Geopolitical Diary: Pakistan and the U.S. -- The Crisis Begins
It can be difficult to separate the important from unimportant on any given day.
Reflections mean to do exactly that — by thinking about what happened today, we can consider
what might happen tomorrow.
Tensions between the United States and Pakistan continue to mount. Although the U.S. Special Operations Command clearly has been conducting operations in Pakistan for years, the White House chose to make it known that the United States was prepared to conduct such operations without Pakistani permission. The head of the Pakistani military, Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, responded by saying, "No external force is allowed to conduct operations inside of Pakistan." He said that he had told this directly to U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen. And, on Thursday, Pakistani military spokesman Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas took it a step further by saying that the army had been ordered to hit back in the face of any action by foreign forces on Pakistani territory. The crisis with the United States comes at the worst time for the Pakistani military. The external crisis is unfolding amid a deteriorating political, economic and security situation. While Kayani and his generals appear to be willing to work with the new president, Asif Ali Zardari, and his governing Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), the crisis with Washington can lead to civil-military tensions because of potential disagreements between the military and the government over how to deal with overt unilateral U.S. military action on Pakistani soil. Already there is a perception that Zardari and his PPP are more flexible on the issue. However, since the United States' violation of Pakistani sovereignty is a politically sensitive issue, Kayani has moved to take the hard-line position. But this response should not be dismissed as merely internal Pakistani politics. There is a serious crisis going on in U.S.-Pakistani relations. The United States has long been suspicious of the commitment of the Pakistani military, and particularly its Inter-Services Intelligence agency (ISI), to the fight against al Qaeda. In fact, there were elements in the ISI who did not want to see former President Pervez Musharraf align with the Americans after 9/11. And there has long been suspicion among the Americans that not only wasn't the Pakistani army doing all it could, but that some elements might be passing information about U.S. operations to al Qaeda, allowing the militants to escape. When he spoke of unilateral action in Pakistan, U.S. President George W. Bush was saying that he was not comfortable with joint operations under these circumstances. From the point of view of the U.S. military, this has been a long time coming. Indeed, there undoubtedly have been operations in Pakistan against al Qaeda that were unilateral, but this is extending it from operations against al Qaeda to the Taliban. The Taliban are a military organization, operating as guerrillas. They maintain base camps in Pakistan that are not detected and destroyed by the Pakistanis. In the past, their level of activity was insufficient to warrant destabilizing American relations with Pakistan. That is no longer the case. The Taliban have grown much stronger, and U.S. and NATO forces are under pressure from them. Reinforcements are being sent to them. But the base camps and the lines of supply that go into Pakistan are the center of gravity of the Taliban. The United States is no longer in a position to ignore this. The Taliban are too strong. Therefore, the United States and Pakistan are on a collision course. The Taliban have roots in Pakistan and sympathizers in the military. Attacking the Taliban's bases and cutting off the flow of supplies is difficult politically for Pakistan. The United States, on the other hand, is not doing well in Afghanistan. It needs the Taliban in Pakistan to be destroyed, and it is saying that if the Pakistanis don't do it, the United States will have to — and this will take more than Special Operations forces to achieve. This moment was bound to come. The United States could not manage Afghanistan so long as the Taliban had sanctuary in Pakistan. The Pakistanis were not going to fight a war in Pakistan to solve the American problem. So we are now down to the final crisis of the war that began seven years ago. Iraq is under control. Afghanistan is coming apart. The key to Afghanistan is Pakistan. Pakistan is unable, by itself, to deal with the Taliban. The United States has little choice but to abandon Afghanistan or go into Pakistan. Thus the crisis.