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Regional Rumblings on the Eve of the US Drawdown
September 16, 2011
The May 22 attack on the Mehran naval aviation base in Karachi, Pakistan, was widely reported as a retaliatory act by Taliban forces bent on avenging the killing of Osama bin Laden. But the circumstances surrounding the incident raise troubling questions with continuing repercussions for US-Pakistan relations.
Immediately prior to the attack, the media reported that the Pakistani government had asked China to build a base at Pakistan's southwestern port of Gwadar. China has been cooperating with Pakistan for some time now on development of the port, which Beijing regards as a key component of its "string of pearls" strategy to secure a foothold along the northern perimeter of the Indian Ocean. The latest reports drew particular attention, however, owing to the blatant military purpose of the undertaking.
According to some reports—presumably based on leaks by sources in the Pakistani military—Islamabad was asking Beijing not only to build a base at Gwadar but to permanently station Chinese naval forces there. In the light of China's construction of an aircraft carrier and rising tensions over the disputed Spratly Islands, such a deal seemed all too plausible from a strategic standpoint, though Beijing has since denied any interest in a permanent naval base at Gwadar. What this writer finds suggestive is the appearance of the story just prior to the attack on the Mehran naval base.
More than Meets the Eye
The specific target of the Karachi attack was the base's military aircraft. Three of them were destroyed, including two US-made surveillance planes deployed there under an agreement with Washington. One might note also that nine American military advisors (training officers) were reported to have been on the base at the time of the assault.
According to the local media, the attackers penetrated the base through underground sewers. I have visited the base in question, located on the coast of the old capital of Karachi, and it struck me as extremely secure. It is impossible to see inside the base when approaching the entrance, or even when standing on higher ground along the expressway some distance away. From a sightseeing boat in the harbor I was able to catch a glimpse of a few naval ships docked there, but as soon as I tried to snap a photo, I was sternly rebuked. Elaborate planning would be needed even to get close.
The most curious thing about the episode is that the attack, while portrayed as a reprisal for the killing of bin Laden, was not carried out in the form of a suicide bombing, nor did any group claim responsibility for it. Moreover, information about the perpetrators has yet to be released even now, a full month after the incident.
On May 31, news flashes announced the death of a Pakistani journalist, found dead in a canal near Islamabad.3 The victim was Syed Saleem Shahzad, a reporter for the Hong Kong–based Asia Times Online and the Italian news agency Adnkronos, who was known for his investigative work on the military and Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence agency (ISI). Shahzad disappeared just two days after the publication of his story on the Karachi attack, which claimed that the navy was infiltrated by Taliban and al-Qaeda elements. It was a bloody deed and obviously connected with the naval base attack.
Widening Cracks in the US-Pakistani Relationship
On May 27, meanwhile, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton arrived in Islamabad to meet with top Pakistani political and military leaders.
Judging from semi-official accounts in the media, Clinton's meetings were anything but productive. Pakistan reiterated its position that the US operation against bin Laden at a compound near Islamabad was a violation of Pakistan's sovereignty and criticized escalating US drone strikes as counterproductive, serving only to terrorize ordinary citizens and fuel anti-American sentiment. Clinton, meanwhile, continued to push for more vigorous action to root out terrorist sympathizers in the Pakistani military and intelligence community, without whose cooperation bin Laden could hardly have remained undetected inside Pakistan for so long.
The position that the attack on bin Laden was a violation of Pakistan's sovereignty is easily countered, given that Pakistan has cooperated with—or at least countenanced—US strikes on tribal areas near the Afghanistan border for the past two years. Moreover, the United States can cite the success of drone attacks in destroying Taliban training camps and eliminating key operatives. But the presence of Taliban and al-Qaeda members or sympathizers inside the military and the ISI is something that the Pakistani government can never acknowledge publicly. Doing so could create a rift with the military that might destabilize the entire nation.
Since the Pakistan Peoples Party replaced the military regime of Pervez Musharraf in 2008, the civilian government has managed to rein in the military despite occasional signs of weakness. It is an uneasy truce, marked by mutual mistrust. Meanwhile, the people of this Muslim nation remain largely sympathetic toward the Taliban, if not toward al-Qaeda. Indeed, notwithstanding occasional flashes of resentment at the highhanded tactics of the military and police forces, the public has not made a hero of the crusading Pakistani journalist who was killed after revealing dirty secrets about the ISI and the military. No mass movement has sprung up in response to his murder. To the contrary, many Pakistanis continue to regard such investigative journalism with suspicion, fearing that it contributes to anti-Islamic sentiment. These deep-rooted attitudes among the Pakistani people also fuel their antagonism toward fast-growing India, which has made friendship with the United States a basic pillar of its foreign policy.
