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Military and political prongs of USA blunted

25 October, 2011

By Asif Haroon Raja

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The US military, Pentagon and CIA have been incessantly pushing Obama administration since mid 2010 to force Pakistan to carryout military operation in North Waziristan (NW). White House and State Department kept mentioning about al-Qaeda's presence and safe havens in NW and linkages of elements within Pak Army and ISI with al-Qaeda and Taliban. When Pakistan showed little interest in starting an operation in NW and stalled the pressure, and ISAF couldn't contain the Taliban upsurge despite receiving reinforcements twice, Obama administration considered it expedient to give preference to dialogue over military option. Obama's December 2010 strategic review produced a prospective substitute to that of US military-CIA approach, which was averse to negotiations with hard line Taliban and drawdown program. Obama also decided to get his decision of troop pullout implemented despite serious reservations of hawks in US military and Pentagon.

The military prong under General Petraeus continued with its efforts to emasculate the Taliban fighters using brutal methods which included target killings, night raids and excessive use of air and long range ground firepower. Admiral Mullen and Petraeus both were confident that sooner than later positive effects of troop surge would start showing and Taliban would be forced to negotiate for peace on US terms. They had serious reservations against time-programmed pullout plan since they thought that it had bolstered the spirits of Taliban and lowered the morale of ISAF. This divergence in perceptions led to a silent cold war between Pentagon and White House. In order to justify Petraeus stance for a prolonged stay and continued use of military force till the subjugation of resistance forces, ISAF's media cell began eulogizing him and created an impression that lot of progress had been achieved against the Taliban.

The political prong widened its range of contacts with Taliban, Haqqani network (HN) and Hizb-e-Islami. Hamid Karzai with the help of his half-brother Ahmed Wali, his aide Jan Muhammad, Tayyab Agha and some others were also trying hard to make contacts with Mullah Omar and his Shura members as well as commanders of HN. An imposter from Quetta posing as Taliban commander Mansur and claiming to be confidante of Mullah Omar was also playing his role. Services of other countries like Saudi Arabia, Qatar, UAE, Turkey and Germany that had access to Taliban were also co-opted. The underlying purpose was to either make the Taliban agree to US three demands or else divide the Taliban and isolate the hardliners. The US officials guided by ISI contacted Ibrahim Haqqani, son of Jalaluddin Haqqani in summer of 2011. The ones managing the political prong also claimed that good progress had been made and agreement was round the corner.

Feeling humiliated over being befooled by a shopkeeper from Quetta, the US led ISAF suffered one setback after another in quick succession from May 2011 onwards. In order to rebut the false propaganda, the Taliban not only assassinated certain key personalities in Kandahar and Kabul but also carried out series of attacks in and around Kabul including western and northern Afghanistan. The ISAF and Karzai regime staggered under the shock effects of murders of Ahmad Wali Karzai, Jan Muhammad and Mayor of Kandahar Ghulam Haider Haidri. Loss of Chinook helicopter at the hands of Taliban killing 33 American soldiers, truck bombing attack on NATO base in Wardak on September 10, in which 77 US soldiers got injured and quite many among them succumbed to injuries were big shocks for ISAF command. 13 September attacks by Taliban in Kabul were the deadliest which shattered the confidence of US-NATO and of Afghan National Army (ANA).

Till these incidents, only southern and eastern Afghanistan were considered dangerous and beyond the control of US-NATO-ANA. The ease with which six militants traveled across several provinces situated between Khost and Kabul, went past rings of security cordons, entered Kabul city and not only attacked the most protected cluster of US Embassy, NATO HQ and National Directorate of Security, but also held the state machinery paralyzed and the capital city hostage for 20 hours and then got away was extremely embarrassing for USA and Karzai regime. 13 September disaster in Kabul has paled GHQ, Abbottabad and Mehran Base debacles into insignificance. The world is now deriding USA and not Pakistan.

The Taliban have succeeded in striking the most protected heartland of Afghanistan several times in recent months and are rearing to continue with their murderous assaults so as to force the occupation forces to speed up their process of pullout. Unable to do anything against their principle foe, the US in impotent rage accused HN and ISI and started snarling at Pakistan, holding it responsible for its humiliation and agony. The response is similar to the one after 9/11 when the US ignored the countries of origin of the 19 hijackers and attacked Afghanistan which had no connection with terrorist attacks.

