The simmering conflict between Washington and Islamabad has become scalding.
American leaders are turning the vise as tightly as they can in an all-out effort to force Pakistan to do its bidding by fighting without qualification or limit those radical forces who the United States identifies as terrorists and enemies.
It is an inclusive category that covers Al Qaeda, the Taliban in all its component parts, the Haqqani network and Punjabi groups such as Lashkar-e-Taiba. The Pakistanis’ claim that its stake in Afghanistan’s political future requires them to maintain links with diverse elements is rejected out of hand as illegitimate. The Americans are bent on making their own deal with the Taliban and on their own terms. Initial talks left Pakistan out in the cold.
Most audaciously, the White House is convinced that it knows better than the Pakistanis themselves what path leads to political stability in that increasing fractured country. Instruction and admonition have become the standard mode of address.
For their part, the Pakistani military leadership has stood to toe with the senior American officials who have been arriving in relays since Osama bin Laden’s capture. In one especially acrimonious meeting between General Kayani and Leon E. Panetta a few weeks back, the latter came ready to read the riot act to his counterparts. To his shock, they retorted in kind. For Washington that was the last straw. From then on it has been an all-out campaign against the Pakistani government. The starkest message was sent by the bombing of the Haqqani bases in Pakistan within 36 hours of the assault in Kabul on the Intercontinental Hotel. It was a blunt way of saying: we will strike your supposed clients and will do so on any pretext.
Pulling out all stops, the Obama people last week publicly accused the ISI of ordering the killing of investigative journalist Saleem Shazad. It also played up accusations that the military heads had been bribed by North Korea years ago to give it nuclear enrichment technology. On the weekend, Washington announced the cancellation of hundreds of millions in military and civilian aid. Government sources explained that it is meant to “chasten” Pakistan for expelling American trainers and to press the army to take on the entire array of militants on Pakistani soil.
Pakistani authorities have retaliated by announcing the eviction of the Americans from the Shamsi air base in Baluchistan which has served as the launch pad for drone operations on both sides of the Durand line. They also have turned a blind eye to attacks against Afghan border units. These steps followed the rescinding of visas for hundreds of CIA operatives and contract auxiliaries.
In effect Washington wants to take de facto control of Pakistani’s their intelligence operations and military missions in the Northwest. The reply: not on your life, this is our country, we are not Fatah and we are sovereign here. The American position is foreign policy by adrenaline rush – the high produced by slaying Osama bin Laden. It has no grounding in understanding or logic. It betrays monumental ignorance of the Pakistani elite - of what makes them tick. It reflects no cost/benefit calculus or estimate of probabilities. It lacks all proportion and perspective. It reeks of hubris.
As he interprets Washington’s strategy, the powers that be believe that a distracted Pakistani military (and civilians) will be unable to block unilateral American efforts to wipe out the remnants of Al Qaeda, Taliban leadership and the Haqqani network -- by drones, by incursions from Afghanistan, by the corps of operatives already in Pakistan. Strife in Pakistan? A more rabidly anti-American government? Jeopardizing nuclear weapons? If the people “owned” by the Americans don’t come out of top, then: the US still will have crushed its “terrorist” enemies; gotten permanent Afghan bases to add to those in Iraq, Kuwait and Kirghizastan, and perhaps neutralized those nuclear weapons.
(Professor Michael Brenner teaches at the University of Texas, Austin, and at the University of Pittsburgh. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org)