Of course, Washington is well aware of Pakistani attitudes. Why, then, does it risk creating a serious rift with Pakistan by continuing to justify the killing of bin Laden and pushing Washington's current anti-terrorist strategy? The driving factor behind all these policies is the Obama administration's determination to pull out of Afghanistan on schedule.
Pakistan and Afghanistan
Pakistan's next major visitor was Afghani President Hamid Karzai, who arrived in Islamabad on June 10 for a two-day visit to confer with President Asif Ali Zardari and other Pakistani leaders. Arriving on the same day was Leon Panetta, outgoing director of the US Central Intelligence Agency and incoming secretary of defense. Outgoing Defense Secretary Robert Gates is said to have soon followed with visits to Pakistan and Afghanistan.
The aim of Karzai's visit—which followed on a number of preparatory visits to Kabul by Pakistan's vice-president and various cabinet-level officials—was to address such mutual concerns as bilateral relations in the wake of the scheduled US pullout from Afghanistan, economic assistance for Afghanistan's reconstruction, and anti-terrorist measures in the border region. With the American withdrawal looming, repairing relations and building economic ties with neighboring states has become an urgent priority for Afghanistan.
For the White House, withdrawing from Afghanistan has become a top priority as Washington struggles to trim the bloated federal budget in the midst of ongoing economic stagnation. Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates had been under intense pressure to pull troops out of Afghanistan as quickly as possible and facilitate major cuts in defense spending.
Faced with this reality, Afghanistan has no choice but to seek cooperation from its neighbors. Despite the Obama administration's insistence that the Taliban's back is against the wall, Afghanistan is still a long way from stability. According to Indian reports, the Taliban retain effective control of 60% of Afghanistan, with its influence concentrated particularly in the northeast. NATO convoys continue to be plagued by suicide bombers along the road that runs through the Khyber Pass.
Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh also visited Afghanistan earlier this year, in May. On that occasion the two governments agreed to strengthen economic ties, and New Delhi announced additional aid to Afghanistan. During the summit, Singh is reported to have assured Karzai that India was "not like the United States" and that it intended to follow a different strategy by strengthening its partnership with Afghanistan. For the first time, moreover, Singh expressed support for Karzai's efforts to enter into peace negotiations with the Taliban.
By the time of Singh's visit, unconfirmed reports of US negotiations with the Taliban were already emerging. (On June 18, President Karzai officially acknowledged that the United States was in contact with the Taliban, after which Secretary of Defense Gates confirmed that talks were taking place.) Behind the Indian government's new support for talks with the Taliban is its belief that, for the sake of Afghanistan's future, such negotiations need to be handled by the Karzai regime itself, not by Americans on the verge of leaving the country.
When Karzai visited Islamabad the following month, Pakistan was anxious to stand out from India, not to mention the United States. For this reason Karzai's visit was timed to coincide with the implementation of a bilateral economic agreement that had been awaiting implementation since October 2010.
As a landlocked nation, Afghanistan requires cooperation from neighboring countries to facilitate international trade. In May, with the drawdown of American troops in the offing, Islamabad announced that it was prepared to implement the Afghanistan-Pakistan Transit Trade Agreement. The agreement makes it easier for exports from and imports to Afghanistan to pass through Pakistan and permits the passage of Afghani exports (though not Indian imports) across the Pakistani-Indian border. The pact, which went into effect on June 12, is expected to boost Afghanistan's trade volume by at least 30%.
Afghanistan and the SCO
President Karzai's next major stop after Pakistan was the June 15 summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, held in Astana, Kazakhstan. Karzai attended as a special guest of the organization, which marked its tenth anniversary at the June conference.
The SCO is made up of China (its prime mover), Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan, along with observer states India, Iran, Mongolia, and Pakistan.
Lately Russia has been advocating vigorously for the organization's expansion, presumably in an effort to transform it from a China-centered security framework into something broader. Since last year's summit, Russia has been pressing for India to become a full member, but New Delhi, wary of any partnership with China and Russia, has refused to give a definitive yes or no. Recognizing the importance of Central Asia earlier than most, New Delhi has been working on its own to cement ties with the nations of the region. Only last April, Prime Minister Singh visited Kazakhstan, where the two governments reached an agreement to strengthen economic relations.
