Never very attentive to the subtleties of professional intelligence gathering, the war cabal in Washington DC has premised much of its global enterprise on embellishing and embroidering findings to support predetermined courses of action. There was little they could do though, with the U.S. National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) released mid-July, except to evade the substance of the argument and narrow their focus to certain conclusions.
The NIE, which is a periodic summation of the most authoritative findings of U.S. intelligence agencies, had several inconvenient truths to tell. It told for instance, of how the extremist group Al Qaeda had, despite all the pressure exerted by the U.S. military machine, “protected or regenerated key elements” of its capability in the relatively sheltered environment of the Waziristan region in Pakistan. It observed too that Al Qaeda had achieved significant success in its effort to “recruit and indoctrinate operatives” willing to strike on U.S. territory, in part through an Iraqi affiliate.
U.S. President George Bush, sinking rapidly into a mire of approval ratings in the lower twenties, picked up the possibility of another attack on home soil and expectedly flaunted it as sufficient reason for the country to support him. Even if he managed yet again to fan aflame deep-seated insecurities, few seemed to believe that he had the political imagination or the credibility, to address the issue.
The NIE set off feverish activity on another front, provoking calls by politicians, both minor and major, for aggressive new military action. Barack Obama, a candidate for the presidential nomination of the Democratic party, insisted that the U.S. should be at liberty to act in the Waziristan region if “actionable intelligence” existed and Pakistan failed to do what was necessary.
Obama’s was among the more reasoned responses to the NIE. Days later, the Republican Tommy Tancredo, also a candidate for presidential nomination, had a much more drastic solution to propose. “If it is up to me”, he said, “we are going to explain that an attack on this homeland… would be followed by an attack on the holy sites in Mecca and Medina”.
As the Bush administration sought desperately to distance itself from these vituperations, Pakistan’s ambassador to the U.S., the former general Mahmud Ali Durrani, was engaged in a fire-fighting operation of his own. Variously describing the findings of the NIE as “absolutely incorrect” and “an absolute fallacy”, Durrani reminded his U.S. hosts that they had no option but to rely on Pakistan to bring peace to Afghanistan. Unilateral action by U.S. forces often resulted in unacceptable levels of “collateral damage”, with few of the legitimate military objectives being met. Pakistan could not afford to sustain these levels of civilian deaths. Besides, it had the concern too, that U.S. intelligence very often was “faulty”, “inaccurate” and tended not to be “timely” either.
These locutions could have been a coded reference to the frequent missile strikes in Waziristan and other border regions of Pakistan, which have inflicted casualties in the scores. Two such attacks occurred in June, though the bloodiest so far, was the October 2006 strike on a madrasa, which killed around 80 students. Eager to dispel any notion of its territorial sovereignty being breached, Pakistan has been stepping up to take the responsibility for these attacks. The October attack, it has claimed, was targeted at Al Qaeda’s second-in-command, Ayman Al-Zawahari, who had planned a visit to the area and then changed his mind.
Pakistan’s claims have fooled none, since the operations have had the fingerprints of the U.S. all over them. Far from neutralising terrorism, the U.S. combat strategy of using massive airpower, is creating a fertile breeding ground for insurgents, in both Pakistan and Afghanistan. According to recent media reports, the civilian casualties inflicted by U.S. and allied forces in the southern Afghanistan province of Helmand, are now running well in excess of those caused by the Taliban.
Afghan president Hamid Karzai has repeatedly called for greater care and circumspection by the U.S. military. But “overwhelming force” remains the operational philosophy of U.S. forces, a doctrine underwritten by a lack of accountability that stems directly from the demonisation of Afghan civilians in both the official discourse and the media. Also of material consequence, is Karzai’s rather limited cachet at home, and his dependence on U.S. approval for continuing in office.
Karzai’s problems are in large measure, similar to those his counterpart in Pakistan faces. Indeed, the more that he and General Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan are seen to be standing with the U.S. and the more they are paid homage by Bush for their steadfast commitment, the greater the political damage they suffer.
The symmetry of their political predicaments has not induced any sense of mutual understanding between the two. Pakistan is deeply committed to the Pashtu interests in Afghanistan, which it fears, would boil over into its own restive tribal territories if denied a legitimate place across the Durand line. But the regime in Kabul is too dependent on the Dari-Farsi segment of Afghan society, represented by the Panjsher valley contingent of erstwhile mujahedin, who claim the authority of their late commander Ahmad Shah Masood, not to mention the Herath provincial chieftain, Mohammad Ismail Khan. Karzai’s government moreover, is obliged to make peace with sundry other warlords who retain enormous potential for mischief.
With all these accommodations made, there has been no credible way for the Karzai regime to grant the Pashtu tribes of the south and east the share in power they assume would be their due.
Even if the complexities of the situation on the ground were alien to Bush’s understanding, he has been aware of the frosty relations between the two men he acknowledges as key allies. September last, he invited both presidents to Washington DC, for a three-way meeting. The idea of a “peace jirga” involving Pakistan and Afghanistan was born then, on Karzai’s initiative. By all accounts, Musharraf was lukewarm, but acceded to the proposal under U.S. pressure.
The idea of adapting the jirga, or traditional assembly of Pashtu tribes to the cause of building bridges between two neighbouring States, each facing problems of internal turmoil and external tutelage, was a novel one. But it continued to encounter Pakistan’s indifference. Since very little has officially been said about the matter, the reasons can only be guessed at.
