NO SNAKES IN THE BACKYARD: CLINTON TO KAYANI
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made a little publicized visit to Pakistan on Friday (Oct 21) after visiting Kabul in the wake of increasing tension in the US-Pak bi-lateral relationship and provided the most emphatic reiteration of what the Obama administration expects from the Kayani led Pak military. The US looked to Pakistan “to take strong steps to deny Afghan insurgents safe havens and to encourage the Taliban to enter negotiations in good faith.” Thus a reasonably acceptable political resolution to the long drawn out US military operations in Afghanistan is the principal objective and Ms. Clinton admitted that the US has been exploring some kind of quiet contact with the Taliban groups – again with the assistance of the Pak ISI.
But lest there be any misperception in Rawalpindi – the GHQ of the Pak Army – where the actual security and foreign policy decisions are taken – Ms. Clinton also added in her Islamabad remarks: “Pakistan for a variety of reasons has the capacity encourage, push, to ‘squeeze’ in Gen. Kayani’s terms, terrorists including the Haqqanis and the Afghan Taliban to be willing to engage in the peace process. This is what we are looking for.”
Will the Pak army ‘deliver’ what the US is expecting of them? The short answer seems to be in the negative. It is this sense that was conveyed by General Kayani, who while addressing members of the Pakistani parliament's defence committee (Oct 18) made the distinction as to why the US could not treat them like they did Saddam Husain’s Iraq. The sub-text is that Pakistan has nuclear weapons.
This statement by the Pak Army chief has received extensive comment in India and abroad and in some instances misinterpreted to imply that the Pak military is threatening to use it nuclear assets in an operational mode against the USA – meaning an all out nuclear war. This is totally invalid.
Yes, Pakistan has been using its nuclear weapons for decades – but in a covert, poltico diplomatic manner against the whole world – and India in particular. The subtle threat of use of nuclear assets – however nuanced – to my mind constitutes the ‘use’ of the nuclear weapon and it is perhaps this aspect that was being underlined by the Pak Army Chief to his parliamentarians – a constituency that the Pak ‘fauj’ has little respect for.
The Pak army has used its nuclear capability to create a firewall that would insulate it, even as it supported terror groups as part of a strategic policy against India, Afghanistan – and by extension, the USA. But Ms. Hillary Clinton cautioned the Pak ‘fauj’, in public to sever these links – and there were shades of what her husband – US President Bill Clinton had conveyed to the Pak establishment in March 2000 (with Gen. Musharraf at the helm ) during his brief five hour visit to Islamabad.
On this visit, Ms. Clinton used a powerful analogy when she told her Pakistani hosts: “You cannot keep snakes in your backyard and expect they will only bite the neighbours.” But will Pakistan’s military heed this advice from the USA? My sense is that this is unlikely, given the deep linkages between the Pak military’s hard-line faction and the terror groups , who perceive the support to such Islamist extremist ideology as an investment of strategic depth against India – and paradoxically – a moderate Afghanistan that wishes to dilute the Taliban influence.
And this is where the nuclear factor becomes relevant and more by coincidence than design, the events in Libya that led to the removal of colonel Gadhafi acquire salience. The Libyan dictator was captured and killed on the same day – Friday, Oct 21 – when Ms. Clinton was in Islamabad – and while comparisons were being drawn with the fate of the former Iraqi dictator President Saddam Hussain – the nuclear factor provides an instructive backdrop.
The US attacked Iraq in early 2003 on the assumption that Baghdad, perceived to be a deviant regime was a supporter of terror groups – and was on the cusp of acquiring nuclear weapons. If this happened – the Bush team argued – then it would be impossible to deal with Iraq. The Saddam regime was destroyed by US military might – though it was later accepted that Baghdad had no nuclear capability worth the name. In December 2003, Libya under Colonel Gadhafi made a dramatic announcement when it renounced its nuclear and chemical arsenal. Progressively, Libya was brought out of the axis of evil category - those nations that were perceived to be acquiring nuclear weapons through clandestine means (the Pakistan- AQ Khan network) – and subsequent events such as the Arab spring and the Jasmine revolution that swept the Maghreb led to the final removal of Colonel Gadhafi.
Pakistan is the reality with nuclear weapons that Iraq and Libya were not. How defiant can the Pakistan army remain about its support to terror groups? Again, my reading is - to a considerable extent. This columnist has maintained for years that Rawalpindi has been using its nuclear capability since May 1990 to support terror activities – and that both China and the USA were aware of this pattern – and their support ranged from direct WMD transfers (Beijing) to tacit endorsement (Washington) The USA has made a radical change in its Pakistan policies – but China is yet to arrive at a similar conclusion. Till then, I believe that the Pak Army will reject the US pressure to act against the terror groups.
In the interim, the people of Pakistan will remain angry and anguished about America and the (Pak) Army – even as they seek solace in the third A – Allah. India will have to monitor the US-Pak developments closely and envisage various outcomes, so as to calibrate its own post 2014 regional policy.
(The original version of this article appeared in Hindi in the Dainik Jagran on Sunday, October 22, 2011)