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"Calling Pakistan's Boycott Bluff" -- RFE/RL's Khattak For The "AfPak Channel"

RFE/RL senior correspondent Daud Khattak discusses why top-level Pakistani government officials and diplomats see Pakistan's reaction to the recent fatal NATO airstrikes in Mohmand province as a face-saving bluff on the part of the country's security forces.

Read the article below or the original on the AfPak Channel / Foreign Policy website.


Calling Pakistan's boycott bluff

By Daud Khattak | AfPak Channel / Foreign Policy

December 4, 2011

Pakistan's knee-jerk reaction to the fatal NATO airstrikes in Mohmand that resulted in the killing of 24 (some accounts suggest 26) soldiers is being seen in Pakistani government and diplomatic circles, behind the scenes, as a face-saving bluff on the part of the country's security establishment. This "bluff" allows the military to dictate its terms to the United States while maintaining the appearance of a strong stance against the Americans by avoiding the Bonn conference on Afghanistan set to open Monday.

Apart from the early days of the anti-terror war in the aftermath of the 9/11, Pakistan and the United States have never been completely on the same page in their fight against Taliban and al-Qaeda militants and restoration of peace and stability in Afghanistan. Despite being allies in fighting al-Qaeda-linked militants, the two uneasy bed fellows never miss a chance to let the other down and squeeze the other, especially as their interests have increasingly clashed in neighboring Afghanistan.

Indeed, the United States has pushed for action against the Haqqani Network and Quetta Shura Taliban and demanded cooperation in bringing peace and stability to Afghanistan, while no one has paid heed to even some of the genuine demands and reservations of the Pakistani state with regards to Afghanistan, be they concern over Pashtun nationalism or India's role across the Durand Line.

The November 26 incident, though tragic, has provided an opportunity for Pakistan's army to muzzle the chattering mouths accusing them of willful neglect in missing bin Laden's presence in the garrison town of Abbottabad and pursuing a double game in fighting some militants in the tribal region of the country while giving others safe haven. The incident has proved ideal in averting international pressure and restoring, to some extent, the army's image at home, allowing them to line up the Pakistani masses, whose anti-Americanism is well known, in the name of patriotism.

The government's decision to boycott Monday's Bonn conference in Germany, as well as the halting of NATO supply convoys and the eviction of American personnel from the Shamsi Airbase have served this purpose quite well.

A senior official in the Pakistan People's Party (PPP)-led government said on the condition of anonymity that the security decisions are made by the army leadership, but when it comes to problems with the United States or the international community, the civilian government tends to be pushed out in front, forcing the government -- and not the army -- to bear the brunt of public protest against the United States and its allies.

The same time, the official said, it is the military leadership and not the civilian government that has a major say in key decisions like the Shamsi Airbase or the silent approval or public disapproval of drone strikes. His comments carry some weight, as a senior Pakistan military officer briefing journalists on the Mohmand attack said, "the rules of engagement have to be formulated by the [civilian] government" when asked about why the Pakistan Air Force did not respond while the attack in Mohmand continued for four hours. However, reports last week indicated that Army chief Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani had changed the rules to allow Pakistani forces to respond to incursions into Pakistani territory without seeking approval.

The Shamsi airbase decision and the border closing are changes that make for catchy headlines in the Pakistani Urdu media, easy choices that appeal to the patriotism of common Pakistanis attracted to every slogan that goes against the United States.

As for the third decision -- to boycott the Bonn Conference -- a number of key Pakistani politicians and analysts are of the view that Pakistan had nothing to offer at the summit being held to discuss the future of Afghanistan.

When discussing the three major decisions following the November 26 incident, female parliamentarian Bushra Gohar says Pakistan's foreign and security policies are always controlled by the army command. "Why did they [the army] did not show such reaction following the May 2 raid in Abbottabad?" she asked.

In comments to this author, Gohar said some matters have been given undue importance, and it seems that Pakistan is at war with its own self. By this, she was referring to the widening gap between the army and the civilian government where the former is controlling the key policies but shifting the responsibility to the civilian authorities.

Amidst the furor from jingoistic television anchors and panelists of the private television channels in Pakistan, some others raise a genuine question as why the single incident in Mohmand forced the Pakistani policy makers to a point of almost no return despite the fact that over 30,000 Pakistanis have been killed in incidents of terrorism and military operations in the past 10 years.

The answer is simple: Facing humiliation both at home and on the international scene following the May 2 incident, the November 26 raid has provided an opportunity to the Pakistani security establishment to dictate its terms to the U.S. and NATO, who are struggling hard to get out of Afghanistan by announcing victory.

To stage a comeback in the anti-terror alliance and become part of the peace efforts in Afghanistan once again, Pakistan is already working on a list of its future requirements as part of its relationship with the United States, said one government official.

Some of the key demands are likely to be placed on the table by the Pakistani side before re-entering the partnership, including a written agreement with the United States on Pakistan's cooperation in the war against militancy, an end to drone strikes (which have been the most lethal weapon against Taliban and al-Qaeda militants) and a bigger say for Pakistan and the pro-Pakistan Haqqani Network in any future set-up in Afghanistan.

Pakistan is also asking for guarantees that attacks like the one on November 26 would not recur, and that India's role in Afghanistan be restricted. All of those have long been the key demands and concerns of Pakistan, but the country was not in a position to explicitly push for them because of the widespread suspicions about its duplicitous role in the fight against terrorism.

However, the November 26 raid has presented itself as an opportunity for Pakistan to press for its demands and concerns before re-joining the United States' 10-year-old counterterrorism alliance.

Daud Khattak is a journalist currently working for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty's Pashto-language station, Radio Mashaal.