US-Pakistan relations hit low point ahead of Bonn Afghanistan conference
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Pakistan’s announcement that it will boycott next week’s Bonn conference on Afghanistan signals a new low in relations with the United States, brought on by the killing of 24 Pakistani soldiers by Nato forces. As the US prepares to pull combat troops out of Afghanistan, the row could mean problems for Washington’s plans for the region.
On Wednesday Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani appeared to hint that his country might attend the Bonn conference if President Hamid Karzai guarantees its security from future attacks from Afghan territory.
But Islamabad earlier announced it would not go because of Satruday's air attack on a military outpost near the Afghan-Pakistan border.
Opinions may be divided as to what difference the Pakistanis’ absence from the 5 December Bonn meeting will make, but everyone agrees that they have a key role to play in the future of their wartorn neighbour.
Obviously no-one would wish to imply that Pakistan’s leaders cynically welcome the deaths of their troops, they are probably relieved not to have to go to Germany.
They were likely to face lectures about their involvement with the Taliban and other insurgents opposed to Hamid Karzai’s government and more harangues about fighting Islamists on their own territory.
And they would face pressure to bring the Taliban and thier allies, the Haqqani network, to the negotiating table, not only with Karzai but also with the US and its Nato allies, in return for … in return for what, exactly?
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton apparently hoped that the Bonn conference would mark an important stage in her efforts to start official talks with the insurgents to prepare for the withdrawal of US and Nato troops, set for 2014.
At the Bonn meeting, which was preceded by a regional conference in Turkey earlier this month, neighbouring countries, including Iran, China, India and Russia as well as Pakistan, were supposed to agree not to meddle and to become guarantors of peace.
But with the region’s meddler-in-chief absent, any such commitment has strictly limited value.
The involvement of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency (ISI) with the Taliban is well documented and much evidence has been produced to show that successive rulers, including current President Asif Ali Zardari, have been involved in dealings with them.
The ISI’s fruitful collaboration with Afghan Islamists goes back to war against the Soviet-backed governments of the 1970s and the subsequent battle with the Soviet occupation – projects which the US and its allies were also party to, of course.
The formation of the Taliban in the 1990s, during the second premiership of Zardari’s late wife Benazir Bhutto, saw their use as an arm of Pakistani foreign policy in Afghanistan move up a notch.
Although in 2001 then-president Pervez Musharraf agreed to back the US-led toppling of the Taliban government, realpolitik continued to rein in the ISI’s calculations and the link with the Taliban was never broken.
The ISI is widely believed to have encouraged Taliban and Haqqani network activity to further its own interests in Afghanistan, in particular to counter the growing influence of India, which is building roads and power stations and bidding to exploit the country’s iron ore and other mineral deposits.
Pakistan has continued to receive US military and humanitarian aid as a partner in the “war on terror” but it has also received other, less welcome, attentions.
US drones have operated on Pakistani territory, hitting hundreds of targets in the tribal areas bordering Afghanistan and allegedly killing civilians.
They operate from the Shamsi airbase, which was leased to the UAE in an attempt to shield from Islamabad domestic criticism that it is allowing US military operations on Pakistani soil.
And, as the shooting of two Pakistanis by CIA “contractor” Raymond Davis in January indicated, American spies are hyperactive in Pakistan.
No wonder that the killing of Osama bin Laden in May – by US agents who omitted to mention their plans to the Pakistani authorities - sparked an angry official response.
All of these actions were violations of Pakistani sovereignty. They have irritated the Pakistani military and sparked furious protests on the streets, strengthening the opposition to Zardari’s fragile government.
Not only hardline Islamists, but also the Muslim League-N of Zardari’s traditional rival, Nawaz Sharif, and the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf of cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan have made political hay from the US’s apparent contempt for its supposed ally.
Khan, who argues that the alliance with Washington is the main reason for Taliban insurgency in Pakistan itself, held a rally of 100,000 people on 31 October. He denounced drone attacks and corruption to an ecstatic audience.
As if all that wasn’t enough to undermine Zardari, there has been “memogate”, a scandal sparked by a Pakistani-American multi-millionaire’s claim that the ambassador to Washington, Husain Haqqani, asked him to help enlist US help against a possible military coup.
The quid pro quo would have been to disband the Haqqani network – who are held responsible for September’s attack on the US embassy and Nato HQ in Kabul – and the ISI.
Haqqani, who is close to Zardari and is said to have been linked with US intelligence since the 1970s, was forced to resign. There are calls for him to be put on trial and, maybe, hanged.
The US's top military official Admiral Mike Mullen was little help in that affair, simply denying that he knew the businessman behind the accusations. Earlier in the year he publicly accused the ISI of being bheind the Kabul attacks.
The US has not been much help to the Zardari government this year, so it is not surprising that it should lash out over the deaths of its soldiers last Saturday.
Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar has declared that the attack was deliberate and that "only an apology would be enough". The US, which has set one of its own generals to investigate the incident, has been told to stop using Shamsi and it looks as if there will be an empty seat in Bonn.
Meanwhile, the Islamists have hit the streets again and the ISI and military are even more distrustful of the elected government.
Pakistan – with a population of 174 million compared to Afghanistan’s 34 million – is becoming more unstable by the day.
In 2009 US President Barack Obama declared its border regions “for the American people … the most dangerous place in the world”. His government’s current policy seems to be pushing it closer to chaos and that could lead Pakistan to look elsewhere for allies – to Russia or China, for example, or to Washington's current bête noire, Iran.
Top US General Martin Dempsey told Britain's ITV News on Tuesday that Pakistani-US relations were "on about as rocky a road" as ever. Here are some of the obstacles they have hit this year:
- 27 January: CIA agent Raymond Davis shoots two Pakistanis dead in Lahore;
- 1 May: Osama bin Laden killed by US troops in Abottabad;
- 22 November: Pakistani ambassador to Washington Husain Haqqani resigns after businessman Mansoor Ijiaz accuses him of asking for US help to work against the military:
- 26 November: A Nato airstrike kills 24 Pakistani troops in a tribal area bordering Afghanistan.