June 23, 2008 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 449

Emerging Crisis in Pakistan-U.S. Relations

June 23, 2008 | By Tufail Ahmad*
Pakistan | Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 449


A series of policies devised by the new civilian government of Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani has set the U.S. and Pakistan on a collision course, threatening to undo the achievements so far in the War on Terror.

This turn in Pakistan-U.S. relations has wider implications for the War on Terror, especially in Afghanistan, where the newborn democracy is yet to stand on its feet. The origins of this rift in Pakistan-U.S. relations lie in the nature of the regimes in Islamabad before and after the February 2008 elections – namely, the military-led government under Gen. President Pervez Musharraf and the subsequent civilian government of Yousuf Raza Gilani. Gen. Musharraf took the reins of power in a coup in 1999 by toppling the government of elected Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. He was later backed by the Pakistan Muslim League (Q), a political party formed by dissidents from Nawaz Sharif's party.

While all governments in Islamabad had supported the Taliban in Afghanistan, following 9/11 Pakistan was forced to abandon the Taliban and support the U.S., becoming a key U.S. ally in its fight against Al-Qaeda and the Taliban. However, with a new government in power, this policy is undergoing a radical change.

The February 18 elections witnessed the rise of political parties that won because of their public opposition to Gen. Musharraf's continuance in power, and especially for his support to the War on Terror and his illegal holding of two posts simultaneously – army commander in chief and president. Gen. Musharraf was so scared of the legal challenges to his holding of both these posts that he fired most of the higher judiciary. However, mass opposition became so strong that Musharraf was forced to abandon the post of army commander in chief – but only after he engineered his victory for another term as president last November.[1]

The February polls decimated the Pakistan Muslim League (Q) that had supported the president. Major opposition groups such as Benazir Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party, Nawaz Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League (N) and the Pashtun nationalist Awami National Party emerged victorious.[2] The three parties are now dictating Pakistan's policies, in line with their election's pledge to eliminate the U.S. role in Pakistan's internal affairs. This is creating a gulf in Pakistan-U.S. relations. This gulf deepened on May 14, 2008 when a pilotless U.S. drone fired missiles at the house of a Taliban commander in Pakistan's tribal district of Bajaur Agency.[3]

The Damadola Attack and the New Criticism of U.S.

On May 15, 2008, Pakistan's mass-circulation Urdu-language newspaper Roznama Jang carried two contrasting news stories that reflect how Pakistani policies are moving on a course different from what the U.S. is accustomed to expect from its key ally. The first story was of the killing, by a U.S. drone, of more than a dozen Taliban militants and the destruction of another house that served as Taliban's arms depot in Damadola (Bajaur Agency)[4], and the second was of the release of 30 militants by the Gilani government in exchange for the freedom of 55 soldiers, under a peace deal with the Pakistani Taliban in the federally administered tribal district of South Waziristan. Also under the deal, the civilian government withdrew Pakistani security forces from the streets to their barracks.[5]

The U.S., and in fact most of the international community, does not want the Pakistani government to make peace deals with the Taliban, as it often involves yielding control to the Taliban and releasing militants who are then free to cross the border to Afghanistan and to fight U.S. and NATO troops. At the same time, the new regime in Islamabad does not want the U.S. to interfere in any way in the country's internal affairs.

The Damadola attack fuelled mass anger in Pakistan against the U.S., with people and politicians criticizing it as an attack on Pakistan's sovereignty. There was nothing new in the attack itself. There have been missile attacks on militants' meetings in Damadola in January and October 2006, and even after that the U.S. and NATO soldiers deployed in Afghanistan maintained vigilance in their reaction to the Taliban activities inside Pakistani border areas.

On past occasions, the Pakistani policy had been to ignore such attacks from an important and powerful ally. The government, led by Gen. Musharraf, at best protested the loss of innocent lives. Now with the change in the regime in Islamabad, with the control of power shifting from Gen. (now retired) President Musharraf to the civilian Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani, the reaction was different.

