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Pakistan’s policy cul de sac

The US wants Islamabad to fight the Taliban. The Pakistani public wants Islamabad to ignore the US. Once again, Pakistan’s leaders are on the horns of a dilemma.

world Updated: Oct 30, 2011 01:04 IST
Imtiaz Ahmad
Imtiaz Ahmad
Hindustan Times

Once again the government of Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari is caught in a bind.

On the one hand, the Americans are putting pressure on him to do more to fight militants on his western border and bring them to the negotiating table. On the other, his domestic political opponents are hoping for a break down in US-Pakistan relations that will trigger unilateral US actions - giving them an opportunity to politicise the matter and bring down the government.

With violations of Pakistani airspace by US increasing in frequency, there is a clear signal to Islamabad that it needs to take action against militant safe havens in the troubled North Waziristan area.

If Pakistan does not oblige, then the US has made it clear it will not hesitate to go in and do the job.

Such unilateral military action by the US will mean the end of the Zardari government. There is much anger at the surge in drone strikes, which are done with the tacit blessings of both the political and the military leadership in Pakistan. But if the US moves toward booting boots on the ground in North Waziristan, there are chances of a violent backlash in many parts of the country. This popular agitation could lead to the fall of the tottering government.

As things stand, anti-US sentiments are rising across the country. Most Pakistanis see American policy as unfair and humiliating. And this time it is not just the rightwing groups who are upset. Many middle of the road parties and politicians have also been critical of the US.

Earlier, this month when US secretary of state Hillary Clinton visited Pakistan, she was amused when a university student at a public discussion likened America to an annoying mother-in-law who was ever demanding and never happy.

"The Americans blow hot and cold at the same time. The problem is that the mixed message does not have the same effect that it had in previous years," says Talat Masood, a retired general and political analyst.

This past week the policy confusion increased. In a visit to Pakistan, Hillary Clinton followed up her Washington statement where she said the US was ready to make peace with the dreaded Haqqani network by insisting again that Pakistan should play a role in bringing the Taliban to the peace negotiations in Afghanistan.

While Pakistan has maintained it has no leverage with either the Haqqanis or Taliban, a BBC report suggested otherwise. It interviewed Taliban commanders who said the Inter-Services Intelligence provided them with training and arms, a claim that was rubbished by Pakistan's military leadership.

Such revelations make it difficult for the Zardari government to wish away the American demands.

Clinton wants not only the Taliban to be part of the peace process, but that the Taliban-affiliated Haqqani network also be neutralised.

"First she wants us to fight them and now she wants us to make peace with them," says former interior minister Moinuddin Haider.

"I am not sure how much leverage the Pakistan Army really has with the Haqqani network."

This month, the army had acknowledged it had links with the network but only at the level of consultations and not anything else.

"We do talk to them. We keep all our options open," replied Athar Abbas, the military spokesman when asked about the level of cooperation.

Clinton has since asked Islamabad to play a "constructive" role in bringing militants to talks. In Islamabad, this twin approach of pressing the fight on the battlefield and pursuing reconciliation behind the scenes is seen as not only contradictory, but one that will cost Pakistan dearly.

"We have seen it in the past. America plays games, then leaves the scene and we have to pay the actual price for it," comments Talat Masood.

But Islamabad believes the US is not making empty threats. NATO forces are massing on the Afghanistan border, seemingly gearing up for attacks against militant safe havens that exist on Pakistani soil. Already, Pakistan has complained of airspace violations in North Waziristan, where Haqqanis and others are holed up.

"The pressure is being put on the Pakistan military at this stage to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table and.... the army leadership is complying," a military analyst said.

More worrisome is what US action would mean for the beleaguered Zardari government. Already it is under attack from the country's main opposition party - the Pakistan Muslim League - Nawaz, which started a campaign on Friday to "rid Pakistan of Zardari."

Sensing blood, cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan is also on the campaign trail. He has a single agenda political platform of drone strikes and military action in the tribal areas. Khan says that the war against terror is a war of the Americans, and that Pakistan should do well to stay away from it.

"There is a feeling that Khan has the blessings of the army in this," comments analyst Shamim ur Rehman.

Any US action in Pakistan will boost Khan's otherwise less-than-successful political career.

And the pressure are increasing. Testifying before the US Congress after a trip to Afghanistan and Pakistan, Clinton said she had delivered a "frank" message to Pakistan that urgent action had to be taken against the Haqqani network.

The message does not seem to be lost. The question remains whether the civilian and military leadership will again toe the American line or, as feared, take a U-turn in order to save itself in the current politician arena in Pakistan. Either path poses dangers for the current leadership.

First Published: Oct 30, 2011 00:06 IST