China waits in the wings as US-Pakistani relations rapidly deteriorate
Relations between the United States and Pakistan appear to be developing according to the Marxist principle of “things have to get worse to get better.”
Barely two weeks after a US commando operation in Pakistan killed Osama Bin Laden and brought US-Pakistani relations to the brink, US legal action is administering not one but two body blows to the relationship.
The blows were administered as US-Pakistani relations were heading in the wake of Bin Laden’s death toward another major clash.
The stage for the clash was set with the Pakistani parliament demanding a permanent halt to drone strikes against militants on Pakistani soil as Senator John Kerry—Democrat of Massachusetts, and chairman of the powerful Senate Foreign Relations Committee—was winging his way to Islamabad. He planned to warn the country’s leaders that they had months at best to demonstrate that they are really committed to rooting out militant groups operating from Pakistani territory.
The US Justice Department administered its first body blow this weekend with the indictment of six Pakistanis, two of who were arrested on charges of providing material support to the Pakistani Taliban, a group designated by the US as a terrorist organization that has vowed to avenge the death of Bin Laden. Pakistani officials have cast doubt on the group’s claim of responsibility for the suicide bombing of a military camp last Friday in Pakistan’s Northwest Frontier that killed 80 paramilitary soldiers.
The indictment focuses attention on militant groups operating in Pakistan even if the Pakistani government can argue that they are as much a target of the Pakistani Taliban as is the US.
The government will, however, not be able to get away with a similar claim when Tahawwur Hussein Rana, a Pakistan-born medical doctor, goes on trial this week on charges of being involved in the 2008 terrorist attacks in Mumbai, the commercial capital of India.
Mr. Rana may be the only one physically in the dock when the trial opens, but Pakistan will be omnipresent in the Chicago courtroom. Its presence is certain to fuel the already burning fire in US-Pakistani relations.
Mr. Rana was arrested two years ago on suspicion of helping his high-school friend, Pakistani-American David Coleman Headley, to conduct surveillance of targets in Mumbai to which 10 Pakistanis wielding semi-automatic weapons and grenades laid siege. More than 160 people were killed in the attacks on landmarks in the city, including the 100-year old Taj Mahal hotel and the central railway station.
Mr. Rana’s trial will be all about Pakistan’s role in the attack. Prosecutors will use the trial to explore in testimony by Mr. Headley, the prosecution’s star witness, Pakistan’s controversial ties to groups the United States deems terrorist. Mr. Headley agreed to testify against his friend in return for being spared the death penalty.
Prosecutors say Mr. Headley will provide names of handlers and dates and details of phone calls, meetings and money changing hands that explicitly implicate Pakistan’s intelligence agency, the Directorate of Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). Prosecutors last month indicted as part of Mr. Rana’s case an ISI operative known only as Major Iqbal and three members of Lashkar e-Taiba, the Pakistani group believed to have carried out the Mumbai attack. The four men are classified as fugitives and, like Pakistan, will not be represented in court.
The expected public discussion of ties between the ISI and terrorist groups will strengthen US questioning of Pakistani claims that it was not aware of Bin Laden’s long-standing residency in the shadow of the country’s foremost military academy and in a neighborhood that is home to a large number of active and retired officers. It will also inflame US doubts about Pakistan’s reliability as an ally.
The renewed focus on Pakistani links to terrorism coupled with the Pakistani parliament’s demand for an end to drone strikes does not bode well for the mission of Mr. Kerry. Mr. Kerry, the most senior US official to visit Pakistan since the killing of Bin Laden, left Washington after coordinating his message to Pakistani leaders with President Barack Obama and the president’s national security adviser, Thomas Donilon.
That message, according to US officials, boils down to a threat to cut off the $1.2 billion in US annual aid to Pakistan if it fails to demonstratively crack down on terrorist groups, some of which are believed to have links to the ISI.
Mr. Kerry’s message is likely to reinforce Pakistani preconceptions of its relationship with the US rather than force a halt to the deterioration in relations. It will confirm perceptions that the US is about to dump Pakistan for a third time in the history of US-Pakistan relations. Pakistan feels that the US left it in the lurch to deal with three million Afghan refugees and a generation that had grown up with the concept of jihad in the wake of the 1989 Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan. The US dropped the ball on Pakistan a second time with the 1990 imposition of sanctions because of Pakistan’s nuclear program.
The resulting uncertainty about its relationship with the US and the expression of lack of confidence implicit in the unilateral killing of Bin Laden is likely to prompt to try to reduce its dependence on the US by expanding its already blossoming relationship with China. Pakistan will hold out to Mr. Kerry the prospect a level of co-operation it hopes will be sufficient to ensure that US aid continues to flow.
The question is whether that will be anything more than a Band-Aid solution. Pakistan’s powerful military is not inclined to flush out other militant leaders, including Afghan Taliban leader Mullah Muhammad Omar, Sirajuddin Haqqani who heads a network aligned with the Afghan Taliban and Lashkar-e-Taiba. Moving against these militants could complicate the position of Pakistani army chief Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, who is already on the defensive within the military for not having known about the US operation to kill Bin Laden.
Taking on the militants would moreover not only risk civil war in Pakistan but could also spark tension within the armed forces itself where sympathy for the militants is widespread. Meeting US demands for a Pakistani crackdown would also mean dropping a pillar of Pakistani policy built on the use of militants as proxies against its archrival India.
With many in Pakistan questioning whether US aid is worth the price the United States is demanding, Mr. Kerry may find it difficult to get his message accepted.
That message is grounded in the assumption that Pakistan needs the US as much as the US needs Pakistan. That may be true for now, but with China waiting in the wings and the US preparing to withdraw from Afghanistan, Washington could find over time that it needs Islamabad more than Islamabad needs it.
(James M. Dorsey, formerly of The Wall Street Journal, is a senior researcher at the National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute and the author of the blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer. He can be reached via email at: [email protected])