistani state. The only way to force Pakistan to accommodate itself to American objectives is to pose an even worse existential threat.
Pakistan's pursuit of ''strategic depth'' - projecting its influence through support for Islamist groups in Afghanistan, and Kashmir, as well as terror attacks inside India - stems from weakness. As Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi writes in the Winter 2012 issue of Middle East Quarterly, ''Pakistan itself is an artificial state composed of diverse ethnic groups that are united solely by religious affiliation. Hence, fear of Pashtun and Baloch (Pakistan's largest provinces geographically) desires for autonomy or independence, together with concern about India's influence, also provides a basis for pursuing Pakistani strategic depth. For example, to suppress Baloch nationalism, the Pakistani military and intelligence have engaged in human rights abuses including the arrest and disappearance of some 8,000 Baloch activists in secret prisons.''
After three years of American strategic disengagement under the Obama administration, that has become a difficult proposition. Involving the Indian military in Afghanistan with a limited by open-ended mandate would have served notice to Islamabad that America was serious. Two years ago, Pakistani websites fluttered with rumors that India would deploy 120,000 soldiers in Afghanistan, staking a claim as America's strategic partner. It is doubtful that any such offer was on the table, but India at the time was prepared for a smaller deployment. Under present circumstances, New Delhi wants no part of an adventure that the Americans are preparing to abandon.
India simply does not trust the Obama administration to stand up for American interests in the region. China has moved into the vacuum left by American policy in Pakistan, deploying 11,000 soldiers in the Gilgat-Baltistan region of southern Kashmir. Ostensibly the Chinese are there to secure high-speed road rail links between the Chinese-built ports on Pakistan's coast and Western China, but their presence also reinforces Pakistan's control over a rebellious region. The small Chinese force, moreover, raises the stakes in any potential confrontation over Kashmir between India and Pakistan; if Chinese troops were to get in the middle of a fight, China might be drawn in on Pakistan's side. Pakistan now has two air force squadrons flying China's JF-17 ''Thunder'' jet and shortly will add a third.
After the September 13 attack on the American embassy in Kabul, the United States made belated and tentative gestures to India, including the first formal offer to sell India the new F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. As M K Bhadrakumar argued in this space (see Hindu art of double hedging against China, Asia Times Online, November 10), New Delhi must weigh the advantages of its strategic alignment with the United States against the fact of American strategic disengagement under the Obama administration. Whether India takes up the American offer for the F-35's depends on a number of factors, including the disappointing pace of progress in its joint development of a Fifth Generation fighter in cooperation with Russia. The F-35's though, will not change the perception that Washington is guarding its rear as it withdraws from the region.
The Obama administration has painted itself in to a corner. It cannot cajole or threaten Pakistan. On the contrary, Pakistan is threatening Washington. China's growing presence in Pakistan reduces America's capacity to punish Pakistan, for example, by withdrawing support for American-built fighter aircraft. India remains understandably cautious. And the Afghan war, as Mr. Al-Tamimi wrote in the Middle East quarterly, ''will prove at best a massive drain on US resources and lives, possibly reaching a cost of up to $100 billion a year, all for killing a few dozen al-Qaeda militants in a country whose annual gross domestic product is a mere $13 billion.''
To persuade India to align itself decisively with American interests, and China to lower its profile, the United States would have to execute a 180-degree turn. It would have to repudiate Obama's disengagement and declare its intent to remain the world's unchallenged superpower, and make this credible by investing in strategic superiority. That would require major investments in aircraft carriers, fighter aircraft, drone technology, and theater missile defense.
That is expensive, but there are other ways to economize. At the same time, America should renounce nation-building in Afghanistan and settle instead for a prolonged, if not perpetual, war of attrition against its enemies. By historical analogy, Washington should handle Afghanistan the way that Cardinal Richelieu dealt with the German Empire during the Thirty Years' War. Rather than fund a corrupt and ineffective Afghan army dominated by Tajiks, the United States should acquire Pashtun capabilities of its own; perhaps it should quietly support Pashtun and Balochi separatists operating inside Pakistan. Among other things, this is cheaper than maintaining an army of occupation. Cutting off aid to the corrupt Karzai government, moreover, will drastically reduce the cost of hiring local armies.
America's misguided attempt to stabilize Afghanistan allows Islamabad to blackmail the United States by threatening to promote instability. If the United States accepts Afghan instability as a permanent condition and uses its in-country capability to wear down its enemies in a standing civil war, it can turn the tables by threatening to export the instability to Pakistan. Pakistan has been truncated before, when it lost Bangladesh. It could happen again. The object is not to dismember Pakistan, but rather to persuade Islamabad to behave. If this seems harsh, it is worth recalling that Washington has done this sort of thing before. The Reagan administration did its best to prolong the Iran-Iraq war.
China has a general interest in limiting American power, but it also has a specific interest in forcing Pakistan to crack down on Islamist terrorism. The 100 million Muslim Uyghurs in Xinjiang constitute the greatest threat of a breakaway province within China's borders, and Beijing has complained that Pakistan's intelligence services are training Uyghur terrorists for infiltration into China. Islamabad, once again, is not in control over radical Islamists in its own military.
If America puts a figurative gun to the head of the Pakistani government and orders it to extirpate the radical Islamists in the military, two outcomes are possible. One is that Islamabad will succeed. The second is that it will fail, and the country will degenerate into chaos. That is the scenario the American policy is supposed to avoid at all costs, but it is hard to see why America would be worse off. If the elements of Pakistani intelligence that foster terrorism cannot be suppressed, it is clear that they are using resources of the central government to support terrorism. In the worst case, they will continue to foster terrorism, but without the resources of the central government. From America's vantage point, a disorderly collapse of Pakistan into a failed state is a better outcome than a strong central government that sponsors terrorism. At worst, a prolonged civil conflict between American-backed elements of the Pakistani military and Islamist radicals would leave the radicals weaker than they are now.
The simplest solution to the problem of Pakistan's nuclear arsenal is to frighten the Pakistani army into eliminating the prospective terrorists who might use them. The second-best solution is to send the American army into Pakistan and take the nuclear weapons away. I believe Jeffrey Goldberg's and Marc Ambinder's report in The Atlantic Monthly that if the United States were to deploy troops in Pakistan to secure the country's nuclear weapons, China would raise no objections. If Islamist terrorists were to get hold of Pakistan's nuclear weapons, China would be at the top of their list of prospective targets.
Much as China might enjoy America's discomfiture in the region, American and Chinese interests converge around terrorism (and especially nuclear terrorism). Given America's present weakness, it may take some effort to iterate towards convergence with China. Threats to China's territorial integrity, though, have Beijing's undivided attention, and if America makes clear that draining the Pakistani swamp reflects support for China's efforts to preserve territorial integrity, rational self-interest will assert itself....