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For the Pentagon, the Pakistan Army can do no wrong

By Aziz Haniffa
December 11, 2009 14:20 IST
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Let's face it. When it comes to the Pentagon, the Pakistani military can do no wrong. Even if it's going after only the Pakistani Taliban and not the Afghan Taliban, which it apparently continues to promote for strategic depth against India and as a hedge in case the US decides to cut and run as it did in the immediate aftermath of the erstwhile Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan nearly three decades ago.

During the past few days, top US military officers with direct command of American troops in Afghanistan and strategic policy toward Pakistan and the south and central Asian region, testifying before Congressional committees continued to heap praise on the Pakistani Army's forays against the Pakistani Taliban and extremist groups in the Swat Valley and South Waziristan. In the process they chose to conveniently ignore the concerns of US lawmakers about the dual-track policy by Pakistan Army Chief General Ashfaq Kiyani's troops and the Inter Services Intelligence.

When pressed, they argued that the only way to address the Pakistani army hedging its bets was by providing Pakistan more security assistance and building up the kind of strategic partnership that assured it that this aid and US support would be there for the long haul.

US Central Command Commander General David Petraeus, who was appearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, was asked by the panel's chairman Senator John F Kerry as to what the US strategy was toward the Pakistani military that was clearly hedging its bets and going after only the Pakistani Taliban and not the Afghan Taliban. Petraeus said it is imperative for the US to demonstrate to Pakistan that a "sustained, substantial commitment" would be forever available.

Petraeus said, "First of all, the developments of the last 10 months really are quite significant. Because the Pakistani leadership -- all the political leaders, the civilian populace, the clerics and the military -- have all united in recognising that the internal extremists represent the most pressing existential threat to their country -- more pressing than the traditional threat to the east. And, they have taken action in response to that recognition."

But when pressed as to how Pakistan ultimately takes on the Afghan Taliban and eschews funding and promoting this group, the four-star general said, "Frankly, the effort to demonstrate a sustained, substantial commitment to Pakistan -- frankly the Kerry-Lugar bill (which provides $1.5 billion (about Rs 67,000 crore) annually in American largesse to Pakistan over five years) is a hugely important manifestation of that -- the level of security assistance, foreign military financing, the Pakistan Counter-Insurgency Capability Fund and so forth are also very important, given the history that we have with that country and having left it as you know a couple of times before."

"So, this is a process of building trust, mutual confidence and building a relationship in which the mutual threats we face are addressed by those who are on the ground," he said, and added, "And, again we have to recognise the enormous sacrifices, that the Pakistani military, frontier corps and police have made in these operations and also the losses that their civilians have sustained."

Petraeus reiterated that "it's about building a partnership that can transcend these issues that we have had before where we have left after supporting one operation or the other."

Earlier, in his prepared testimony, he had acknowledged that "the Afghan Taliban are, to be sure, distinct from the Pakistani Taliban and their partner groups, some of which shelter Al Qaeda. They are part of a syndicate of extremist groups that includes both Laskhar-e-Tayiba -- the group that carried out the 26/11 Mumbai attacks -- and the Haqqani network, among others."

Petraeus also admitted that this syndicate "threatens the stability of Pakistan and, indeed, the entire subcontinent. Afghan Taliban leader Mullah Omar is recognised as 'commander of the faithful' by (Osama) bin Laden and other Al Qaeda leaders, as well as by Al Qaeda affiliates and extremist groups throughout Pakistan and beyond."

Earlier, General Stanley McChrystal, US Commander in Afghanistan, appearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee, also lavished praise on the Pakistani army saying that "their recent actions over the last year or two against their own internal insurgency are really a good indicator of just how serious they are about conducting counter-insurgency operations and reducing instability on their side."

Even the US Ambassador to Afghanistan, and retired lieutenant general Karl Eikenberry, when asked pointedly about the Pakistani army's dual track when it came to taking on the Pakistan Taliban and sponsoring the Afghan Taliban for strategic depth vis-à-vis India, only acknowledged that "the security relationship between India and Pakistan has consequences for Afghanistan," but then said he would rather "concentrate of Afghanistan and Pakistan."

He then went on to talk about how in concert with the US Ambassador in Islamabad, Anne Patterson, "we are looking and continuously searching for ways to facilitate political dialogue between Kabul and Islamabad."

"We have an array of programmes to try to develop mutual trust and confidence," Eikenberry said and went to disclose how Federal Bureau of Investigation

Director Robert Mueller "hosts trilateral initiatives led by himself but partnered with the ministry of interior of Afghanistan and Pakistan."

The envoy also said, "Another important area that has been underway for several years is to improve intelligence exchanges and cooperation between the US and Afghanistan and Pakistan and those efforts led by Central Intelligence Agency Director Leon Panetta and his counterparts in Afghanistan and Pakistan. And, that's been a very robust program as well."

And Senator Kay Hagan who had wanted answers about Pakistan's dual-track policy from McChrystal or Eikenberry, she was sorely disappointed as both had effectively filibustered and run out her allotted time for questions.

Hagan's comments and question for the record was that "ever since the partition of India, Islamabad has attempted to utilise its proxies to install a friendly Pashtun government in Afghanistan that would preserve the de facto border and prevent Pashtun aspirations of a homeland and prevent Indian involvement in Afghanistan."

She asserted that Pakistan "continues to pursue a dual track policy of disrupting the Pakistani Taliban in the tribal areas, most notably in South Waziristan, while elements of its military support the Afghan Taliban networks most notably in North Waziristan and the Afghan Taliban high command in its Balochistan province."

Hagan said, "The key question is if elements of Pakistan's military can be persuaded to change this dual-track policy," and that in order to do that "we've got to address Pakistan's regional concerns, taking into account the relationships with Afghanistan and India."

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Aziz Haniffa in Washington, DC