Wednesday, May 11, 2011

The New Great Game - Behind the scenes in Af-Pak-Ind, and places in-between

Osama’s gone, Pakistan drones on and Afghanistan and India are the biggest losers

by Leela JACINTO FRANCE 24’s

The meeting was fixed last month and would have gone unnoticed outside Af-Pak wonk circles. But then Osama bin Laden was found right under the Pakistani military’s nose and suddenly reporters on the ground were dashing for the post-meeting presser while their bosses were interrupting regular programming to go live to Islamabad.

Last month, we were told that Marc Grossman - the man who replaced the late Richard Holbrooke as US Special Envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan – would be in Islamabad May 3 to attend “the first-ever trilateral meeting” between US, Afghan and Pakistani reps to try to seek a joint resolution to the Afghan conflict.

In other words: snore.

But then barely 24 hours before the three-party talks, bin Laden was gunned down in his luxury Abbottabad lair (or haveli as it’s called in these parts) around the corner from the Pakistan Military Academy, the country’s West Point-meets-Sandhurst.

Suddenly, nobody was in the mood for the old discourse on diplomatic resolutions anymore.

US-Pakistani relations had hit an all-time low. The questions were deadly serious.
Was the Pakistani security- intelligence apparatus incompetent or duplicitous?

We’ve heard the Pakistani security incompetence spiel before. It goes like this: We’re doing our best, thousands of brave Pakistani troops have fallen in the fight against our common enemies, we just don’t know where your most-wanted man-of-the-moment is currently hiding because… you know… we have these tribal border badlands we barely administer …

But as shocked neighbors around the Abbottabad haveli told news teams that their IDs were routinely checked before they could enter the well secured neighborhood, the incompetence argument was starting to look flimsy.

Collusion between Pakistan’s famously shadowy spy network and its famously well-endowed extremist networks seemed more likely.

Three questions only

And so, the world’s attention was on Grossman - along with Pakistani Foreign Secretary Salman Bashir and Afghan Deputy Foreign Minister Javed Ludin – as they faced the news pack at the Pakistani Foreign Office Tuesday.

Given the time constraints, the three men will take only three questions please, announced the stern lady policing the conference.

First question to the Pakistani journalist at the back of the chandeliered room. It’s a “very specific question” on US drone strikes in Pakistan.

Grossman, the charm-challenged US envoy, replies with Washington’s customary, “I’m not going to discuss drone strikes” line.

Second question, a two-part query from another Pakistani journalist. First part: where’s the proof of bin Laden’s death? Second part: about US drone attacks violating Pakistani territorial integrity...

Drone on, drone strikes.

Grossman, the charm-challenged US envoy, replies with Washington’s customary, “I’m not going to discuss drone strikes” line.

Finally, the third question, by an Al Jazeera English correspondent, was about the trust deficit between the US and Pakistan. But then one opinionated hack somewhere in the room launched into a loud but indecipherable tirade, leaving an embarrassed Bashir to round up the presser with a quotable, but useless, “the issue of Osama bin Laden is history”.

How to win more US military aid by mobilizing the anti-drone campaign

I can’t calculate how many hours of my life have been spent listening to rants about US drone strikes targeting militants in Pakistan.

Don’t get me wrong, nobody in their right mind wants the nasty package deal of drone strikes that includes a collateral damage of civilian casualties that undermine US legitimacy in the region.

So, when my friends in the human rights community groan about drone strikes, I hear them out because they have a point.

But for the Pakistani press posse to drone on about US drone strikes a day after their military and their government have been exposed for their incompetent, possibly duplicitous role in their anti-extremist fight is particularly rich.

For Pakistani establishment figures to play the old sovereignty and territorial integrity card in a country where prime terrorist territory is barely controlled is a farce.

The divide between the anti-terror experts and the human rights community is particularly wide on the business of US drone strikes in Pakistan.

Expert after expert has told me that the strikes in Pakistan’s lawless tribal frontier regions have been effective in crippling militant networks.

Some maintain that behind-the-scenes, the Pakistani authorities are cooperating with the US on drone strikes although they loudly and publicly declare their opposition to it.

I’m not so sure if the Pakistani military establishment is pro-drone strikes and is cooperating with the US on it. Certainly after the bin Laden killing, I find US intelligence more actionable than Pakistani intel.

