Rush to victory? —Abbas Rashid

The US is in the grip of what is being billed as the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression and we may yet see the Bush administration as well as the next regime looking at the war in the region as a useful diversion

In addition to other things, this also seems much like a case of sheer bad timing. The war in Pakistan’s tribal areas was always going to be a formidable enterprise given the mistakes that have been made all around, particularly in the form of gravely flawed US policies in the region.

But what has made matters worse is the impending US presidential election. Sorely in need of some foreign policy success that could possibly tip the balance in the electoral race, the Bush administration is now focusing on Pakistan’s tribal areas. Declaring success in Iraq on the basis of lower casualty figures over the last few months, it has now turned its attention to Afghanistan and effectively declared Pakistan’s tribal areas of a piece with the theatre of war in Afghanistan.

Effectively this means US forces have the right of hot pursuit within Pakistani territory. While a pronouncement to this effect was made recently by the US Chairman Joint Chiefs Admiral Mike Mullen, it turns out that President Bush had already signed a ‘finding’ in July sanctioning such operations in Pakistan. There also does not appear to be any significant difference in perspective with regard to the issue of formally extending the war to Pakistan between the Republican and Democratic presidential candidates.

It could be argued that Pakistan over the years has refused to recognise the nature of the very serious problem that it confronts in the area. But now that a new elected government is finally in place, what would be the point of putting it under extreme pressure with actions that will inevitably create more enemies in the area, alienate public opinion and make the government’s position untenable?

Going by media reports, the prime minister, the newly inducted president and the chief of army staff have, in their recent interactions with US officials at the highest level, sought more time to address the issue. There is certainly no quick and easy solution in sight, which is something that the US administration also recognises.

But this is where the election imperative kicks in. Presumably, the view is that getting some leading Al Qaeda figures in the closing stages of the campaign may just swing an increasingly close race in favour of the Republican candidate. Hence the frequent use of missiles launched by Predator drones and, now, ground operations by US forces on Pakistan’s side of the border. But what about the high cost in terms of innocent lives?

After Pakistan’s protest at the Angur adda raid by US forces on September 3, a drone incursion was repelled by Pakistan Air Force jets. In another incident denied by both sides, Pakistani troops reportedly fired at US commandos seeking to cross the border. Shortly thereafter, Mullen, on an unscheduled visit, pledged that US forces will fully respect Pakistan’s sovereignty but within hours there was another missile attack by US forces.

Once again after Pakistan’s protest we have the US Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte declaring that “Unilateral actions are not a durable or a viable solution…the best way forward for both of our countries is to try and deal with the situation in that border area on a cooperative basis…”

Given the election imperative, however, this is unlikely to represent a policy shift.

This election-driven US pressure is clearly proving to be counterproductive also with regard to the process of a gradual adjustment of the civil-military imbalance critical to the democratic transition in Pakistan. Consider the fairly elaborate statement declaring that Pakistan’s sovereignty will be defended at all costs, effectively putting US forces on notice. It came not from the president or the prime minister but from the COAS. Similarly it was the Pakistan Air Force chief, Air Marshal Tanvir Mahmood, who told a television interviewer that he had the capacity to deter incursions by Predator drones but could not go ahead in the absence of orders to act from the government.

Meanwhile, it is not quite clear just what was achieved by President Asif Zardari’s trip to the UK after he cancelled his visit to China — twice. But more significantly, it is the COAS General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani who will be visiting China next week for a five-day trip and along with his counterpart is also scheduled to meet Chinese President Hu Jintao.

Discarding both appeasement as well as the use of indiscriminate firepower we have to tread a difficult path in the area. The writ of the state must be asserted over territory within our borders and violations of sovereignty resisted. But, whatever strategy we are to adopt it cannot possibly succeed if there is a sense that the key players are pulling in different directions.

To make matters worse, the US is in the grip of what is being billed as the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression and we may yet see the Bush administration as well as the next regime looking at the war in the region as a useful diversion when difficult economic conditions at home push many to ask awkward questions pertaining to systemic failure and accountability.

Meanwhile, Russia may also take a tougher line in the region that could lead to a more aggressive US stance, with the people of Pakistan and Afghanistan losing the most. Equally, there is a broad-based popular movement in Kashmir that could be used by hawks in both India and Pakistan for their own ends, further undermining our ability to deal with the crisis on our western border. Not least, it is not just the US elections we have to keep in mind, elections are due in both India and Afghanistan in 2009 and that may not be of much help either.

In other words it is time to get our act together.

Abbas Rashid lives in Lahore and can be contacted at

Source: Daily Times, 20/9/2008

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