We need to guard against over-interpretation of the war of words between Pakistan and the United States in the recent days over a couple of templates in their extensive and deep security cooperation in the Afghan war. The discords have reportedly arisen over two issues: a) Pakistan would expect US to curtail its covert intelligence activities on Pakistani soil and should instead coordinate with the ISI; b) US should share intelligence leading to drone attacks on Pakistan’s tribal areas. No doubt, the discords are serious , but to proceed from that perception to imagine that the Pak-US relationship is at a breaking point or that CIA director Leon Panetta told off the ISI director-general Shuja Pasha at their recent 4-hour meeting in Washington and Pash curtailed his stay on the unfriendly American soil and got back home, etc. will be a rush to judgment. In a profound working relationship of this nature between the CIA and ISI, there are bound to be discords at the working level, especially when the trust deficit exists to such an acute extent as the recent episode over Raymond Davis testified.
In reality, though, a lot of grandstanding is going on with both sides testing the water to see to what degree the other side would concede its demands or meet its expectations. The fact of the matter, however, is that crunch time is coming in Afghanistan and neither US nor Pakistan can do without their security cooperation. In short, confrontation is out of place and what is going on is a robust effort to narrow differences.
The conciliatory words by the influential chairman of the US senate foreign affairs committee John Kerry underscores this political reality. Kerry’s remarks came after the Panetta-Pasha consultations. They corroborate the CIA’s own spin on Panetta-Pasha talks. One thing is clear: US is not contemplating any rollback of US aid to Pakistan, no matter the media speculations (especially, Fox News!). The FT report from Islamabad Wednesday also highlights that senior Pak officials are cooling down the temperature of the CIA-ISI discord. It all boils down to what a senior, unnamed Pak official told FT: “Pakistan is looking at scaling down US operations which take place behind our backs, not the relationship itself.” The FT report suggests that an understanding is in the making regarding fresh ground rules for US intelligence activities on Pak soil.
Meanwhile, on the ‘positive’ side, without any high drama or fanfare, a far more meaningful template of US-Pak cooperation is surfacing with regard to reconciliation of the Taliban. Just work out the sequence: immediately after the talks with Panetta on Monday, Pasha rushes back to Rawalpindi on Tuesday to report to Pak army chief Gen Ashfaq Kiani by late Tuesday. Thereafter, on Wednesday, Pasha catches up with President Asif Zardari who is on a visit to Ankara amidst a flurry of signals that with US backing, Turkey is going ahead with the idea of opening a representative office of the Taliban in Turkey. Now, the importance of this step forward in the peace process needs to be weighed in carefully. In essence, Taliban will gain international recognition as a group. A process can begin whereby emphasis would shift away from the military track - hunting down the Taliban in Waziristan - which after all lies at the very heart of the current US-Pak discord. Pasha also met with his Turkish counterpart in Ankara. Obviously, ‘operational’ details need to be worked out such as providing safe passage for the Taliban to enable them to come out of their sanctuaries and setting up habitation in Turkey. It stands to reason that Panetta-Pasha talks went over this topic and the two sides have a mutual idea of what is in the works. (Marc Grossman, US special representative, who took over from late Richard Holbrooke, was also in Ankara recently.) Equally, Hamid Karzai is very keen to have a level playing field on Turkish soil where Taliban can interact with his government and the international community.
Meanwhile, we have an absolutely new dimension appearing as well. PM Yousaf Gilani told Pak parliament Wednesday that Islamabad is engaging friendly countries to exert diplomatic pressure on US to curtail drone attacks in FATA. Conceivably, US drone attacks, whose effectiveness in military terms has always been questionable, cannot go hand in hand with the peace process for very long. Who could be these ‘friendly countries’ that Gilani referred to? Turkey could be one. Possibly, Britain, too. As I pointed out in my last post, PM David Cameron’s talks in Islamabad primarily aimed at a ‘reset’ of US-Pak security relationship.
My estimation is that there is a psywar going on and care is needed to separate the grain from the chaff. But what is absolutely clear is that if the history of US-Pak security and military relationship is anything to go by, Pakistani military would already have drawn its ‘red lines’ and that boils down to a firm ‘No’ to any further CIA rogue intelligence operations on Pakistani soil. Washington cannot but accept the legitimacy of the Pakistani demand. The bottom line involves Pakistan’s sovereignty and it is non-negotiable. How the US accommodates the Pakistani demand is the issue in the coming days. There has to be a negotiated settlement and going on a collision course is a non-option not only for Washington but for Islamabad as well. .
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