Pakistan and the US: A too-close embrace?

New leaked US embassy cables reveal further evidence of states’ dysfunctional relationship.

Pakistan Frontier Corps
In one cable, the Pakistani army chief requests ‘continuous Predator coverage’ of the tribal areas  [GALLO/GETTY]

It is of little surprise that in the weeks following the killing of Osama bin Laden, al-Qaeda’s leader, in a Pakistani military garrison town, the Pakistani relationship with the United States has been described using various analogies of romantic dysfunction: as an abusive relationship, as one partner cheating on another, and as a failing marriage where the partners stay together for the sake of the children.

The children, in this case, being various distinct (but linked) violent, armed groups that are waging war on both parties, separately and at times in concert.

But if the relationship between these states really is a romantic entanglement gone wrong, then the latest batch of US embassy cables to be leaked by the whistleblowing website Wikileaks is like having access to the email and text message exchanges between the two, revealing the many faces of the partnership.

In short, the cables show that while the Pakistani government wears a certain face in public, rejecting US missile strikes on its territory and military cooperation on Pakistani soil with aggressive rhetoric about sovereignty, in private, both military and civilian officials approve (or “acquiesce”, to use a term from one of the cables) to both of these.

The result is a relationship that is one thing in the confines of closed door meetings and quite distinctly another in the harsh light of day. There is repeated reference in the cables, released through the Pakistani newspaper Dawn, to the potential fallout of any of the topics of conversation (from US drone strikes to the presence of US Special Forces providing Pakistani paramilitary troops with intelligence support) becoming public: an understanding that were the private face to impinge on the public, it would have to retaliate.

First, however, the facts.

The faces of co-operation

The most obviously contentious issue when it comes to the relationship between the two countries is that of the repeated violations of Pakistan’s sovereignty, as that country describes it, that are US missile strikes launched by Predator drone aircraft in Pakistan’s tribal areas. 

Previously released cables have indicated that there is indeed tacit support from the Pakistani government and military for these strikes, even as the same officials who agree in private condemn them in public.

The latest batch of cables further corroborates those claims.

In one cable, dated February 11, 2008, Pakistani Chief of Army Staff General Ashfaq Pervez Kayani, requests “continuous Predator coverage” of Waziristan (in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, or FATA). Kayani was meeting with US Admiral William J Fallon, then the US CENTCOM commander, who offered the Pakistani general the use of US Joint Tactical Aircraft Controllers – troops specially trained to direct air strikes from forward operating positions on the ground – instead. At this, Kayani demurred, suggesting that the presence of “US JTACs on the ground would not be politically acceptable”, the cable says.

It is unclear whether Kayani was requesting that the drones fly surveillance or strike missions.

‘Zardari noted he would be willing to “take the political heat” of a cross-border raid if a really important high value target was captured.’

Former US Ambassador Anne Patterson in October 2008

In another cable, dated March 24, 2008, Kayani briefs Admiral Mike Mullen, the US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee, on various issues, from politics to the combat effectiveness of the Pakistani Frontier Corps paramilitary force.

In the meeting, Mullen “asked Kayani for his help in approving a third Restricted Operating Zone (ROZ) for US aircraft over FATA”.

An ROZ is a “box” of airspace which the US or NATO’s International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan would be permitted use of. Implicit in the request is the fact that two ROZs have already been approved and are in use.

Speaking to Al Jazeera, Haider Mullick, a fellow at the US Joint Special Operations University and the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding, said that it is likely that FATA has been divided, for operational purposes, into northern, central and southern “boxes”.

In another cable, dated October 2, 2009, an official at the Pakistani government’s FATA Secretariat responds to a query from a US diplomat regarding the expected effectiveness of Pakistani military operations in South Waziristan by saying that “the Army thought they had the capability and that the US could assist with continued strikes”.

The official goes on to emphasise that it is “important that the US launch strikes against [Lashkar-e-Islam leader] Mangal Bagh”, who has been a thorn in the side of Pakistani forces, but whose group is not generally targeted by US strikes as it does not directly operate in Afghanistan.

