US outed, and far from drawn down
By M K Bhadrakumar
The United States-Pakistan relationship has reached a turning point reminiscent
of the run-up to October 1958, when Washington encouraged General Ayub Khan's
coup, apprehending the coming into power of an elected government in Pakistan
that might have refused to collaborate as the US's Cold War ally against the
An innocuous-looking thing happened on Sunday - Pakistan regained possession of
the Shamsi air base in Balochistan near the border with Iran after evicting the
US military presence
from there. The base itself had been leased to the United Arab Emirates (UAE)
The event is at once symbolic and tactical, while at the same time highly
strategic even as war clouds are on the horizon over Iran. Symbolic in the
sense that it is an assertion of Pakistan's sovereignty; tactical because the
US war strategy, which heavily depended on the drone attacks on North
Waziristan, will now have to be reworked. Is the drone era in the Afghan war
coming to a brusque end?
However, in all of this, what needs some careful analysis is why the US's
eviction from Shamsi holds strategic implications.
A mild stimulus
Washington initially viewed Islamabad's decision to expel the US personnel and
drone systems from Shamsi with disbelief as a knee-jerk reaction by the
Pakistani generals upset over the North Atlantic Treaty Organization's (NATO)
air strike on the border post at Salala in the Mohmand Agency on November 26,
which killed 24 Pakistani soldiers. Thus, Washington pressed its ally the UAE
into a mediatory role.
UAE Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zeyed al-Nahyan met President Asif Ali
Zardari to seek revocation of the Pakistani decision or at least an extension
of the 15-day deadline, but returned empty-handed. On getting the bad news from
the sheikh, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton phoned Prime Minister Yusuf
Raza Gilani, which was followed by a call a day later by President Barack Obama
Both Clinton and Obama drew a blank and thereafter the Pentagon reluctantly
began the evacuation from Shamsi.
Clearly, the US underestimated the downstream consequences of the November 26
attack on Pakistan. Pakistani director general of military operations, Major
General Ashfaq Nadeem told the federal cabinet and the parliament's defense
committee last week in a detailed briefing in Islamabad that the NATO attack
bore the hallmark of a well-planned "plot" by the US and NATO command in
If the likely US intention was to "engage" the Pakistani military leadership
with a mild stimulus of "shock and awe", it proved counter-productive. The
civil-military leadership in Pakistan still continues to talk in the same
voice. Gilani's "ex-post facto" endorsement of army chief General Ashfaq
Kiani's decision to deploy the defense systems on the Afghan border to "detect
any aircraft or helicopter and to shoot it down", at their meeting in Islamabad
on Saturday is the latest evidence of this.
But the crux of the matter is that the Obama administration has once again
ceded policy to the Pentagon. With the Central Intelligence Agency also headed
by an army general, David Petraeus, the Pentagon is pushing through a long-term
military presence in Afghanistan although a political solution is Obama's
stated goal. The US military aims to step up the fighting. The "drawdown"
strategy outlined by Obama last year is being conveniently reinterpreted for
The US's most recent statements have shed the strategic ambiguity over the
"drawdown" and it is now crystal clear that tens of thousands of American
combat troops are after all going to remain in Afghanistan beyond 2014 for an
indeterminate future in addition to the trainers and advisers devoted to
"capacity-building" of the Afghan armed forces.
The New York Times noted that Pentagon had been "quietly pushing" for this
policy shift for some time. In essence, even as the negotiations over the
US-Afghan strategic pact paving the way for the establishment of American
military bases in Afghanistan have come to the final stage, the US is
discarding the strategic ambiguity about the scope and nature of its long-term
This shouldn't have come as a surprise. But Pakistan is facing a difficult
situation. Contrary to Pakistan's line of thinking that the military path is
futile, the US is sticking to the "fight-talk" approach, which is to go on
fighting while exploring the scope for opening talks with a militarily degraded
Taliban from a position of strength.
Two, the US is not willing to concede a central role for Pakistan in the peace
talks and is non-committal about Pakistan's wish to have a "friendly"
government in Kabul, because it seeks to choreograph a settlement that first
and foremost would meet the needs of its regional strategies.
Three, paradoxical as it may seem, the continued fighting actually suits the US
in the coming period, because it not only provides the justification for the
long-term deployment of combat troops in Afghanistan despite regional (and
Afghan) opposition but also gives the raison d'etre for the Northern
Distribution Network (read US-NATO military presence in Central Asia), which
Russia is showing signs of linking to the resolution of the dispute over the
US's missile defense system and the dissipation of the US-Russia "reset".
