Pakistan, it seems, is playing its trump card in the current crisis with the United States.
The trump card, of course, is Pakistan’s control of the vital lifeline that supplies the more than 100,000 American troops in Afghanistan with everything they require, including fuel. More than 80 percent of US supplies pass by land from Pakistan to Afghanistan over mountain passes at places like Torkham. Without Pakistan’s help, the entire American effort in Afghanistan would collapse overnight.
Yesterday, in protest of a US military attack on a Pakistani border post that killed three Pakistani soldiers, Pakistan closed Torkham. Today, “militants” burned two dozen NATO oil tankers that were filled with fuel for the US-NATO war next door. (Since Pakistan has had a long history of creating, arming and training militants and terrorists, including the Taliban, it’s likely that those who carried out the attack on the tankers were acting on behalf of the Pakistani army and its intelligence service, the ISI.
Meanwhile, the army and the ISI appear once again on the brink of a coup d’état to oust Pakistan’s corrupt and discredited civilian government and either install a military dictator or rule from behind the scenes. There are various scenarios, including the installation of Nawaz Sharif, the rival politician who is much closer to the Pakistani military than the current President Ali Asif Zardari, and who also maintains better relations with the Taliban and with Saudi Arabia, Pakistan’s key Arab ally. It’s an internal political crisis in Pakistan that’s been building ever since the 2008 ouster of the previous military dictator, Pervez Musharraf, and it was drastically exacerbated by the floods that devastated the country. (Musharraf, incidentally, announced today in London that he’s forming a political party. Reports AP: “Musharraf says the only way to tackle Pakistan's ailing economy and its political infighting—problems exacerbated by recent floods—is to further bolster the army's role.”)
Needless to say, the United States has thrown lots of fuel on the fire by recklessly attacking Pakistan intensively this month. In September, there were at least 20 drone attacks on targets in Pakistan’s tribal areas along the Afghanistan border, and two armed helicopter attacks across the border into Pakistan, including the one yesterday that killed the three Pakistani soldiers. An Pakistani army officer told the Washington Post that the US action represents a direct challenge to Pakistan’s sovereignty and is a case of “attacking the Pakistani army.” Pakistan’s Interior Minister, Rehman Malik, said: “We will have to see if we are allies or enemies.”
David Ignatius, who’s in Pakistan, held an interview with a senior ISI official. Writing in the Post, Ignatius quotes the ISI officer’s response to the killing of the soldiers: “Pakistan is not a walkover country. I will stand in the way of the convoys myself.”
But Ignatius gets to the heart of the matter by saying that so far the United States has not worked with Pakistan at all on reconciliation with the Taliban in Afghanistan. As I wrote last week, Gilles Dorronsoro of the Carnegie Endowment in Washington is one of the few regional experts who’s courageous enough to argue that the way out of Afghanistan for the United States is to work with Pakistan in pursuit of a deal with the Taliban, since Pakistan can bring the Taliban—or most of it—to the negotiating table. But Ignatius reports that the ISI official says that American efforts in Afghanistan aren’t working, and that for some reason Washington hasn’t approached Pakistan or the ISI about getting the Taliban to sit down and talk. He reports:
The ISI official was skeptical that the United States was making much military progress in Afghanistan. (‘Is there a US strategy?’ he asked.) And he questioned the American premise that by killing enough insurgents, it could ‘bargain from strength’ and force the Taliban into a settlement. He complained that the United States isn't sharing its thoughts about reconciliation with the Taliban, even though Pakistan would be crucial in facilitating any deal. Privately, the ISI has argued that if America is serious about reconciliation, it should start with the Haqqanis, the hardest challenge.
If the Pakistan military does seize power, once again the United States will find itself allied to a Pakistani military dictatorship. Because CIA Director Leon Panetta has been in Pakistan meeting with army and ISI officials this week, it’s certain that there will be a widespread perception that the CIA instigated the coup d’état. In fact, even before the floods, Pakistan was a political and economic basket case, and it’s always been true, as many observers have noted, that “while some countries have armies, in Pakistan the army has a country.” The civilian institutions in Pakistan have not put down roots, and it’s safe to say that few Pakistani have any faith in corrupt leaders like Zardari. The United States may, indeed, welcome an army takeover, but in fact the two countries are on sharply differing paths. The Obama administration wants Pakistan to attack the Taliban and its allies inside Pakistan, especially in North Waziristan, while the Pakistanis have no intention of doing so. Pakistan considers the Taliban as critical for maintaining Pakistani influence in Afghanistan, including the Haqqani network.
Instead of raining drones down onto Pakistan’s territory in a vain effort to wipe out the Haqqani forces and the Taliban, the United States ought to sit down with the ISI and figure out how to talk to the Taliban in search of a deal.