It is not difficult to see that the process of tribal consultations across borders runs contrary to the centralising tendency of a state dominated by the military. To be of any consequence, these consultations must be accompanied by a commitment that cross-border solidarities, of tribe or ethnicity or language, would be given significant room, setting up a force potentially antithetical to the centralising state. With the persistent trouble it has faced in Baluchistan now compounded by the turmoil in Waziristan, there is ample reason for Islamabad to worry about yielding greater room for tribal communities to determine the contours of relations with Afghanistan. Aside from the insecurity engendered by recent experience, the process would also necessitate a dilution of the concept of “strategic depth” – a doctrine that military administrations in Pakistan have in particular been committed to, as an antidote to the sense of siege the state has suffered from the moment of its birth.
In the days before the jirga, three heavyweight leaders of Islamic political parties in Pakistan – Fazlur Rahman, Samiul Haq and Qazi Hussain Ahmad – all of Pashtu extraction, decided to stay away. The tribal chiefs of Waziristan soon followed suit. Before setting off for Kabul, Pakistan delegates were extensively briefed by senior officials of both the federal government in Islamabad and the provincial government in Peshawar. Public expectations were low. And the delegates were reportedly instructed that they were under no circumstances to yield the moral ground. Any attempt to place the blame on Pakistan for the situation in Afghanistan, would have to be firmly rebuffed.
Musharraf opted out of attending the jirga, sending Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz instead and staying back amidst frenetic speculation about his intent to declare a state of emergency. The mounting speculation only died down when the Pakistan president disavowed the idea, amidst expressions of disapproval from Washington.
The month preceding, since the siege of the Lal Masjid in Islamabad was broken by heavy-handed military methods, had been traumatic for the Musharraf regime. Moderate and enlightened opinion in Pakistan, which he had been counting on for support, was turning progressively more cynical at his intent to stay in office and retain his status as army chief. People increasingly were tilting to the belief that the Lal Masjid militants were marionettes that Musharraf had self-servingly put into play, to create a climate of fear and bolster his claims to another term as Pakistan’s uniformed president. The armed confrontation that followed only proved that he was not quite in control of the forces that he chose to unleash.
The Lal Masjid confrontation was followed in short order, by a public repudiation by tribal chiefs in Waziristan, of the peace agreement that Musharraf had forged with them in September 2006. This effectively turned the clock back four years, to the military operations that Musharraf had begun in the region in the turbulent summer of 2002, when India and Pakistan were mobilising forces for what both sides vowed, would be a decisive battle, and the U.S. was pressuring the Pakistan leader into doing its bidding as a price for its continuing neutrality.
The Pakistan army took heavy casualties in the operation and the peace agreement of September 2006 was perhaps a clear admission of defeat.
It was yet another admission of defeat when Musharraf shortly after the Lal Masjid conflagration, met with the exiled former prime minister, Benazir Bhutto in Abu Dhabi and reportedly agreed terms for her return prior to the next elections to the Pakistan National Assembly. But like a puppet master who had become himself an unwitting puppet, jerked around by unseen strings, Musharraf shortly afterwards denied any such deal. Another phase of public speculation ensued about Bhutto being indeed on her way back. And in the interim, the Sindh High Court admitted a petition calling for the annulment of the presidential decree (or deal) under which another former prime minister, Nawaz Sharief, was exiled.
To climax this tale of painful reversals by a beleaguered head of state, Musharraf shortly afterwards decided that he would accept Karzai’s invitation to address the closing session of the jirga in Kabul. From Washington, a spokesman of the State Department put out the statement that the Bush administration was “pleased” at the decision.
In the hours before the Pakistan president’s arrival, the jirga had been debating, beyond the florid speeches and the routine expressions of good intent, how best to operationalise a credible truce in the border region between the two countries. Curiously, according to a report put out by the Afghan news agency, Pajhwok, the Pakistan delegates at one stage tabled a proposal that two Indian consulates – of the four that this country has opened in Afghanistan – be shut down. Pakistan has for long argued that India’s decision to open four consulates in Afghanistan goes beyond a concern for good-neighbourly relations and has more to do with hegemonic ambitions. Indian consulates at Jalalabad and Kandahar, Pakistan argued, needed to be shut down, since these had become cockpits of intrigue, instrumental in fomenting tribal unrest in Balochistan and Waziristan.
The Afghan delegates protested that these demands were in breach of agreed rules of non-interference. And when Musharraf appeared before the closing session of the jirga, he came with a virtual mea culpa. In breach of the rules he had framed for Pakistan’s delegates, the president of Pakistan, with his Afghan counterpart nodding vigorously in agreement, read out the following lines from a prepared text: “There is no doubt Afghan militants are supported from Pakistan soil. The problem that you have in your region is because support is provided from our side.”
How this admission will influence the global U.S. crusade, is still a matter for debate. The Kabul peace jirga, expectedly, earned little coverage in the Indian media, which was busy celebrating the nuclear deal with the U.S. -- or the “123 agreement” -- another project in India’s continuing festival of concord with the global hegemon. But in the midst of all the chatter at the jirga, there were views expressed in Kabul, that salvation for the region lay in nothing less than the withdrawal of all alien forces. It was a demand that the dominant political parties in Balochistan and the North-West Frontier Province of Pakistan soon afterwards amplified. Client regimes of the U.S. in the region though, are yet to hear that demand. That condemns them perhaps to drifting further away from popular sentiment in their countries, with the possible consequence that inter-state violence could escalate in the months ahead.