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US incursions into Pakistan: Is a policy shift underway?

by Arif Azad, 23 September 2008

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The News, 21 September 2008

Unlimited pursuit

The ground assault by the US forces in Pakistan on Sept 3 is an indication of the alarming shift in US foreign policy

On Sept 17, while Admiral Mike Mullen , the chief of the US forces, was meeting a cross-section of top-drawer political and military elite in Islamabad to soothe Pakistan’s domestic political sensitivities, US launched yet another drone strike in the area near Agnoor Ada reportedly with the knowledge of the Pakistan authorities. This indicates a firmed-up US resolve in dealing with the growing militancy without reference to complicated political gameplay in Islamabad.

The chain of events leading to the Sept 3 ground assault can be pieced together now. According to a report published in The New York Times, President George Bush had okayed cross-border incursions some time in July 2008.

This change of policy was followed by a meeting between US defence officials and General Kayani. According to the Sept 13 issue of Newsweek, in the meeting, US officials showed grave concern over the inability of Pakistan troops to rein in the Taliban operating from within Pakistan.

Another top-level meeting on the same issue was soon to follow. On Aug 26, aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln, redeployed earlier in view of mounting attacks on foreign troops, General Kayani met the chief of the US forces Admiral Mike Mullen and other top officials (Associated Press, Aug 28). General Kayani was told during this testy meeting that the US troops reserved the right to enter Pakistani border towns in pursuit of militants if the need arose. This intimation was the first clear cut indication of the new strategy signed off by President Bush in July. This change in strategy — involving both Pakistan and Afghanistan — was publicly unveiled by Admiral Mike Mullen before the armed forces committee .

Previously a tacit understanding existed between the two countries whereby the US could target suspected Taliban hideouts inside Pakistan’s border provided that Pakistan could deny such violations of its airspace with a ’no comments’ policy observed by the US (the reported agreement limited pursuit to six miles within Pakistani territory).

The result has been an exponential increase in drone-operated assaults on the Pakistan territory in recent months. The frequency of these attacks reached a new height on Sept 3, when US Navy Seals landed in the Pakistan village of Angoor Adda , killing more than twenty-four people whom the US alleges to be connected to the Siraj Haqqani group.

While the Sept 3 ground assault drew instant condemnation from Pakistan, the drone-operated attacks have continued nevertheless. This new situation poses a grave challenge for both the US and Pakistan Like the multi-tangled war on terror, the future picture is likely to get muddied if efforts at honest resolutions are not undertaken immediately.

What has caused a shift in the US policy? The shift has come in the wake of some semblance of calm in Iraq. This has re-focused the US mind on Afghanistan. With increasing losses of foreign troops in Afghanistan and mounting Taliban activity, the US has adopted a more aggressive stance on Afghanistan (the US has lost the highest number of soldiers in one year during 2008). The new policy involves three components: the Bush administration signing off a new policy of authorising US to cross the Pakistani border in pursuit of suspected militants; two, seeking broader consensus for this policy with other NATO member involved militarily in Afghanistan; and three, beefing up existing US troops in Afghanistan in a replay of troops surge executed in Iraq (4500 troops are be sent to Afghanistan).

More significantly, both presidential candidates, Obama and McCain, are singing from the same hymn sheet of aggression as far as the Afghanistan policy is concerned.

This across-the-party consensus must have played some role in Bush’s decision to authorise troops deployment in the Pakistani border areas in July. As a first step towards engaging NATO members in the new US strategy, President Bush is seeking British Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s support for his new strategy. More worrying for the Pakistani state managers is the lumping together of Afghanistan and Pakistan in the US narrative. "Afghanistan cannot be discussed without reference to Pakistan," Admiral Mike Mullen reportedly told the US armed forces committee. Increasingly, Pakistan is being singled out as the source of further attacks on US targets which should send shivers down our Afghan policy spine.

Within Pakistan, the Sept 3 incident has suddenly jolted every one into frenzied patriotic fervour. The first to take lead was the COAS General Kayani who issued a stern denial that the US could not enter Pakistani territory under the current rules of engagement and that Pakistan army reserved the right to hit back at the intruders. This sabre-rattling continued with largely unconfirmed accounts of Pakistan’s airforce increasing its patrol of Pakistan skies in order to ward off US incursions.

The first duty of defusing the situation, of course, lies with the army leadership as it should assess the situation calmly rather than jumping on the bandwagon of hyped up patriotic sentiments — which are justified upto a point. This over-patriotic mode may land the army in trouble given its historic closeness to the US. It has to be remembered that General Ayub Khan was the first military ruler who authorised US bases to be sited in Pakistan. Afterwards, General Zia cast Pakistan’s lot with the US — without consulting the nation — during the Afghan war.

This policy continued in an enhanced form by General Musharraf who granted US carte blanche in conducting raids across the border — the policy whose logical extension was Sept 3.

Against this sorry backdrop, it is incumbent upon the army high command to work closely with the civilian government in framing a credible policy on the war on terror which commands the consent of the society. The current policy of continuing with the US policy in private, while opposing it in public could be the source of untold domestic complications.(the days when General Aslam Beg could instigate pro-Saddam demonstration while despatching Pakistan troops to Saudi Arabia are long gone now). Now the situation is radically different with an almost full-scale war looming on our border.

The next big question is about the competence of our new political leadership at this crucial juncture when the potentially destructive product of the great game and strategic depth faces us. In this context, President Zardari has a hell of a job in steering a tightrope walk between Pakistan’s national interests (defined after striking a fine institutional balance with the country) and strategic demands the war on terror has placed on us. Moreover, the question of reorienting Pakistan-Afghan relationship is closely bound up with this. For President Zardari to be seen too close to either Hamid Karzai, the Afghan president (as pointed out by Ayaz Amir in the pages of this newspaper) or cosying up too much to the US could be politically costly. The sooner President Zardari wisens up to this fact the better for the PPP government and the democratic set-up as a whole .

At the same time, the need for fine tuning a unified policy ,which involves the consent of all stakeholders, has never been this urgent. The army, for it part, should let the politicians decide things and refrain from undermining the current set-up by overplaying the patriotic card which can boomerang any time. Only by bringing all institutions under the umbrella of a unified Afghan policy can we speak with one voice and act with a singular will. As for the US, its hawkish policy, if executed in the current aggressive mode, would only beef up the ranks of the Taliban, undermine the nascent civilian set-up, and puff up the already widespread anti-American feelings in Pakistan.