December 2, 2011

Wishful Mud-Slinging

The following column appeared in the Indian Express on December 2, 2011.

Coming only days after the dramatic exit of Pakistan’s ambassador to the US, Husain Haqqani, the November 26 NATO assault on two Pakistani outposts in the Mohmand Agency has led to a further deterioration in US-Pakistani relations. Although the major implications may not be very different, this incident has been unlike other setbacks this year in transcending the strictly bilateral, and directly involving the United States’ NATO allies as well as Afghanistan’s security forces.

But as with many such episodes related to Pakistan over the past few years, the exact details continue to be hotly disputed. In the absence of credible investigations or after-action reports by state authorities, or reliable independent reporting by the local media, the full facts may never be properly established, even though US and NATO forces have promised an investigation of their own. The US, led by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, has expressed regret for the incident and the White House has made efforts to convince Pakistan to reverse its decision to boycott next week’s Bonn Conference, where it had been expected to play the role of a pivotal stakeholder.

And yet, none of these gestures has stopped what has now become a predictable pattern of assertions and accusations. Pakistan has seen nationwide protests fed by a largely unquestioning and vitriolic press and repeated assertions by senior Pakistani army officers that NATO’s attack was deliberate. NATO and Afghan officials have countered that the Pakistani forces initiated the engagement, thereby preventing the hot pursuit of militants across the Durand Line. The American ambassador to Pakistan, Cameron Munter, subsequently relayed to Washington that a direct apology from President Obama would be required to placate the public furore, but the White House — frustrated by Pakistan’s antics, sceptical of Pakistani blamelessness, and worried about the political optics in the backdrop of next year’s elections — has balked at the suggestion.

Wherever the blame lies for the 28 deaths in Mohmand, the timing of the incident — and, even more importantly, the stage-managed free-fall into which it has set US-Pakistan relations — appears almost too convenient. Pakistani umbrage has ensured a suspension of NATO supply lines to Afghanistan, led to its insistence that the US vacate the Shamsi airfield in Balochistan (whose use by the US Pakistan had previously denied) and provided a fait accompli for Pakistan to undermine any positive outcomes of the forthcoming Bonn conference. Furthermore, it coincides with rumoured peace talks between Pakistan and factional leaders of the Pakistani Taliban in South Waziristan, who have reportedly made the withdrawal of the army from the agency and a break in US-Pakistan relations preconditions for a settlement.

Where does all this leave Washington? As Americans would say, between a rock and a hard place. With the self-imposed deadline for the military surge coinciding with severe budget cuts, popular anti-war protests and a presidential election cycle, the urgency behind seeking an appropriate end-state in Afghanistan and its region is unprecedented. This is complicated by a number of uncertainties pertaining to the nature and extent of the long-term US presence in Afghanistan, American end goals and red lines and the exact objectives and feasibility of US engagement with various Taliban factions. Furthermore, American assessments of the situation on the ground are themselves increasingly contested. Intelligence estimates reportedly paint a much dimmer picture of the durability of US military gains in Afghanistan than the claims made in public, although field commanders and US diplomats in Kabul have privately disputed such assessments.

Against this backdrop, the increasing recklessness of Pakistan’s security establishment resembles a high-risk game being played with fewer chips and a weak hand. Although the official reaction to the Mohmand incident by the White House, the State Department and NATO headquarters has sought to minimise the fallout, it is unclear whether the break in Pakistan’s relationship with the US will be temporary or whether it is in any way reversible. US officials still seem to believe it is, but that may well be the result of the same wishful thinking that has sustained the precarious US-Pakistan relationship for over a decade.