Few nations have been thrust more dramatically into limelight since those tragic 9/11 events than Pakistan. Prior to that date, Pakistan was isolated: perceived as a Taliban and Al Qaeda supporter, a military regime, and a failing state. Events of 9/11 brought it closer to a danger where, in the words of General Musharraf, "It could lose its strategic assets." Musharraf moved quickly to take advantage of the post 9/11 US predicament. Pakistan did a U turn in its strategic policies and assured the US that it would provide full cooperation in its war against terror in Afghanistan.
But four years after a bit of arm twisting with a message, "Either you are with us or against us", and then making Pakistan an essential partner in the war on terrorism, the Bush Administration could be wondering whether its conventional wisdom was based on faulty assumptions. That is now becoming evident from the increasing mutual suspicions and recrimination between the two countries, despite public expressions of goodwill. American soldiers, who have been involved in the war on terrorism in Afghanistan, believe that Islamabad's military government is not doing enough for the rewards it is accruing from the partnership and support. President Bush's support notwithstanding, there is a noticeable cooling off in USA towards the Musharraf regime.
Islamabad has its own woes. It can neither control pro-Jehadi elements in the tribal belt along the Afghanistan border nor the rising public resentment in NWFP and Baluchistan. Both provinces are ruled by religious parties (alliance) that in the past have been close partners of the ISI, and are also the most vocal and visible opponents of the US led war on terrorism. So far, the Pakistani rulers have been successful in running with the hare and hunting with the hounds.
On 13 January 2006, a US predator (unmanned aircraft) let off hellfire missiles on Damadola village in the Bajaur Agency tribal area close to Pak-Afghan border and reportedly killed 13 (or18) civilians, including four most-wanted Al Qaida operatives. This latest incident is the cause of some fresh tension between Islamabad and Washington.
Following the Damadola incident, Majlis-i-Amal (MMA), the ruling alliance in Baluchistan and Northwest Frontier (NWFP) and Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) organized a big rally in Karachi on 15 January to protest against the US missile attack. Rally speakers called upon Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz to put off his scheduled visit to the US in protest against the violation of Pakistan's territory by US forces. They demanded an apology by President Bush.
The participants shouted slogans against pro-US Pakistani elements and asked for an end to the Pakistan army's operations in Baluchistan and Waziristan. Similar rallies were reported in other provinces. Some editorials in Pakistan Urdu newspapers suggested recall of Pakistan's Ambassador to Washington D.C. On 23 January 2006, the Baluchistan Assembly demanded expulsion of the US ambassador to Islamabad.
However, it is obvious to any military person that the Damadola firing could not have taken place without the intelligence gathered jointly by the Pakistani and US forces. The messy cover up with empty graves, non-identification of casualties and contradictory statements by Pakistan political leaders, intelligence officials and military spokespersons confirm that.
Public condemnation of the incident, denial of any al Qaida casualties, and putting the blame on the US forces became necessary for the Pakistan Government to manage adverse political repercussions in Pakistan. General Musharraf is reported to have told the visiting US under-secretary of state Nicholas Burns that Pakistan would not waver in its support for the US war on terrorism but such strikes must not be repeated.
Will this incident have any impact on the US-Pak relations? Not likely.
Firstly, the MMA constituents do not carry much political credibility in Pakistan. Other non-religious political parties, aware of the symbiotic relationship between MMA leaders and the Pakistan military and the manner in which the MMA compromised with the military establishment in 2003, do not trust the MMA. The MMA has already lost fair amount of its turf in the 2005 local elections in the NWFP and Baluchistan.
Secondly, Pakistan military has often used religious parties to take to the streets either to influence domestic political environment or to scare the international community and thus reinforce its own dependability. That could be the case this time too. Many analysts feel that the religious parties' agitation, days before Pakistan Prime Minister's visit to Washington, would have suited the Pakistani regime to demand for a nuclear energy deal and parity with India.
But the real problem today is that both President Musharraf and President Bush are under pressure to deliver.
Musharraf's post 9/11 strategic cooperation with USA, particularly for Operation Enduring Freedom, has benefited Pakistan (and thus him) in financial resources and as a 'Major Non NATO Ally'. Having created a fairly stable PML (Q) and nominating an economic technocrat Prime Minister who is managing Pakistan's economy reasonably well, his performance on the domestic front has been fairly satisfactory. His only problem is lack of control over sectarian and ethnic opposition in Pakistan's tribal belts. He needs international legitimacy and US support to be able to continue as President after shedding his uniform. That time is running out. There is no reason for him to rock the US-Pak boat beyond a point.
President Bush's major concern before becoming a lame duck President is to withdraw a substantial number of American troops from Afghanistan and Iraq. They cannot be pulled out from Afghanistan without showing some success, which is not possible without Pakistani support along the Afghan-Pakistan border.
Bush's popularity rating has come down to the extent that Osama bin Laden, after months of hounding and hiding, feels encouraged to address the USA once again. A catch like Osama, or his deputy, will enable him to neutralise his foreign policy and strategic weak spots to some extent.
US- Pakistan partnership in war against terror in Afghanistan is, therefore, likely to ride over Damadola type bumps easily. The writer is a former Chief of the Indian Army. He is Currently, President, Institute of Security Studies, Observer Research Foundation (ORF), New Delhi.
* Views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Observer Research Foundation.
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