Why did Richard Halbrooke, always arrogant and calm, appear shaken today in Islamabad? Read on.
By AHMED QURAISHI
ISLAMABAD, Pakistan-For the first time in a long time, the Pakistani government managed to turn heads in Washington by saying all things America doesn’t want to hear: Islamabad will not allow the United States to expand its war inside Pakistan, won’t allow U.S. boots on the ground, and CIA better stop its drone attacks ASAP. If this was not enough, the ISI chief reportedly refused to meet top U.S. officials and a former air force chief announced that the Pakistani Air Force is just a green signal away from shooting down CIA’s drones and that it only awaited orders from the President and the Prime Minister.
The week certainly did not start auspiciously for Mr. Richard Holbrooke, Washington’s arrogant special envoy who appeared visibly shaken yesterday in Islamabad. Apparently after getting used to apologetic Pakistani government officials, the sudden change of mood in the Pakistani capital was not something the seasoned diplomat anticipated. He was either too self-assured or was fed wrong reports by U.S. diplomats based in Pakistan.
All of this coincided with another major news story: the former Chief of the Pakistani Air Force, Air Chief Marshal (retired) Kaleem Saadat, came out on television yesterday night to decisively settle all speculation about what Pakistan can do to stop repeated U.S. violations of Pakistani airspace through the CIA-operated drones.
‘Yes, we can shoot them down,’ Saadat told Express News, throwing to the dustbin repeated statements by the defense minister and other ministers in the pro-U.S. elected government over the past months where these officials claimed Pakistan did not have the technology required to shoot down U.S. spy planes that violate Pakistani airspace. Those statements disappointed a majority of Pakistanis who look up to their military, one of the best in the world, to stand up for Pakistan.
Saadat gave an example: Pakistani Air Force jets shot down a sophisticated, Israeli-manufactured drone that India sent deep inside Pakistan on Jan. 7, 2002. The Indo-Israeli spy plane was supposed to be undetectable and beyond the reach and the capabilities of Pakistan Air Force. The Indian military was stunned. It initially tried to feign ignorance but then had to grudgingly half-accept the truth. And even then it was surprising for Pakistanis how Britain and the United States failed to censure India for a confirmed act of war.
‘The U.S. drones are much bigger in size [in comparison to the Indo-Israeli plane],’ said Air Marshal Saadat, and hence easier to target.
The former air chief left no doubt about who was failing in protecting Pakistani sovereignty. ‘The issue,’ said the former Chief of Air Staff, ‘is not military but a political one.’
This statement throws the ball in the court of the elected politicians who have long been suspected of quietly permitting Washington to mount missile attacks inside Pakistan.
Saadat’s statement came a few hours after a joint press briefing in Islamabad where visiting U.S. officials appeared shaken and confused. Richard Holbrooke, America’s envoy to Pakistan and Afghanistan, and Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, appeared surprised at the friendly but firm and straightforward talk by Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi.
Qureshi was blunt, something new for a member of the Zardari-Gilani government. Mr. Qureshi went as far as snubbing President Obama, who had earlier said Pakistan would get “no blank checks” and the release of more U.S. aid would depend on how it dealt with terrorism.
In response, Qureshi turned to both Holbrooke and Mullen who shared the stage with him and firmly said: “It works both ways. We’ll neither accept one nor will we give one”.
Mr. Qureshi also said a “gap” existed between Islamabad and Washington on the problem of CIA-operated drones.
IS SOMETHING CHANGING
The mood is changing in Pakistan and the United States is increasingly seen as a dishonest friend.
One day before the arrival of Holbrooke and Mullen, the leader of the main opposition party in the country, Chaudhry Pervez Elahi of PML, told a press conference that his party favored rejecting U.S. aid if the trade off is to give up Pakistan’s national interest. This was the first call by any major Pakistani political party head to turn down the much needed U.S. financial assistance.
During the talk show where the former Chief of Air Staff Kaleem Saadat spoke, the other two panelists, a retired Army General and a retired Foreign Secretary, shared similar misgivings regarding the U.S. policy toward Pakistan.