If, however, the Pakistani military establishment is cooperating behind-the-scenes while publicly decrying drone strikes, that’s just another case of official Pakistani failure to come clean.

But the biggest opposition to US drone strikes in Pakistan comes from the right wing religious parties and these are the ones who invariably do the military’s bidding.

The Pakistani mobilization against drone strikes has all the hallmarks of an organized campaign: exaggerated but widely disseminated civilian death figures, extensive media outreach and wait, here comes the clincher: a sweet military aid deal for the generals.

It’s not something you’re likely to come across too often, so sit up and pay attention.

The Pakistani military establishment has been so effective in drumming up the anti-drone campaign – especially during visits by senior US officials – that the US is contemplating providing the Pakistani military 85 small "Raven" drone aircraft as a palliative for being left out of the aerial loop in the tribal areas.

Yep, it’s the time-tested bedrock of US-Pakistani relations over the past six decades: Pakistan wants, Pakistan whines, the US concedes, the US pays. It goes through fits and starts and often involves a complicated dance, but in the end, as Steve Coll put it, Washington decides that Pakistan is like AIG – too big to fail.
And so US officials cough up another tax dollar gift for an unreliable partner.

Hopelessly failing to buy the love

In recent times, Washington has tried a different tack on an old theme: providing aid – a whopping $7.5 billion over five years – to buttress Pakistan’s civilian government.

That’s around $1.5 billion for 2010 alone and already the news sites are awash with aid-failure stories.

I’ve been on this path so many times before. Shortly after the 9/11 attacks, there was much talk of developing the Pakistani education system so that poor families don’t have to pack their boys off to the local madrassas.

I interviewed ADB (Asian Development Bank) officials, World Bank officials – they’ve all been there, done that - and nothing changes.

It’s the sweet optimism of Americans – a naiveté the Pakistani establishment understands all too well – that compels US pundits to say that if we did this better, if we did not repeat past mistakes, we can make a difference this time.

In other words, US experts join Pakistani experts and non-experts in the favorite game on the subcontinent: blaming the US.

So far, the $1.5 billion earmarked for last year – only $179.5 million of which was disbursed due to chronic corruption and bureaucracy – has not done a damn thing to change Pakistani perception of the US.

It’s a long story, I’ve covered it before, I won’t get into now. Except for the latest conspiracy twist in how the bin Laden demise is being viewed in Pakistan.

Apparently many Pakistanis these days believe the whole bin Laden incident was just a ruse to portray the country in a bad light - that the al Qaeda chief was never in that Abbottabad compound in the first place, the operation was dreamed up so “the whole world can now point fingers at Pakistan.”

Seven-and-a-half billion US dollars for this bullshit.

Afghanistan neglected, manipulated in the mix - again

The most telling omission in this tale is the complete sidelining of Afghanistan in the latest fracas.

Tuesday’s news conference was about seeking a trilateral solution to end the Afghan conflict that has been fueled, funded and supported by Pakistan.

But not one question was posed to poor Afghan Deputy Foreign Minister Ludin, who stood gamely on the sidelines, watching his country neglected and manipulated – once more – by Pakistani interests.

With bin Laden gone, there’s renewed talk of a US pullout from Afghanistan.
Among other talking points, the trilateral meeting nudged forward a harebrained solution to the Afghan conflict that’s being pushed by the erratic, unstable Afghan President Hamid Karzai, one that also happens to be particularly appealing to Pakistan: Negotiating with the Taliban.

Negotiating with whom? Mullah Omar? Does that mean the ISI will finally ‘fess up to where they’re shielding the Taliban chief?

Who else? Jalaluddin Haqqani, Islamabad’s favorite militant in Afghanistan? Or Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a man so untrustworthy he bumps off friends and foes as the mood takes him? Ol’ Gulbuddin is another Pakistan favorite. Islamabad after all handed him the chunk of the CIA Cold War budget to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan. Nothing like an old friend on the western front.

And so, while many experts are contemplating a game-changer in US-Pakistani relations after bin Laden’s death, I’m predicting nothing new.

Washington will continue to try to buy the love in a country that has turned US-bashing into a fine art. Pakistan will continue to try to undermine Afghan aspirations to secure a peaceful future for their war-torn country. The US will ultimately abandon Afghanistan because Washington has no will to question the very basis of US-Pakistani relations that were formulated during the Cold War. And everyone will blame the USA for the mess we’re in

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