US Vice president Joe Biden has just completed his so-called one-day secret trip to Pakistan, which, incidentally, was known well in advance to the media all over the world. Biden was in Afghanistan last week to review the military operations against the Taliban and from there flew to Islamabad to meet the leaders of Pakistan, “the key ally of the United States,” in fight against the global terrorism. Biden might have met the Pakistani civilian leadership for protocol purposes, but his real aim was to interact with the Chief of Pakistani Army, General Ashfaq Pervez Kayani. Because, all told, the ultimate leader of Pakistan, despite its superficial civilian regime, happens to be Kayani. This column has been pointing out from time to time this unpalatable truth about Pakistan. In the final analysis, whether it is President Asif Ali Zardari or Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani, nothing will move in Pakistan, particularly in matters pertaining to foreign and security policies, without the consent of the country’s Army Chief, who at the moment happens to be General Kayani.
Biden’s mission was all about to ensure Kayani’s support towards a respectable withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan. Broadly speaking, the Afghan policy of the Obama Administration is being influenced by two conflicting schools of thought among his officials, with the American President himself maintaining a neutral position. Biden is in that school which suggests early withdrawal of the troops. Earlier he was suggesting that the withdrawal should take place in 2011 itself. But now he is amenable to the 2014 deadline. In his scheme of things, Pakistan must be appeased adequately to facilitate the American withdrawal because it is Pakistan that has leverage against the Taliban. If Pakistan convinces the so-called good Taliban to cease fighting and join the Afghan government or rule a major portion of Afghan territory undisturbed without troubling the nominal authorities in Kabul, the Americans could have a face-saving withdrawal.
On the contrary, the other school, consisting of mainly the generals, including the commander of the forces in Afghanistan, General David Petraeus, and Pentagon officials, rightly believes that Pakistan is not the solution to but the root cause of the troubles in Afghanistan. In fact, since the release of 90,000 pages of classified US military intelligence on operations in Afghanistan and Pakistan by WikiLeaks, the Obama Administration has struggled to win the media war. The leaks confirmed that the overall portrayal of the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence’s (ISI’s) “collaboration with the Afghan insurgency was broadly consistent with other classified intelligence”. The documents showed that the ISI has “acted as both ally and enemy… appeasing certain American demands for cooperation while angling to exert influence in Afghanistan through many of the same insurgent networks that the Americans are fighting to eliminate”.
These revelations came hot on the heels of independent studies arriving at the same conclusion. The first, by Harvard University fellow Dr Matt Walden, and published by London-based Crisis States Research Centre, interviewed Taliban field commanders and Western defence officials who said that the ISI continues to be “the provider of sanctuary and substantial financial, military and logistical support to the insurgency” as a part of its “official policy” of exerting “strong strategic and operational influence on the Afghan Taliban”.
Similarly, the American think-tank RAND Corp published its own report documenting official ISI support for militant Islamist networks such as the al-Qaeda affiliated Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammed. “Militant groups persist … because Pakistani leaders continue to provide support”, the study noted, urging that “a key objective of US policy must be to get Pakistan to end [this] support”. More disturbing is that US military intelligence has been fully cognizant of Pakistan’s sponsorship of the insurgency for the last decade. Confidential NATO reports and US intelligence assessments circulated amongst White House officials have documented consistent ISI support for Taliban insurgents. As head of the ISI between 2004 and 2007, none other than General Ashfaq Kayani presided over Taliban training camps in Balochistan and, in September 2006, provided insurgents in Kandahar with 2,000 rocket-propelled grenades and 400,000 rounds of ammunition. In 2008, US intelligence intercepted a communication in which Kayani described senior insurgent leader Maulavi Jalaluddin Haqqani, whose insurgent network runs much of the insurgency around Kabul and eastern Afghanistan, as a “strategic asset”.
This evidence is hardly commensurate with the notion that ISI support for the Taliban is a rogue operation. Indeed, it implicates Kayani himself. Yet Biden thinks that Kayani is the man, who is committed to purging the ISI to end its support for militant networks. He and other Obama officials persuaded Congress last year to sign up for an unconditional package of $6 billion in military and economic assistance to Kayani for five years. In fact, as of today, the US has already given about $20 billion to Pakistan since 2002. But Kayani, like his predecessor General Pervez Musharraf, refuses to be satiated. He wants more and more with a long wish-list, which he reportedly gave to Biden when they met.
One does not know the exact contents in that wish-list, but the following is a safe guess to make. Kayani wants that Pakistan, despite being the most hated country in Afghanistan, will have a veto over its affairs. He wants that Pakistan, as was the case before the overthrow of the Taliban by the Bush Administration, must be provided in Afghanistan the so-called strategic depth against India. Kayani wants the United States to pressurise India to have a negligible profile in Afghanistan, despite the fact that India is the most popular country in that country, with all its activities primarily aiming at socio-economic development in Afghanistan. But this is not all. With Obama under increasing pressure to order a troop withdrawal, Kayani calculates that not only will it be able to secure a Pakistan-centric solution in Afghanistan, but it will also manage to convince the Americans to rediscover the virtues in the pre-Bush policy of hyphenating India with Pakistan. The Bush administration had ensured that India and Pakistan must not be seen through one another’s prism. This policy hurt the Pakistani establishment, which always considers that India and Pakistan should be treated as equals by the international community. In fact, of late, Kayani has been demanding that the Americans must appreciate Pakistan’s concerns over Kashmir.
Apparently, one does not know what Biden’s response was to Kayani’s demands. The truth is that the United States, or any other country for that matter, can never satisfy the Pakistani establishment when it comes to India. The fundamental reality is that Pakistan’s very existence is dependent on its anti-India posture. Take India away and Pakistan will have an identity crisis.
Will Biden convince his President that he must forget about his romance with India, evident during his highly useful visit to India last November, to appease Pakistan? Because, beyond a point, unreasonable engaging and bribing of Kayani with more economic and military aid will anatgonise India, given Pakistan’s obsession with India and its record in diverting the assistance meant to fight in Afghanistan against India.
But then the unpleasant truth is that Biden’s happens to be the dominant view in the Obama administration that if Kayani is not helped, then Pakistan’s most stabilizing institution—the Army—would not be able to keep the country’s nuclear weapons safely at a distance from its militants and these weapons may fall in the hands of the Taliban and al-Qaeda. That the United States is continuing to buy this nuclear blackmail all these years is a different story of the decline of American power, which we will analyse on another occasion.
By Prakash Nanda