Over and above all this, Obama's decision to keep a large force of combat
troops in Afghanistan needs to be viewed against the backdrop of the growing
tensions in the US-Iran relations. In the eventuality of any conflict with Iran
in a near future, this sort of massive military presence on Iran's eastern
flank would be a great strategic asset for the US and NATO.
Make no mistake, the US intends to use the military bases in Afghanistan as a
springboard to invade eastern Iran if conflict erupts, no matter what President
Hamid Karzai may think or say. By the way, Shamsi is also key air base close to
the Iran border. Unsurprisingly, NATO is considering a "joint center" in the
Persian Gulf region with the Gulf Cooperation Council countries. Thus, the US
hopes to "box in" Iran militarily from the Persian Gulf on one side and
Afghanistan on the other.
Indeed, NATO is fast transforming as a "smart alliance" based on a security
partnership between the 28 members and the rest of the world, thanks to the
military intervention in Libya. Ivo Daalder, the US ambassador to NATO, put it
explicitly in a recent briefing:
The Libya operation was a logical
outflow of the view that we need to have partnerships with countries around the
world ... The United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Jordan and Morocco not only
supported the operation, but also participated in it ... Lebanon was also a key
in the operation, as it was president of the UN Security Council at that time
and enacted the 1973 resolution ... This is a demand-driven partnership. A
demand by Arab countries.
All in all, therefore, the "hidden
agenda" of the Afghan war is out in the open. Pakistan finds itself between the
devil and the deep blue sea. First of all, the Pakistani military distrusts the
US's intentions behind such large-scale intelligence penetration of its
security apparatus in the recent years under the pretext of the "war on
terror", including the Inter-Services Intelligence and the military. In
particular, the military leadership fears that the US harbors intentions of
seizing Pakistan's nuclear assets at an opportune moment.
Obama's unprecedented decision to promote Petraeus as the Central Intelligence
Agency head rang alarm bells in the Pakistani mind. Second, US interests and
priorities in Afghanistan are increasingly in conflict with Pakistan's. Third,
Pakistan simply cannot afford to alienate China and Iran (or Russia for that
matter). Finally, the US will sooner or later deploy its missile defense system
in the region, which will threaten Pakistan's strategic capability.
Shaking the albatross
The message of the US strike of November 26 was a test case intended to "soften
up" the Pakistani military leadership and compel it to fall in line with the
US's strategy. Sheikh Nahyan tried to talk some good sense into the minds of
the Pakistani generals. But the Shamsi episode underscores that the
contradiction in US-Pakistan relations is far too acute to be reconciled easily
or in a near term.
The point is, it is turning out to be contradiction of a fundamental character.
The implications are serious. Pakistan is "obstructing" the US's regional
strategy. Put differently, Pakistan is a vital cog in the wheel of the US
Pakistan dissociated openly from the agenda of the recent Istanbul conference
(November 2), which aimed at creating an Organization for Security and
Cooperation in Europe-type regional security mechanism for Central and South
Asia and launching the New Silk Road project aimed at rolling back Russian and
Chinese influence in Central Asia. Pakistan also boycotted the Bonn conference
(December 5) that was expected to legitimize the long-term US military presence
in Afghanistan. To be sure, the two events floundered.
Washington is now left guessing whether Pakistan's strategic defiance is for
real. Its historical experience is that the Pakistani elites eventually buckle
under American pressure. But the "strategic defiance" over Shamsi would come as
a surprise. Meanwhile, by ceding Afghan policy to the Pentagon (and CIA), Obama
has taken the precaution of minimizing the scope of this problem area causing
controversy during his re-election bid next year. Petraeus is also well liked
by the Republicans.
This is an "Ayub-Khan moment" in the US-Pakistan relationship. Once again,
popular opinion in Pakistan threatens to intrude into the relationship. But
then, there are key differences, too. Kiani is far from the jovial
Sandhurst-trained general Ayub Khan was, who was fond of his drink and all good
things in life and was used to obeying orders.
Besides, China is not only not the Soviet Union or an adversary of Pakistan,
but is in reality its one and only "all-weather friend". How can or why should
Pakistan possibly collaborate with the US's containment strategy toward China?
The most important difference between 1958 and 2011, however, is, firstly, that
Kiani's "nativist traditions" require him to act within the collegium of corps
commanders who are acutely conscious of the mood within the armed forces, which
is that Pakistan should shake off the albatross that was hung around its neck
in late 2001.
Second, the Pakistani army is taking great and meticulous care that while
traversing the shark-infested waters in the months ahead, it holds the hands of
the country's civilian leadership at every stage, every moment.
The challenge facing the US is to locate an Ayub Khan, but it is an improbable
Ambassador M K Bhadrakumar was a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign
Service. His assignments included the Soviet Union, South Korea, Sri Lanka,
Germany, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Kuwait and Turkey.
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