Although not stated openly, but Pakistani officials are seriously concerned about mounting circumstantial evidence indicating the U.S. is actually using Afghanistan which it occupies since late 2001 as a base for spreading terrorism and mayhem inside neighboring Pakistan. The suspicions are especially centered on evidence that someone in Afghanistan is pumping trained operatives and saboteurs in the garb of Islamic militants inside Pakistan. These operatives and agents then go about spreading death and destruction in the name of ‘Pakistani Taliban’. There are also serious questions about why the CIA drones fail to attack shadowy militant leaders inside Pakistani tribal zone whose main mission is to attack and kill Pakistanis. In comparison, the Afghan Taliban in Afghanistan focus on fighting the occupation forces and have never advocated attacking Pakistani interests despite Islamabad having ditched them seven years ago.
Exploiting religious terrorism is one dimension of the problem. There is even more evidence that Afghan soil is also being used to spread ethnic and sectarian tensions inside Pakistan and recruit, train and sponsor separatists for this purpose. The sudden rise since 2005 of well armed and funded insurgent groups and death squads along Pakistan’s border with Afghanistan, where they never existed before, and their continued finances and arms supplies despite a blockade by Pakistani security, all of this has poisoned Pakistani perception toward the U.S. role in Afghanistan.
Most of the evidence regarding anti-Pakistani activities in Afghanistan is linked to the huge presence of Indian intelligence in that country disguised as diplomats and social workers. This, many Pakistanis believe, cannot happen without U.S. consent at some level. Some Pakistanis gave the U.S. the benefit of doubt on this point, arguing that the Indians were exploiting Afghan mess to drive a wedge between Washington and Islamabad. One way to do this, they argued, was to indirectly arm and finance terrorists posing as Taliban to carry out attacks inside Pakistan. But after repeatedly bringing this to the attention of the highest levels of government in Washington without any result, it is quite clear that someone in the U.S. capital is condoning or maybe even permitting what the Indians and their Karzai puppets are doing there.
It is quite obvious that Washington, or ‘non-state actors’ in the U.S. capital, are pursuing an agenda that exceeds what is stated publicly by U.S. officials with regards to Afghanistan. In fact, former Chief of Army Staff Gen. Mirza Aslam Baig wrote a paper as far back as 2007 that listed locations inside Afghanistan where U.S. or some of its allies have established intelligence outposts focused on penetrating four nations that share borders with or are close to Afghanistan. These four nations are Russia, China, Iran and Pakistan.
In mid 2007, both Ahmed Quraishi and Zaid Hamid, two Pakistani policy commentators, raised eyebrows when the state-run PTV News aired shows featuring the two criticizing what they said were early signs that someone was using Afghanistan to destabilize Pakistan and that the U.S. was either involved or was turning a blind eye as India and pro-Indian former Afghan communist officials who sit in key positions in Kabul exported terrorism to Pakistan. The television shows led to queries from within different parts of the Pakistani government on whether there has been some subtle change in the policy that was being pursued then by President Musharraf.
In November 2007, Quraishi authored a report that said that the next logical step for the severe destabilization seen in Pakistan that year would be a high-value assassination of either President Musharraf or Benazir Bhutto, the two key leaders in Pakistan at the time, which would spin Pakistan out of control. That would be the natural next move for interested to terminally cripple the country. Truly enough, Ms. Bhutto was assassinated a month later and her violent murder almost led to a revolt in one of the four federating provinces of Pakistan. It was a miracle that Pakistan was not sent into a tailspin, a testament to the strength and endurance of this nation despite heavy odds.
All of this serves to highlight that Pakistani grievances against the United States, which the British and American media deliberately hide from their people, run back in time and are not the result of recent events in the Pakistani tribal zone.
IS ZARDARI-GILANI GOVT.
SERIOUS IN CONFRONTING
MR. HOLBROOKE & ADM. MULLEN?