However, change often brings confusion. After the May 14, 2008 attack, Pakistan's foreign office was initially in confusion, perhaps due to a sense of realpolitik, as to whether to continue with the traditional policy of not criticizing such attacks. In its first reaction, the foreign office said it was not aware of any such attack.[6] However, there was a new government and new popular expectation from it. Prime Minister Gilani took upon himself to strongly criticize the attack on Damadola in Bajaur Agency, stating: "Pakistan condemns the Bajaur attack. Not every policy of the U.S. is practical, nor [we] can act upon it."[7]

The Nature of the New Regime in Pakistan

Notwithstanding statements by Prime Minister Gilani about 'impractical' U.S. polices, Pakistan has been a strong ally of the U.S. for the past six decades. Under the leadership of President Musharraf, Pakistan has indeed provided practical help to the U.S. in hunting down Taliban and Al-Qaeda militants after 9/11. Gilani's statement was meant not only to condemn the Damadola attack but also to indicate that Pakistan would not accept every U.S. demand.

This change in Pakistani policy is rooted in the nature of the new regime in Islamabad. On March 29, 2008, Yousuf Raza Gilani became the first Prime Minister to obtain the vote of trust by all political parties including those in opposition. Soon after the vote, Gilani announced a series of programs for his government's first 100 days. In his address to parliament, the prime minister signalled his government's intention to reverse the Musharraf-era policy of confronting the Taliban. He said: "Terrorism has put the nation in danger. Ending terrorism will be our first priority. Some people have taken to the path of violence; they should abandon the path of violence. We are ready for talks with these forces [Taliban]."[8]

The policy of engaging the Taliban is rooted in a belief that the bomb blasts and suicide attacks that literally destabilized Pakistan in recent years can be stopped through dialogue with the militants. This belief is shared by the major parties of the ruling alliance: the Pakistan People's Party, the Pakistan Muslim League (N) and the Awami National Party. The latter has also formed the provincial government in Pakistan's North West Frontier Province (NWFP).

The U.S. and Afghanistan have opposed the new Pakistani policy of engaging the Taliban, saying that instead of eliminating extremism the new Gilani government is actually strengthening the militants in Pakistan's tribal districts. However, the governments in Islamabad and North West Frontier Province have gone ahead with negotiations with the Taliban. As a result, several top Taliban leaders and hundreds of militants have been released from Pakistani prisons, among them Islamist leader Maulana Sufi Muhammad. The Gilani government has also agreed to establish shari'a rule in the border region, as desired by the Taliban.[9]

While these deals buy temporary peace for Pakistan, the U.S. and Afghanistan are deeply worried, fearing that the Taliban will become stronger in the process. If the Taliban became stronger, the traditional Pakistani policy of controlling Afghanistan through the Taliban may emerge again.

Pakistani Taliban Involved in Fighting in Afghanistan

The U.S. concern over Pakistan's new policy of dialogue was articulated at the highest level by the White House. President George W. Bush said that if there was another 9/11-like attack on the U.S., the planning for such an attack would take place in Pakistan's tribal areas.[10]

Afghanistan has also argued that the Pakistani deal with the Taliban leaves Afghanistan's new democracy vulnerable to Islamist takeover. It has even asked Pakistan to give it a list of Taliban leaders released under the peace deal.[11] Afghanistan has expressed concern that the assassination attempt on Afghan President Hamid Karzai last April was planned in Pakistan's tribal districts.[12] President Karzai has repeatedly stated that the deals with the Taliban are increasing threats to Afghanistan, as under these deals the Taliban are not prevented from crossing into Afghanistan.

In an editorial, the Peshawar-based Urdu-language newspaper Roznama Mashriq articulated the Pakistani standpoint: "The U.S. and NATO forces deployed in Afghanistan and the Afghan president are criticizing the peace deals. There is no justification for their criticism; nor do they have a right to interfere in Pakistan's internal affairs in such a way that it would impinge on Pakistan's independent and sovereign status."[13]

However, the U.S., NATO and Afghan concerns about Pakistani government's deals with the Taliban are turning out to be true. This was evident when the bodies of Pakistani Taliban fighters arrived from Afghanistan to Pakistan last May.[14] This was a clear case that the Pakistani Taliban are going to Afghanistan to fight the U.S. and NATO troops there.

