US Interests Face a Challenge in Pakistan

Although the ascendancy of Yousuf Razaf Gilani to power as prime minister may have reduced, however temporarily, Pakistan’s capacity for political chaos, it throws the future of Washington’s global war on terror into uncertainty, making the job of NATO forces and their allies far more difficult. Certainly, while the February 18 election has managed to restore a semblance of democracy, it has also completely altered Pakistan’s political equation.

President Purvez Musharraf, who has been spearheading Pakistan’s effort to contain the jihadis, is now seriously constrained as his loyalists have been routed and in their place the new coalition of the late Benazir Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party and the Muslim League (N) headed by Nawaz Sharif has come to power. Sharif’s role as one of the major constituents is complicating the US’s agenda since Washington earlier considered him soft on Islamists.

The US wanted a democratic transition in which the government would be headed by the assassinated Benazir Bhutto. But her murder has created an unexpected situation. It brought together two political parties that so far have been known mostly for their bitter political rivalry. Though this is a marriage of convenience and the alliance is not expected to be long-lasting, it has sent the war on terror into disarray.

The new government has pledged to cut Musharraf's powers and review his US-backed counterterrorism policies. Already, partners in the new government have said they would negotiate with some militant groups — an approach that has not been favored by Washington, which has provided about US$10 billion in aid to Pakistan since 2001.

The US knows that in the new setup, not everybody is its friend. In fact, constituents like the Muslim League (N) are outright hostile to the US role in Pakistan. To attempt to reduce the problem and to smooth the relationship between the coalition and Musharraf, it is trying to build bridges with the new government through a two-pronged strategy.

Two US envoys, Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte and Assistant Secretary of State Richard Boucher, were sent to Pakistan on the day the new government assumed power. The two met with Sharif, Pakistan People’s Party chairman Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, co-chairman Asif Ali Zardari and Musharraf. They also met Awami National Party president Asfandyar Wali Khan in Peshawar.

Unfortunately, this has only aroused hostility towards the US and is considered unnecessary meddling in Pakistan’s internal affairs. The two got a cold response from Nawaz Sharif. But this was expected as Sharif now wants to take a very different approach towards the war on terror. He stated that parliament would review Musharraf's "one-man" strategy against Islamic extremism. Sharif also feels that US policies are responsible for the recent wave of suicide bombings by militants that has hit Pakistan. He wants a new strategy focusing on Pakistan's needs.

Gilani has been less hostile, telling US President George W Bush that a broader approach to the war on terror is necessary, including political solutions and development programs. But the efficacy of his strategy is doubtful. In the past, attempts at peace deals with militants in the tribal belt bordering Afghanistan have collapsed with further bloodshed and caused alarm in Washington.

Though Gilani told Bush "that Pakistan would continue to fight terrorism in all its forms and manifestations since it is in Pakistan's own national interest," his suggestion to have a rethink on the policy is an indication of the new situation. The Parliament, he said, is a sovereign body and all important policy matters and decisions on important national issues are to be taken through it. Every effort will be made to ensure the parliament’s supremacy, he said. The PPP ended up with 121 seats of the 336 seats in the Majlis-e-Shoora, the lower house, and the Pakistan Muslim League got another 90, forming a coalition with the Awami National Party. There are 10 different political parties in a parliament that can be characterized as fractionalized at best.

The second strategy adopted by the US is to intensify unilateral strikes against Al-Qaeda militants in Pakistan's tribal areas. The US is now attempting to deal with the very real concern that Musharraf’s powers will be reduced in the coming months. It also fears that the new government in Islamabad will curtail such attacks. Hence it wants to do as much damage as it can to Al-Qaeda before the new government gets going. Reports have indicated that the strikes have followed after a tacit understanding with Musharraf and army chief General Ashfaq Kayani US strikes would be permitted on foreign rebels in Pakistan, but not against the Pakistani Taliban.

The US describes its new approach as a "shake the tree" strategy designed to force Osama bin Laden and key lieutenants to move in ways that US intelligence can detect. The US managed to kill a senior Al-Qaeda commander, Abu Laith al-Libi in January in a similar attack. Pakistan has never formally acknowledged allowing such missile strikes and Musharraf earlier this year said that unauthorised military actions on Pakistani soil would be treated as an invasion.

There is nothing wrong with the idea that Gilani would go for a political solution and economic development. But the experience shows that things have been different in Pakistan. Besides political rulers, there are other actors like the Pakistan’s Directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence, which has played a decisive role in arming Islamic extremists in Afghanistan and other areas, and the Pakistan army, which have their own interests.

The US has been donating funds to Pakistan hoping that its support can be sustained. Bush has used his authority since 2003 to exempt Pakistan from a law that restricts funding to countries where the legitimate head of state was deposed by a military coup. Even this time he has pledged US$750 million over the next five years for development in the lawless and impoverished tribal regions. Out of this the United States will provide about US$300 million this year to boost Pakistan’s counter-terrorism operations.

Unfortunately, so far a very small part of this donation has gone into fighting jihadis or bringing development to the border area. The money provided by the US for economic development is being used by Pakistan to buy arms and ammunition and is thus unlikely to bring development to the region. If a civilian government tries to restrict this, once again a struggle for power will emerge. The army in Pakistan is not used to civilian control.

Then there is the problem of the Taliban, which has been operating seamlessly in both Afghanistan and Pakistan. Any strategy to uproot it was bound to reach Pakistani territory sooner or later. Hence the argument that the US action against the Islamist extremists has turned that country into a killing field is not justified. Clearly, various actors in Pakistan are working at cross-purposes. This kind of approach will not help defeat the challenge of al-Qaida and their ilk. A streamlining of Pakistan’s counter-terror strategy is crucial if the Global War on Terror is to be fought with any success. So far, the prospects appear daunting.