Secretary Defence Leon Panetta cast the first stone towards Pakistan. He aggressively stated that the US would directly intervene and deal with HN in NW if Pakistan didn't act. Admiral Mike Mullen led the military band accusing Pakistan of its complicity in 13 September attacks. While addressing Senate Armed Services Committee on 22 September, he chimed that HN is the strategic arm of ISI. He however, hastened to contradict himself by adding that HN is not controlled by ISI in real sense. He endorsed what White House and State Department had been propagating. Congressmen also fumed in anger and waved their threat of aid cut. The sickening tirade of US officials angered all and sundry in Pakistan. No country worth its salt could have taken such unconcealed insults and remained mum over the way accusations and threats were hurled against an ally which had rendered more sacrifices than any other country. It led to war of words which resembled Indo-Pak saber rattling.

Pentagon's position has become weak because of dismal performance of ISAF in Afghanistan. Latter's performance might not have become that obvious had Pakistan Army been also sailing in the same boat. It is fighting the US imposed war under extremely heavy odds. Since it had to fight its own people it couldn't overlook the civilian casualty factor, which meant fighting the militants with one hand tied. It remained seriously handicapped because of lack of counter terror equipment, mobility means and funds. It had to face the onslaught of high intensity covert war waged by six intelligence agencies headed by CIA and also the stings of Indo-US-Western vicious propaganda campaign. Above all, the militants it fought on home ground were funded, trained, equipped and guided by the CIA-RAW-Mossad team. Pakistan's economy suffered on account of manmade and natural calamities but the war inflicted the heaviest toll. So far it has incurred a loss of $70 billion and investment from abroad has ceased. Instead of mitigating the hardships of Pakistan, the US rubbed salt on its wounds by threatening to intervene. $800 million close support fund for Pak Army was suspended in a huff. It rejected Pakistan's repeated requests to stop drone war in retaliation to Pakistan not launching an operation in NW, not realizing that drones were intensifying terrorism.

Already bitten hard by USA on 2 May, the Army command couldn't afford to take any chance after hearing hostile statements and threats from senior most military and civil leaders of USA. A six-hour long marathon Corps Commanders conference was held on Sunday the 25 September in GHQ and it was decided not to submit to unreasonable demands of USA any more and to give a befitting reply in case of any aggressive act. Kayani rebuffed the allegations and said the US should focus on stabilizing Afghanistan instead of focusing on Pakistan. He added, 'the problem lies in Afghanistan not Pakistan'.

The Army was put on notice, and air force, air defence and Strategic Force Command were alerted to deal with any intrusion. High intensity vigilance was maintained on all critical avenues from the east and west and all aspects of operational preparedness tuned up. Army's bold stance gave heart to the government and PM Gilani after giving appropriate statements held an All Parties Conference (APC) on 29 September which issued a 13-point resolution. Although it was not as strongly worded as desired by the angered public, it did give a loud and clear message that the nation stood united to face American aggression irrespective of the cost.

Pakistan Army's high command knows that the US caught up in the quagmire of Afghanistan cannot hop, step and jump into NW and that its threats are sheer bluffs to frighten Pakistan and make it agree to its demands. Even if NATO troops stretch out and barge into NW, they will be resisted by the already positioned division plus force, the tribesmen of all hues of North and South Waziristan; and the HN controlling six provinces in eastern Afghanistan would seal off all reinforcement and withdrawal routes so as to convert NW into an ideal killing ground. It was this horrifying scenario that the US decided to tone down its offensive tirade.

In an effort to retract its aggressive posture that had reached the precipice, White House spokesman Jay Carney stated on 28 September about Mullen's vitriolic remarks that it was "not the language that I would use". Another official added that Mullen's charge was 'overstated' and that there was scant evidence of ISI direction or control. Washington also stated that it had no intention to send ground forces to attack HN in NW. The US has not shown any favor to Pakistan by saying that it will not use boots on ground since militarily, economically and politically the US military is in no position to open a new front and that too against formidable Pakistan which is not Iraq or Afghanistan but a nuclear-armed state (words quoted from Gen Kayani's statement).

Washington has not lowered the heat it has generated by this declaration since its most favored option is not boots on ground but unmanned drones and air strikes. Aerial option in which it enjoys overwhelming superiority allows the US-NATO air forces to cause maximum destruction with negligible loss of life. As such, there should be no reason for us in Pakistan to get complacent and lower our guards since if the US at any stage decides to act nasty, it will activate the western front and use its air power ruthlessly so as to facilitate ground offensive by Indian forces from the east. US officials have been giving mix signals and are not coming out of NW obsession.

To multiply the pressure, Karzai regime also parroted the accusation of USA by saying that Pakistan was involved in murder of Rabbani. He believes Pakistan controls Afghan Taliban, provides them sanctuaries and uses them as proxies. Kabul had already heated up the western border by sponsoring cross border attacks on our western border region from the safe havens of absconders Maulana Fazlullah, Maulvi Faqir and Hakimullah in Nuristan and Kunar. Over one hundred civilians and security personnel have died as a result of these attacks. As a step further, Karzai inked Indo-Afghan strategic agreement, which has grave ramifications for security of Pakistan.