U.S.'s Strategy and the Role of the Pakistan Army

The U.S.'s strategy is focused on two fronts: first, to continue to ensure that beleaguered General (R) President Musharraf remains in power as long as it is tenable or an alternative emerges. Second, to convince the Gilani government to understand the wider implications of deals with the Taliban and stop them sooner rather than later. President Musharraf still has the power to fire parliament should the civilian government take its confront-Musharraf policy to its logical end and impeach him. There is speculation as to whether Pakistan Army Chief Gen. Ashfaq Kiyani will support Musharraf in such an eventuality.

The Pakistani army has maintained distance from the civilian government's negotiations with the Taliban. There are three points on which the civilian government has pursued a policy different from that of the Musharraf regime: Taliban militants captured by the army are released in exchange for hundreds of its soldiers taken captive by the Taliban; secessionist fighters captured during military operations in the province of Baluchistan are being freed in the name of national reconciliation; and the civilian government has sent the case of the assassination of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto to be investigated by the U.N. – a move that some army generals fear may reveal inside information to non-Pakistani investigators.[15]

The U.S. hopes that the Pakistani army, which has received about US $10 billion in aid since 9/11, will toe the U.S. line and support former army man Musharraf. However, the army has lost respect in the eyes of people, and might not wish to go against the civilian government. Its policy for now has been to wait and watch. In response to U.S. concerns over the government-Taliban deals, an army spokesman said: "The objective of the military operations in the tribal districts was to restore the government's writ and law and order. We have brought the situations to a point where political process may begin."[16]

In order to impress upon the army that it still needs the U.S., the Pentagon has, for now, turned down a request from the Pakistan army for more funds to fight the militants, saying that previous such aid has not prevented Taliban and Al-Qaeda from creating safe havens in Pakistan's tribal areas.[17] In the last week of May, Pakistan was awash with rumors that President Musharraf was about to resign, ostensibly under the heavy barrage of mass criticism. There were rumours that a Turkish plane was waiting at the airport and his baggage was being readied. In a sign of how important it is to the U.S. that Musharraf not be lost from the scene, President Bush phoned Musharraf, assuring him of his support and expressing his hope that Musharraf would continue to play a role in U.S.-Pakistan relations.[18] This phone call laid all the rumors to rest.

On the other hand, the U.S. is also keeping up pressure on the civilian government. A number of U.S. military and government officials have visited Pakistan in recent months. They held meetings with military officials as well as political leaders of all Pakistani parties to convince them of their viewpoint. In the first week of May, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Richard Boucher directly mediated in the London talks between Asif Zardari and Nawaz Sharif, leaders of the two largest parties in the ruling coalition. The mediation was aimed at convincing Nawaz Sharif not to insist on restoring deposed Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry as part of the package for restoration of judges fired last November by President Musharraf.[19] The U.S. strategy here again is to help the beleaguered Pakistani president.

In the third week of May, the U.S. brought highest-level pressure on the civilian government. President Bush met with Prime Minister Gilani in the Egyptian resort town of Sharm Al-Sheikh. Following the hour-long meeting, Bush and Gilani pledged to work for long-term strategic relations between U.S. and Pakistan. But according to one media report, no progress was made with regard to the future of a likely joint strategy in the War on Terror.[20] For now, the U.S. is left with supporting President Musharraf, and with hoping that the Pakistani army will support him in the event that a crisis erupts. The search is continuing for a breakthrough in Pakistan-U.S. relations but it is turning out to be bitter and bloody.

For a while, it appeared that the U.S. diplomacy was turning out to be effective in convincing the civilian leadership in Islamabad that the deals with the Taliban are not the right way to go forward. This could be seen in the emergence of divergent opinions in the Pakistani establishment over the deals.

For example, Rahman Malik, the adviser for homeland security to the Pakistani Prime Minister, told a press conference that in view of the continuing Taliban activities a peace deal with them in the Swat district of North West Frontier Province has ended.[21] This surprised the NWFP government, which reacted by saying that the federal government could not end the deal as it was signed by the province. In another illustration of how the Pakistani government may have been sensitive to U.S. concerns over the Taliban deals, Pakistan's Defense Minister Ahmed Mukhtar said that the Damadola attack may have been accidental.[22] He has also introduced a sophisticated strand in public discussion on the deals by arguing that the government is engaging the local tribes, such as the Mehsud tribe in the tribal district of South Waziristan, and not 'outsiders' like Al-Qaeda.[23] However, the groups aligned under the banner of Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (the Movement of Pakistani Taliban) are very often organized on tribal lines, which makes this effort ineffective.

