By Ameer Bhutto
October 02, 2011
US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta fired the first salvo, threatening that the United States would directly deal with the Haqqani network if Pakistan does not. Admiral Mike Mullen chimed in, accusing the ISI of complicity in carrying out the recent attacks on Nato and US installations in Afghanistan. All this ruffled a lot of feathers in Pakistan and sent emotions soaring off the charts. But all the fire-breathing and chest thumping proved to be for naught, as both sides are now scrambling to make amends. The US is in no position, at least for now, to open another war front in Pakistan. After 10 years of fighting, it has yet to fully subdue Afghanistan. It is just not feasible for US or NATO troops to advance into Pakistan leaving their rear flank unstable and unprotected.
With an election year looming over the horizon in the US, a battered and beleaguered President Barack Obama may arguably opt for a smokescreen of patriotism in the form of a new offensive against alleged terrorists in Pakistan to boost his plummeting approval ratings. But there is a flip side to this coin; with the US economy ailing, national debt spiraling virtually out of control and high rates of unemployment, it would be electoral suicide for President Obama to expand the theatre of US military operations into Pakistan.
He would do well to learn from President Lyndon Johnson’s example: Johnson’s dramatic escalation of the war in Vietnam, with its massive collateral and economic cost, was so despised by the American public that he could not muster any support even in his own party and had to withdraw from his bid for re-election in 1968 after a catastrophic showing in the New Hampshire primary.
The formidable price tag of the US war on terror has brought America to its knees during the last 10 years. According to the Eisenhower Research Project at Brown University’s Institute for International Studies, the war in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan has cost the US four trillion dollars thus far; money that could have been pumped in to boost the economy and create jobs. Moreover, according to Wikipedia, America’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have left nearly 5,000 US troops dead and 42,000 wounded. If Obama thinks he can go to the American electorate next year after opening a new war front in Pakistan, which would not only divert even more money from economic resuscitation measures but also produce a fresh wave of US forces casualties, and expect sympathy and support from American voters, he is in for a rude awakening.
The monetary drain and the steady flow of body bags have taken their toll on the weary American public. Many feel enough has already been done on the war front. According to a September 2011 Rasmussen Report, 50 percent of Americans said the United States was safer today than it was before the 9/11 attacks (30 percent said it was less safe), whereas only 36 percent had felt safer in June 2004. A Gallup Poll conducted in June 2011 showed that 72 percent Americans favoured President Obama’s proposal for pulling troops out of Afghanistan. These are not the portents of a nation prepared to stomach a fresh war.
What are the other options at America’s disposal? It could cut off future aid or link it with action against Haqqani. A bill has already been submitted in Congress to halt all aid to Pakistan. As our aid runs out, the first consequence of economic constraints will be a diminished military capability to continue the western proxy war on terror. Troops will have to be pulled back from the western front and further operations will have to be curtailed. Drone attacks are continuing unabated since Musharraf’s days, despite unanimous resolutions passed by joint sessions of parliament in October 2008 and May 2011 calling for their cessation, but this clearly is not enough for the Americans. There is the possibility of surgical air strikes by US or NATO fighter jets against perceived targets in areas like North Waziristan.
We have swallowed in silence the drone attacks, which any self-respecting people and government would regard as a direct act of war, but the nation will not swallow fighter jet sorties. In the aftermath of the US Navy SEALs raid in Abbottabad in May, we were told that the radar system on the western border was not operational which is why US helicopters came in undetected. But a high ranking Air Force officer clearly said on television that if the radars had been operational and the incoming helicopters had been detected, the decision to scramble Pakistani aircrafts to intercept and engage them would have been a very difficult one because the US would have backed up their helicopters with fighter jets at the first sign of trouble and it would have led to all out war with the US. The same dilemma still stands today, but it is a dilemma not just for us but for the western forces as well. Despite all our flaws and shortcomings, can they afford to lose their sole ally in the region and the only access to a warm water seaport for the supply of oil to their installations in Afghanistan?
It is most likely in appreciation of precisely this dilemma that both sides are trying to diffuse tensions. It must have dawned on them that publicising this issue was a mistake when the desired objectives could easily be achieved quietly. How many among us would know the difference between a drone attack, a missile strike or a fighter jet sortie carried out in the middle of the night? How do we know that foreign boots are not already on our soil? Have we forgotten Raymond Davis?
We will never be publically pushed into such a corner as to make an appropriate response unavoidable. It is not in US interests to do so. The frenzy we are witnessing in Washington DC is the understandable and expected backlash to the recent attacks on their installations in Afghanistan. It is a manifestation of their frustration at their own inability to achieve their declared objectives even after 10 years. But it is most unlikely to lead to direct US or Nato engagement in Pakistan. Of course, this could change very quickly if there is another terrorist attack on US soil that is found to have originated from Pakistan. US authorities have repeatedly warned that in such an eventuality the US would have no option but to take direct action and there is no reason to doubt them. The position could also change if President Obama, who looks distinctly shaky in most opinion polls, is replaced in next year’s US presidential elections by a more hardline White House occupant.
If the likes of Panetta and Mullen threaten us today with dire consequences unless we tow their line, it is because our incumbent and previous governments have put us in these chains of subservience for their personal gain. Before we rip our shirts off in patriotic fervour, we would do well to keep in mind that ours is a government born from the US-sponsored NRO and its track record has been one of unquestioning obeisance before its western masters. There was uproar and outrage in all quarters all over the country over the statements by Panetta and Mullen, but our illustrious president and commander-in-chief of the armed forces uttered nary a word, lest the gora sahibs’ wrath be incurred. What is the use of having an All Parties Conference now? Did they have an APC to build a consensus on whether we should become doormats for foreign powers? Where repeated unanimous parliamentary resolutions have failed to achieve results, what magical force can APC declarations be expected to bear?
The writer is vice-chairman of the Sindh National Front and a former MPA from Ratodero. He has degrees from the University of Buckingham and Cambridge University.
Source: The News, Islamabad