Chaos still reigns in the U.S.-Pakistan relationship three weeks after the cause of the latest eruption—Osama bin Laden being killed by a U.S. SEAL team and lain to rest in a watery grave.
It would appear that Pakistan would like less and less to do with the United States, even as Washington demands a tougher but better new relationship. Witness the burning of NATO oil tankers carrying fuel to U.S. forces in Afghanistan in Landi Kotal—a town on the border that is one of the most heavily guarded in the country. Allegedly the perpetrators were Taliban, but who knows if tribesmen or intelligence agents were making a statement. Fourteen innocent Pakistanis were killed when one tanker exploded.
Conveniently, the government formally closed the road a day after the attack, citing the lack of security. As if on cue, Imran Khan—the cricketer and failed politician who is known to be extremely close to the army—has now launched a nationwide movement to stop the NATO convoys forever. Do the tens of thousands of Pakistanis to whom these convoys provide employment get a say? Not on your life. U.S. and NATO forces depend on this lifeline for some 40 percent of their supplies—but that number is down from 75 percent a year ago.
A week before this attack, a recorded session of parliament that included members of the lower and upper houses heard General Javed Pasha, the chief of the Inter-services Intelligence Agency, explain what happened at Abbotabad when the U.S. Seals flew in uninterrupted by Pakistani radar, security forces or even local police and discovered bin Laden hiding out in huge house less than a mile from Pakistan’s West Point.
Pakistanis expected the army would fall on its proverbial sword, and it did (for a moment) when Pasha begged forgiveness and said he had offered his resignation but Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gailani had refused to accept it. Then Pakistanis were really shocked. Their leaders turned against America for violating Pakistan’s sovereignty (nevermind that bin Laden had violated Pakistan’s sovereignty for at least the last ten years by hiding out there). Any hopes that parliament could try to change the army’s national security agenda—premised upon no peace with India, an influential role in Afghanistan and maintaining Islamic militants as proxies to pursue foreign policy ends—were quickly dashed.
The army asked parliament to give it clear orders what to do next. However, the ruling party led by Gailani and President Asif Zardari had already factored that in. They were easily able to turn the debate around into praise for the army and hatred and blame for the United States. Who cared about bin Laden and where he was found? It was all a matter of sovereignty. At the end of the long day, and with weak-kneed resolution, the parliament and government only reinforced the army’s discredited policies. Nobody resigned, nobody expressed the humiliation, guilt or shame felt by millions of Pakistanis.
Pakistan’s foreign and counterterrorism policies continue to be run by the army, ostensibly without government objection. Zardari, like a true Pakistani politician who puts himself before anything else, was thinking not of a failed national security strategy or of Pakistan’s growing international and regional isolation or of the impact this crisis is having on an already collapsed economy—but of next year’s elections, which he believes he can win as long as he can keep the army on his side.
Just to make sure the army got the message, Zardari and parliament’s resolution went further than expected, demanding that Pakistan shoot down U.S. drones that fly over its territory in the future and that Pakistan suspend NATO supplies.
It seemed that the only sane voice in this cacophony was that of opposition leader Nawaz Sharif, who told the press on May 14 that: ‘‘Security and intelligence agencies should not topple governments, fund or promote one political party over another, formulate foreign policy in place of elected governments, divide political parties (or) create an allied opposition against governments and torture journalists.’’
A few days later his brother Shabaz Sharif—Chief Minister of Punjab, the largest province in the country—decided to halt six USAID programs related to education, health and waste management. Thus the Sharifs—also like true politicians—played both sides, the public and the army. The only ones who suffered were the recipients of the cancelled programs. Shabaz Sharif now joined dozens of leading TV show hosts in saying that Pakistanis prefer ghairat (honor) to food or education or livelihoods. An outsider may well consider the country is going steadily crazy.
The Pakistani Taliban and al-Qaeda appear to have little sympathy for this gross interpretation of ghairat. Two suicide bombers killed 98 paramilitary troops and wounded 140—all young men in training— in Shabqadar in Khyber-Paskhtunkhwa province this monrth. The Taliban said this was the first revenge attack for the death of bin Laden. They weren’t interested in the displays of ghairat by Pakistani politicians.
Another thing: It would now appear that the only thing Pakistanis are really keen on is remaining ambiguous as to what course of action to pursue next. Unfortunately, the Americans disagree and won’t accept any further vagueness. Senator John Kerry was totally unambiguous when he visited Pakistan and said directly that “Pakistan must take concrete, precise and measurable steps to combat terrorism.’’ He went on to add that ‘”the relationship will be measured exclusively by actions and not words.’’ President Obama was even less ambiguous, saying further U.S. attacks in Pakistan to kill or capture other al-Qaeda leaders could take place.
For now, Pakistan remains at sea without a paddle. There is little sense of direction or idea of how anyone will respond to the next provocation from the U.S., India or terrorists. This is not a country in a hurry to change its mind about its strategic direction.