In the search for a breakthrough in Pakistan-U.S. relations, two incidents that occurred in mid-June need elaboration. The first of these was a U.S. bombing in the tribal district of Mohmand Agency on June 11 which killed more than a dozen Pakistani soldiers, including a major, as well as civilians.[24] For the people in Pakistan who were yet to forget the Damadola attack, this attack inflamed sentiments against the United States. Second, just a few days after the attack in Mohmand Agency, motorcycle-borne Taliban fighters stormed the main jail in the southern Afghan city of Kandahar and freed hundreds of Taliban.[25] The daring nature of the Taliban attack has a recent parallel in an assassination attempt last April against Afghan President Hamid Karzai, right in the middle of a military parade in Kabul. Afghanistan said at the time that the plot was hatched in Pakistan's tribal areas.

U.S. and NATO troops are fighting against the Taliban in Afghanistan. However, the Taliban have their nursery in Pakistan's tribal districts. After the Kandahar jailbreak, President Hamid Karzai made his strongest statement yet against the continuance of the Taliban's safe havens in Pakistan, warning that Afghan troops would cross into Pakistan in pursuit of the Taliban because Afghanistan is a victim of the terrorism being perpetrated from across the border in Pakistani tribal districts. Karzai reminded the Pakistani leadership of the statements issued by the leaders of Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan's Baitullah Mehsud, Maulana Fazlullah and Maulvi Omar, in which they had said they would cross into Afghanistan.[26]

For now, Pakistani Defense Minister Ahmed Mukhtar has condemned the U.S. attack that killed the Pakistani soldiers. However, he has also said that if Pakistan is to live with the international community, it will have to participate in the war against terror.[27] The days ahead will tell if Mukhtar's statements are the voice of a pragmatic loner, or that of Pakistan's civilian leadership. In view of the Taliban's storming of the Kandahar jail just days after the attack in Mohmand Agency, one wonders whether the U.S.'s search for a breakthrough in Pakistan-U.S. relations will materialize anytime soon.

* Tufail Ahmad is the director of MEMRI's Urdu-Pashtu Media Project.

[1] Roznama Nawa-i-Waqt (Pakistan), November 29, 2007.

[2] Roznama Jang (Pakistan), February 19, 2008.

[3] Roznama Jang (Pakistan), May 15, 2008.

[4] Roznama Jang (Pakistan), May 15, 2008.

[5] Roznama Jang (Pakistan), May 15, 2008.

[6] Roznama Jasarat (Pakistan), May 15, 2008.

[7] Roznama Nawa-i-Waqt (Pakistan), May 16, 2008.

[8] Roznama Nawa-i-Waqt (Pakistan), March 30, 2008.

[9] MEMRI Inquiry and Analysis Series No. 433, "The Taliban Stand to Gain Most From the New Pakistani Policy of Dialogue," May 1, 2008, Kuwaiti Columnist Urges Reexamination of Education in Arab and Muslim Countries

[10] Roznama Nawa-i-Waqt (Pakistan), April 14, 2008.

[11] Roznama Express (Pakistan), May 23, 2008.

[12] Roznama Jasarat (Pakistan), May 1, 2008.

[13] Roznama Mashriq (Pakistan), June 2, 2008.

[14] Roznama Mashriq (Pakistan), May 11, 2008.

[15] Roznama Jang (Pakistan), May 31, 2008.

[16] Roznama Jang (Pakistan), May 29, 2008.

[17] Roznama Jang (Pakistan), May 8, 2008.

[18] Roznama Express (Pakistan), May 31, 2008.

[19] Roznama Jang (Pakistan), May 10, 2008.

[20] Roznama Nawa-i-Waqt (Pakistan), May 19, 2008.

[21] Roznama Nawa-i-Waqt (Pakistan), June 10, 2008.

[22] Roznama Jang (Pakistan), May 17, 2008.

[23] Daily Times (Pakistan), May 28, 2008.

[24] Roznama Nawa-i-Waqt (Pakistan), June 12, 2008.

[25] Roznama Mashriq (Pakistan), June 15, 2008.

[26] Roznama Express (Pakistan), June 16, 2008.

[27] Roznama Nawa-i-Waqt (Pakistan), June 13, 2008.

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