From the standpoint of China and Russia, Central Asia offers vast economic potential, whether from the mining of its rich mineral deposits, the development of natural gas and other energy sources, or the construction of a pipeline connecting Russia to the Arabian Sea. Beijing and Moscow see clearly that in a few years' time Central Asia will emerge as a key to global economic growth. The decision to hold the tenth anniversary summit of the SCO in Kazakhstan was no accident.
Kazakhstan, for its part, is well aware of its growing importance. The government's diplomatic strategy is to maintain its solid relationship with India while working to strengthen ties with China through such means as the creation of a special economic zone along the border. Partnerships with Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iran are doubtless envisioned in the not-too-distant future.
India and Africa
While Karzai was focusing his diplomatic efforts on Pakistan and Kazakhstan, Secretary of State Clinton was touring Africa. On June 10, the very day she arrived in Tanzania, the media reported that al-Qaeda operative Fazul Abdullah Mohammed had been killed in a gunfight with government forces in Somali. Fazul had functioned as al-Qaeda's top commander in Africa since the late 1990s, and Clinton was quick to seize on the news of his death as another major blow to the organization. This fortuitously timed strike suggested that the underyling theme of Clinton's Africa trip was Washington's post-Afghani campaign against terrorism in general and al-Qaeda specifically. In the politically unstable nations of Africa, as in Pakistan, there is a good deal of sympathy among the people for antigovernment movements with religious roots similar to their own.
In parting remarks before leaving the post of secretary of defense, Gates claimed that the momentum of the Taliban had been reversed and suggested that al-Qaeda was now history. Such remarks essentially rejected the old double standard under which Washington has in the past supported certain dictatorships like those in Libya and Egypt out of strategic considerations.
India has been paying court to Africa as well. The second India-Africa Forum summit, an annual conclave sponsored by India, was held May 20–25 in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. This year 15 African states participated. Originally established in reaction to China's diplomatic and economic initiatives in Africa, the forum has taken on a new significance in the context of the popular uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa and the impending withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan. India's theme has been "South-South cooperation" as a key to the future vitality and stability of the African economy. After the forum, Prime Minister Singh paid a visit to Tanzania.
As this two-month survey suggests, India has consistently remained one step ahead of China, Russia, and the United States with its successive diplomatic forays into Central Asia, Afghanistan, and Africa. It will be interesting to see what affect India's dynamic foreign policy has on Pakistan and the United States in the months ahead.
Back in Pakistan
Throughout this time, tensions between Pakistan and the United States continued to simmer. US drone attacks continued, resulting in the death of Pakistani militant Ilyas Kashmiri in South Waziristan on June 4. According to the June 14 New York Times, Pakistan's ISI had arrested five Pakistanis who “fed information to the CIA in the months leading up to the raid to the death of Osama bin Laden,” one of them a Pakistani army officer. Since Pakistan has actively cooperated with the CIA itself, arresting Pakistanis for doing the same is either a bizarre about-face or blatant treachery.
Thus far Washington has refused to soften its stance toward Islamabad. It knows all too well that the biggest threat to the Obama's drawdown of US forces in Afghanistan lies just over the border in Pakistan.
 "Battle with militants rages on at PNS Mehran Base in Karachi," Dawn.com, May 23, 2011, http://www.dawn.com/; "Pakistan says wants China to build naval base," The Times of India, May 22, 2011, http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/.
 "Missing Pakistani journalist murdered," The Hindu, May 31, 2011, http://www.thehindu.com/news/international/article2065992.ece.
 "Hillary in Pakistan to ask ‘tough questions,’" Dawn.com, May 27, 2011; "Hillary, Joint Chiefs chairman press Pakistan," Associated Press, May 27, 2011.
 "State Department cable cited ISI links with militants," The Hindu, May 31, 2011, http://www.hindu.com/2011/05/31/stories/2011053152101300.htm.
 Howard B. and Teresita C. Schaffer, "Dealing with India in the U.S.-Pakistan relationship," The Hindu, June 13, 2011, http://www.thehindu.com/opinion/lead/article2099122.ece?homepage=true.
 "Plans to upgrade Afghanistan in SCO of interest to India," The Hindu, June 14, 2011, http://www.thehindu.com/news/national/article2101859.ece; Vladimir Radyuhin, "SCO: 10 years of evolution and impact, The Hindu, June 14, 2011, http://www.thehindu.com/opinion/lead/article2101857.ece?homepage=true.
 "Pakistan Arrests C.I.A. Informants in Bin Laden Raid," The New York Times, June 14, 2011.