By Khaled Ahmed
Nov 01 2013
Nawaz Sharif’s US outreach is hobbled by domestic forces.
Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has finally “normalised” Pakistan’s relations with the US, after two years of rupture caused by an incident on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border and the killing of Osama bin Laden in the garrison city of Abbottabad. America has issued aid of $1.6 billion, which it had previously blocked, because it wants to get equipment worth $37 billion out of Afghanistan in 2014 with Pakistani help. The big success of Sharif’s visit to the US, according to Islamabad, was the resumption of the Pakistan-US strategic dialogue by March 2014. Washington’s Stimson Centre has described America’s reception of Sharif as “red carpet”.
But back home in Pakistan, the “nation” did not want to normalise its relations with the US, unless it stopped its drone strikes against the Taliban-al-Qaeda combine. An all-party conference strengthened Sharif’s hand on the drone-related demand because the Taliban, which is the most hurt by the drones, want them stopped. Pakistan thinks the Taliban will not exploit the free run that it will have in the tribal areas if the drone attacks stop by consolidating its hold there, but will sit down honestly to talk peace with Islamabad.
The other issue that arouses passions in Pakistan is the release of Aafia Siddiqui, who was convicted and sentenced to over 80 years in prison by a New York court. On the FBI list of al-Qaeda terrorists for years, this brilliant Pakistani student in the US was lured into terrorism and ended up divorcing her first husband in order to marry a relative of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks. Aafia has become an icon of Pakistani hatred for America. The Taliban, too, wants to swap an American who was kidnapped from Lahore for her.
The joint statement at the end of Sharif’s meeting with US President Barack Obama was positive. It mentioned many energy-related projects that America has undertaken in Pakistan and expressed the latter’s intent to enhance the economic dimension of the bilateral equation. The media reported that Pakistan, starting 2001, has received $26 billion from America, out of which $17 billion was soaked up by the Pakistan army. Pakistan’s proud “trade not aid” slogan, which Sharif adopted, may be ignored by an increasingly protectionist Washington.
By any objective yardstick, the visit was good for Pakistan. The Americans wanted to repair the relationship because of the transit facilities that Pakistan offers for the US-Nato withdrawal in the short term and for regional security over the long term. Pakistan is important for the latter because of the nuclear weapons that may fall into the hands of al-Qaeda if the country succumbs to the Taliban onslaught. But those back home in Pakistan were disappointed.
The media thought that Sharif was not defiant enough, did not tell the Americans to get off Pakistan’s back and failed to repeat the shameful national media concoction that the Taliban was not killing innocent Pakistani civilians — America and India were through their mercenaries. A state-funded Pakistani film showing in cinema halls these days actually depicts the killers as Indian agents, not as the Taliban.
The Pakistan daily, The News, commented on the film: “Tipped as one of the most expensive films in the history of film-making in Pakistan, with funds supposedly coming from the coffers of military’s information wing, ISPR, there was much hype about Waar... Previously, the military was accused of influencing Pakistan’s print and electronic media (and more recently, social media as well) through various means but their sponsorship for this film shows that it is now eager to expand its influence to the film industry as well.”
The Jamaat-e-Islami chief, Munawar Hasan, said that Sharif should not have gone to the US in the first place. The Taliban chief, Hakimullah Mehsud, said that he knew from the start that the visit was not meant to stop the drones but to get closer to the US. Imran Khan’s party Tehreek-e-Insaf formally declared the visit a failure. The consensus in the opposition was that the talks with the Taliban had been effectively scuttled by the visit, in which Sharif was seen as feeling unsure of himself while engaging with the US president. He was unable to rescue national honour and give emotional satisfaction to an intensely isolated Pakistan
Pakistan was equally inflexible to American concerns. The advisor on foreign affairs, Sartaj Aziz, declared that Pakistan had no intention of proceeding against the internationally wanted Hafiz Saeed, chief of the Jamaat-ud-Dawa, in spite of a reward of $10 million for his capture. The Americans also gave Sharif a dossier to prove Saeed’s culpability, but it had no effect. Aziz said that Saeed was not found guilty by Pakistani courts. It is well known in Pakistan that courts gave up convicting terrorists a long time ago and that Saeed is the strongest man in Pakistan, based on the funds that he can mobilise and the trained “Mujahideen” manpower he can deploy.
It has, however, been admitted by politicians that Pakistan’s objection to drone attacks is linked to the policy of peace talks with the Taliban. It is also true that, starting 2009, the Pakistan army became abrasive on the issue of drones. It began suspecting that the US intended to strike its nuclear weapons — or at least that’s what was said on the media.
From the US side, more and more revelations were made about the Pakistan army’s involvement, through the ISI, in the killing of Americans in Afghanistan. Relations nosedived after the killing of Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad and hit rock bottom in November 2011, with the Salala incident, in which American friendly fire killed Pakistani troops manning a border check post. In the days to come, after the Americans have left Afghanistan, Pakistan’s no state actors may find it almost impossible to win against the Afghan National Army, with its 3,50,000 men under arms, if the drones keep attacking them.
The book, Taliban and anti-Taliban (2011), by Farhat Taj, a research fellow at the Centre for Interdisciplinary Gender Research, University of Oslo, Norway, studied the tribal areas affected by the drones and concluded that the local populations opposed to the savagery of the Taliban actually favoured them.
The book quotes the Peshawar-based Aryana Institute for Regional Research and Advocacy’s 2009 study, which found the population, favoured the drones because they eliminated terrorists who threatened their lives. The book refers to the Peshawar Declaration (December 2009) signed by “political parties, including ANP [Awami National Party], civil society organisations, businessmen, doctors, lawyers, teachers, tribal labourers, and intellectuals of FATA and NWFP, following a grand tribal jirga in Peshawar”. It said: “If the people of the war-affected areas are satisfied with any counter-militancy strategy, it is drone attacks that they support the most”.
Several Pakistani army officers have gone on record saying that the drones were helpful in their campaign against the Taliban. As Sharif arrived in Washington, a local newspaper disclosed that the drones had operated under an agreement between the US government and the Pakistan army, at first from bases inside Pakistan and with Pakistani direction.
Pakistan needs a lot of help, not only from America, its largest donor, but also from the entire international community, including India. It needs to build capacity to counter terrorism, which rides on top of Islamic extremism in the country. It needs funds to raise professional manpower to face the urban violence of the Taliban as well as common criminals who use Taliban techniques. It will need training that is no longer available inside Pakistan because of the ideological bent of the military and other law-enforcement forces.
Pakistan must strive to end its regional and global isolation, and reach out for international help, which is still forthcoming because a Taliban victory will result in al-Qaeda rule in a state possessed of nuclear weapons and populated by people steeped in Islamic extremism. Because of the media hype triggered by LoC incidents, Sharif was helpless at the UN, where he challenged India rather than terrorism. But his resolve to normalise and improve relations with India survives and will also survive the current pre-election state of political emotion in India.
Khaled Ahmed is a consulting editor with ‘Newsweek Pakistan’