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An America-shaped hole

A senior Pakistani official recently showed an Indian TV correspondent a "picture" of Jalaluddin Haqqani, the Haqqani Network's patriarch, with the late President Ronald Reagan at the White House. Anirudh Bhattacharyya writes.

india Updated: Oct 09, 2011 01:27 IST

A senior Pakistani official recently showed an Indian TV correspondent a "picture" of Jalaluddin Haqqani, the Haqqani Network's patriarch, with the late President Ronald Reagan at the White House. The plant bloomed into a headlined story on that channel. That video went viral on YouTube, even though the person in the photograph was actually no Haqqani.

The Obama administration appears to have skipped fact-checking, as US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told an audience in Arkansas: "If you go on YouTube, you can see Sirajuddin Haqqani with President Reagan at the White House." Sirajuddin is Jalaluddin's son and would have been just about ten back then. I may have lived a sheltered life, but I've yet to see any pre-adolescent sporting a flowing hennaed beard.

The Af-Pak theatre should now formally be called the Theatre of the Absurd. It's officially crazier than an ape on ecstasy.

American forces started their bombardment of Afghanistan ten years ago, but that country's President Hamid Karzai's writ runs over about a couple of blocks in Kabul. America wants to get out of Afghanistan by 2014 and is dependent on Pakistan to meet that deadline. Pakistan's relationship with the US, meanwhile, has gone from 'allied' to 'it's complicated' to close to 'unfriending' it while manically clicking the 'like' button on posts by China and the Saudis.

As we have heard every alternate month, for the past decade, the US-Pakistan engagement is at its most poisonous. Even Pakistan's BFF in Washington, recently retired Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, called the Haqqani Network a "veritable arm" of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI).

Obviously, that's not made Pakistan happy. That country's most powerful man, Army Chief Ashfaq Kayani, countered by saying such American bombast was the result of its confusion in Afghanistan. Kayani, of course, is a former ISI chief. And as everyone knows, the actual seat of the government is in Rawalpindi, where the army is headquartered, and it bottoms out in Islamabad, where the civilian government is based. But at least Pakistan now has a foreign minister with a Birkin bag full of the army's talking points.

Mullen's candid camera comments came as he was on the verge of retirement. Many government officials tend to gain courage around then. But led by the American president, his words were walked back. In fact, the Haqqani Network isn't even on US' Foreign Terrorist Organisation list.

There are plenty of Af-Pak prescriptions being written now. Reuters reported that Bruce Riedel, author of the original Af-Pak policy, believed that talk of declaring Pakistan a "State sponsor of terrorism" was "growing". But Bill Roggio, Long War Journal's editor, says, "Absent a major attack launched on US soil traced to Pakistan, I don't see it happening."

Some Washington analysts are asking the Obama administration to get real. Sadanand Dhume of the American Enterprise Institute wants it to accept a couple of realities including that "the Pakistani army is an adversary, if not an enemy". Lisa Curtis of the Heritage Foundation wants suspension of aid programmes.

Way back in 2010, when after Pakistani-American Faisal Shahzad attempted unsuccessfully to carbomb New York's Times Square, Clinton warned of "very severe consequences" if any attack of such magnitude occurred on American soil and could be traced back to Pakistan. Obviously, those words were also quickly drawn down, just as obviously, an attack on the American Embassy in Kabul planned by the ISI doesn't count. Nor does the targeted killing of US troops. And, of course, the assassination of Afghan peacemaker Burhanuddin Rabbani is irrelevant.

At most, to mollify the US Congress, funds to Pakistan will be reduced. As for policy, America will muddle some, while Pakistan remains meddlesome in Afghanistan.

In his recent non-fiction bestseller, After America, Canadian writer Mark Steyn quoted American President Barack Obama as saying in the context of the economic crisis, that "We've got a big hole that we're digging ourselves out of". Steyn helpfully points out: "Every politician's First Rule of Holes used to be: When you're in one, stop digging." That works for America's Af-Pak adventures too.

Currently based in Toronto, Anirudh Bhattacharyya has been a New York-based foreign correspondent for eight years

The views expressed by the author are personal