To further up the ante, US-NATO troops have been deployed opposite NW and road connecting NW with Khost closed and border sealed. Reportedly, an operation is in progress in Khost area since 15 October to deal with HN, which in Washington's view has emerged as the most potent threat in Eastern Afghanistan. Wasn't this act overdue? Pakistan has since long been pressing USA to fence or mine the border and to increase number of check posts on its side of the border but it turned a deaf ear to its requests. Having launched a deadly operation codenamed Knife Edge, duplicitous USA cheekily says that its doors are open for negotiations with HN and Mullah Omar. What if the Taliban intensify attacks in Southern Afghanistan to release pressure on Haqqanis, or the latter start hitting NATO's supply line from Kabul to Khost? The US must be mindful of the fact that by end December, ISAF would be minus 10,000 US troops.

Having maximized the pressure, a high-powered team led by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited Kabul and Islamabad. Other members of her entourage included Leon Panetta, CJCS Gen Martin Dempsey, CIA Director Gen David Petraeus, Special Representative Marc Grossman and adviser to Obama Lt Gen Douglas Lute. Visitors were assisted by US Ambassador Cameron Munter. Grouping of this star studded team was a clear reflection of the importance attached to this visit. The US also wanted to convey that there was no civil-military tug of war and both were on one page. Although it was essentially a fence building mission to restore badly bruised Pak-US relations, it was a frontal diplomatic assault to make Pakistani leadership succumb to US pressure.

At Kabul, fiery Hillary fired her first salvo at Pakistan by haughtily asserting that it was time for Islamabad to decide whether it would help or hinder the US-led war against militants. What she implied was that Pakistan was sitting on its haunches all these ten years and watching the rattle-tattle of guns from a safe distance playing hide-and-seek game. As if 3500 Army officers and men had collectively jumped into River Indus and committed suicide? Unlike the ISAF which avoids physical contacts with militants, our soldiers laid down their lives mostly in hand-to-hand combats. It was owing to their supreme sacrifices that the rising tide of militancy in Pakistan was drastically curtailed. Pakistan Army and ISI were instrumental in weakening al-Qaeda but had to pay a very heavy price.

Despite her smiles and cackles, Hillary couldn't restrain herself from cautioning Pakistan to start an operation in NW not in months and years but in weeks and days since the US patience was wearing thin. She didn't say this to Gen Allan in Kabul about the operation in Kandahar which is being postponed since April 2010 and didn't ask him the reason why no operation was launched against HN controlling six provinces. She also advised Pakistan not to keep snakes in its backyard and only expect them to bite the neighbors. She ignored the hissing snakes in Kabul and in USA which are bent upon destabilizing Pakistan and keeping Afghanistan violence prone. She said that the US could do with or without Pakistan's cooperation, but sought immediate operation in NW so as to squeeze the HN from both sides. In her view one-directional effort wouldn't work. She should have been reminded about the role of NATO when Pak Army launched major operations in Bajaur, South Waziristan and Mohmand. Instead of providing assistance, it withdrew all its border check posts. It is The ISAF that has never operationalized the concept of hammer and anvil and not Pakistan Army.

The most attention-grabbing piece which came out of her tattle was that the US had no evidence of ISI's involvement in the two incidents in Kabul. She however, didn't explain as to why so much of hullabaloo was created and why the CIA chief told Gen Pasha that he had clinching evidence about ISI's involvement. None among our media persons grilled her as to why the US leaders indulge in so much of falsehood and ceaselessly churn out cock-and-bull stories so audaciously. The visiting team tried to meet civilian, Army and ISI leadership separately, but it was wisely decided to face the quizzers jointly under the leadership of PM. Focal point of the visitors was HN and NW. The PM, Foreign Minister, Gen Kayani and Gen Pasha stood their ground and gave nothing since the US was already standing upon the red lines. They maintained with one voice that the parliament would decide about the future course. Reference to APC was given in which it was decided that peace must be given a chance.

The fact of the matter is that the endgame of USA in Afghanistan is in play and drawdown has commenced, but at this critical juncture its political as well as military prongs have been blunted by Taliban, leaving the US military and civil policymakers clueless about how to push forward any of the prongs. The tall claims of progress are in tatters. Lovers of use of force are speechless since they have made use of all kind of conventional weapons as well as depleted uranium and are left with no excuses as to why such a large military force has not been able to accomplish any of the stated political and military objectives. While the use of force would mean more battle casualties on both sides as well as collateral damage to civilians with no results, the political prong still has a chance to make progress provided the military prong is encaged and the handlers of political prong do away with their double game and mischief and pursue the process of reconciliation with honesty and sincerity of purpose. Pakistan can play its role provided it is treated as an ally and trusted.

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