The performance of Foreign Minister Qureshi certainly was a welcome surprise for many skeptics who had all but given up on the Zardari-Gilani government taking any stand on Pakistan’s legitimate interests when it came to American policy in Afghanistan. And the reason is simple. This government owes its existence and power to direct U.S. support. U.S. is using Pakistani democracy as a Trojan horse, playing off one set of politicians against the other and then using all of them against the military. There have been reports for some time now that certain departments within the U.S. government have been conducting ‘private foreign policies’ directly with the families that control Pakistani political parties. Some of the leaders of these families were invited to secret visits to Washington as part of this confidential dialogue.
Mr. Holbrooke and Adm. Mullen are good examples of this American manipulation of key Pakistani political players. Both of them, and especially Mr. Holbrooke, would come to Pakistan and separately meet senior Pakistani politicians alone, each one separately, and often inside the fortified U.S. embassy compound to avoid the preying eyes of Pakistani media and also Pakistani intelligence. He would also make sure to meet the Pakistani President, Prime Minister, Army chief, ISI chief, and whoever else mattered, and all of them separately, and then play one party against the other, a sort of an improvement on the old British method of divide and rule.
Another sign of manipulation is the Zardari-Nawaz rivalry. When President Zardari began to appear weak, the Americans leaked a story – through the usual mouthpieces NYT and WSJ quoting no names – that “U.S. officials” were considering getting closer to Nawaz Sharif. The story was obviously meant to throw fuel on the fire of the cutthroat internal Pakistani politics and increase domestic instability by playing on the insecurities of the two key players.
While Mr. Zardari’s closeness to the Americans is indisputable [last week Dubai’s Gulf News reported Mr. Zardari met secretly with Mr. Holbrooke in the emirate without the knowledge of any Pakistani official or diplomat, except the organizer of the meeting Mr. Husain Haqqani, Pakistan’s envoy to Washington, who is sarcastically referred toin Islamabad’s drawing rooms as ‘Washington’s envoy to Pakistan’], Mr. Nawaz Sharif is the new surprise. While he disagrees with President Obama’s policies in public, Mr. Sharif hurried to Islamabad on Tuesday to meet Mr. Holbrooke at the U.S. embassy compound. Why would Mr. Sharif present himself to the Americans privately as an alternative partner while keeping a nationalistic posture in public is something that only Mr. Sharif can explain.
This American manipulation of Pakistani politicians, in and out of government, means there is little chance most of these politicians would really want to get tough with Washington.
Foreign Minister Qureshi’s newfound assertive tone has probably more to do with restlessness within the Pakistani strategic community, which consists of civilian and military policy analysts, that is apparently beginning to prevail upon both the Pakistani Foreign Office and the Pakistani military to do something when the government appears incapable or unwilling to stand up for Pakistani interests. That’s one way of explaining the reports of how ISI chief refused to meet Mr. Holbrooke and Adm. Mullen despite the duo’s request. [The ISI chief did not meet Mr. Holbrooke alone but did meet the U.S. official along with the Army chief.]
But there is another reason for this. Some Pakistani officials were determined this time not to allow Mr. Holbrooke to meet senior Pakistani officials separately. An intra-agency meeting, bringing top officials from several federal departments was scheduled for Monday, before Mr. Holbrooke’s arrival. The brainstorming session was supposed to bring minds together from the Foreign Office, the Interior, the military and others in order to present a unified Pakistani response to American policies.
But the meeting failed to materialize because Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi, tired from a range of foreign trips throughout last week, was resting in his hometown in Multan and failed to show up for the meeting, which then was called off.
But Mr. Qureshi surprised the observers with his performance in the press conference with Mr. Holbrooke and Adm. Mullen. The Pakistani Foreign Minister was poised and assertive.
It was a good show for one day. The best way to achieve something for the long run, however, is to match the rhetoric with some actions. If the ISI chief did indeed refuse meeting U.S. officials [he did attend Holbrook’s meeting with the Army chief] then this is the first of a series of steps that Pakistan needs to take to ensure that Washington understands it cannot pursue a selfish policy of achieving its own goals in the region while Pakistan’s interests get trampled in the process.