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It's a Hobson's choice

The US wants Pakistan to target the Haqqani Network. Islamabad may not have the power to do so now but it has to come up with a long-term plan to solve terrorism. Ayesha Siddiqa writes.

india Updated: Oct 06, 2011 01:02 IST

Pakistan Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani recently announced that Islamabad will talk with the Haqqani Network in a bid to solve the problem of peace in Pakistan and Afghanistan. This statement came in the wake of the All-Parties Conference (APC), held on September 29, to build a political consensus to fight American pressure on Pakistan. The declaration emerging from the APC emphasised the need to talk to the various Taliban groups.

Pakistan's position is clearly juxtaposed to America's desire of Pakistan putting pressure on the Taliban militarily and denying the group its territory. Washington's main concern is with the Haqqani Network, which is a group of several Taliban warlords and is considered the most capable of striking at the US and North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (Nato) forces in Afghanistan. The US believes that the Haqqani Network, headed by Sirajuddin Haqqani, was involved in the recent attack on the US embassy in Kabul in collusion with the Pakistani military intelligence agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). These allegations were denied by Pakistan, especially by the head of the ISI, General Ahmed Shuja Pasha. The Pakistan army's version was that it has nothing to do with the Haqqani Network beyond contacts, which many other agencies also have.

The ISI may or may not be as closely linked with the Haqqani group as Admiral Mike Mullen suggested. But the fact is that Islamabad has consistently denied pursuing the Haqqani Network militarily. In the past three or four years, the GHQ Rawalpindi's version has been that the army would not like to antagonise the Haqqani Network, which does not attack the Pakistani State. Basically, the army presents lack of action as a plan to not open too many fronts at the same time. Thus, it has not pursued the Haqqani Network, which, though it comprises tribal leaders that belong to Afghanistan, has used Pakistan as a safe haven where it can withdraw at the time of need. But this does not mean that its operations are limited to Pakistan. The Haqqani Network is one of the many Taliban groups that have control over significant parts of Afghanistan.

The US-Pakistan tension over the issue gave an impression that the two allies may come to blows with each other. Pakistan and the US stand at a juncture in their relations where they experience a strategic divergence of perceptions, plan and tactical convergence. This means that they are no longer on the same page as far as Afghanistan and the war on terror are concerned. The main issue is the manner in which they visualise the Afghanistan endgame.

Pakistan believes that Afghanistan should be left to forces that are not hostile to Pakistan's interests. Army chief General Ashfaq Kayani has repeatedly emphasised Pakistan's interest in Afghanistan being limited to the above-mentioned goal. However, Kayani's statement does not highlight the fact that Islamabad's vision of creating a friendly Afghanistan banks on the inclusion of Taliban in the future government in Kabul. The Taliban in the Afghan government, it is also expected, would keep Indian influence in the country in check, which, the Pakistan Army suspects, is averse to Pakistan's strategic interests and security. Such planning gets in the way of the American government, which wants sustainability of its interests and security of its infrastructure and other investments in Afghanistan even after its forces pull out of the country in 2014.

Although there was a lot of hue and cry about the possibility of the US and Pakistan going to war over the Haqqani issue, the fact of the matter is that the showboating was an expression of their differing positions that would have to be negotiated. In this respect, the rising tension is nothing more than a milestone indicating a shift in the direction of the alignment but not necessarily an impending break-up.

Interestingly, the anger presented through the media does not capture the fact that there has also been considerable improvement in the State-to-State and military-to-military relations which it initially seems to have nosedived after May 2. The military cooperation is fairly all right, which may indicate America's appreciation of the fact that it depends on Pakistan for the continued supply to Nato and International Security Assistance Force (Isaf) forces in Afghanistan. In case Islamabad decides to pull the plug on the US, it may still be possible to feed the troops in Afghanistan - but it will certainly become more difficult. This is not to suggest that there aren't problems in Washington's perception of Pakistan. In fact, as the US gets into the election cycle, the hawks in the government will make a case against Pakistan.

Similarly, Pakistan also needs the US if the latter wants a good deal in Afghanistan. Despite the inclination of the hawks in Islamabad to 'go it alone' in Afghanistan, the fact is that this is a plan fraught with numerous problems. The most critical issue is the threat of Pakistan getting sucked into the Afghan quagmire after the US's departure.

Last but not the least, there is no guarantee that the Taliban will continue to listen to Pakistan after it comes to power. The manner in which Islamabad deals with its Afghan problem will have a huge bearing on how the scene sets for Pakistan, its State and society. It may not have the power to take on the Haqqani Network right now but it should surely come up with a long-term plan to solve the problems of terrorism and radicalism.

It's now or never.

Ayesha Siddiqa is an Islamabad-based writer and is the author of Military Inc.: Inside Pakistan's Military Economy

The views expressed by the author are personal