The cable concludes that the official “remains a strong advocate of US strikes”. Indeed, he goes as far as to suggest that the US engage in “follow-on attacks immediately after an initial strike”, as, in his assessment, “the only people in the area are terrorists” following a missile strike.

The US, however, appears aware of the distinction between the Pakistani government’s statements in private and in public. In a cable sent to Washington by then US Ambassador Anne Patterson, she notes with growing alarm the dissonance between the two sets of statements, in response to a US missile strike in Bannu, a settled area that is outside FATA.

“As the gap between private [Pakistani government] acquiescence for U.S. action and public condemnation grows, Pakistani leaders who feel they look increasingly weak to their constituents could begin considering stronger action against the US, although we have yet to see any indication that such a decision is on the table,” she says in the cable dated November 24, 2008.

Finally, in an interesting note, dated October 6, 2008, about a meeting with Asif Ali Zardari, the Pakistani president, Ambassador Patterson says that “Zardari noted that he would be willing to ‘take the political heat’ of a cross-border raid if a really important high value target was captured”.

Osama bin Laden, of course, would have been identified as such a high-value target, throwing the Pakistani government’s statements about the US unilateral cross-border raid that resulted in his death being counterproductive to good relations in an interesting light.

Beyond drones

In addition to statements on drones, there are also multiple references in the new cables to the presence of US Special Forces troops on the ground in Pakistan, acting at least twice in concert with Pakistani forces in an intelligence-support capacity, and also as trainers. While Pakistan has publically spoken of the presence of US trainers for its paramilitary forces, it has never admitted to their presence on combat missions.

In a cable dated October 9, 2009, Ambassador Patterson writes that the Pakistani military approved a request for “U.S. SOC(FWD)-PAK [US Special Operations Command (Forward)-Pakistan] to deploy to Wana, South Waziristan and Miram Shah, North Waziristan, in the FATA, in order to provide intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) and general operational advice to the 11 Corps’ 9th and 7th Divisions”.

She notes that the initial assessment saw the deployment of six personnel each to Wana and Miram Shah, equipped with “a live downlink of unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) [drone] full motion video”, indicating that drone missions would be flown in conjunction with the 11 Corps’ operation.

General Kayani, centre, also repeatedly asked the US to revisit the procedures for disbursing funds to the Pakistani military, complaining that the
civilian government ate into military funding [GALLO/GETTY]

She also notes that this would be the second such mission, following on from a September 2009 operation in which “four SOC(FWD)-PAK personnel who were embedded with the Frontier Corps (FC) at Khar Fort, in Bajaur Agency in the FATA, provided ISR [intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance] for an FC operation (reftel).  This support was highly successful, enabling the FC to execute a precise and effective artillery strike on an enemy location”.

Patterson writes that the increased cooperation is a result of “patient relationship-building with the military”, but notes that the deployments are “highly politically sensitive because of widely held concerns among the public about Pakistani sovereignty and opposition to allowing foreign military forces to operate in any fashion on Pakistani soil”. She concludes that if the deployments were to become public knowledge, the Pakistani military “will likely stop making requests for such assistance”.

Another cable notes the existence of “Intelligence Fusion Cells [IFCs] with embedded US Special Forces with both SSG [Special Services Group, Pakistan’s elite commando unit] and Frontier Corps (Bala Hisar, Peshawar)”.

Yet another says that US special forces at the IFCs were aiding Pakistani FC troops with “imagery, target packages and operational planning”.

Mullick, the defence analyst, says the IFCs would “combine intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) resources from American and Pakistani intelligence sources to plan, support and evaluate joint and complementary operations. For example, on occasion they share human intelligence contacts, live drone feeds, signals intelligence, etc.

“In some of these fusion centres you could find CIA, DIA [Defence Intelligence Agency], ISI [Pakistan’s Inter Services Intelligence] and Pakistani military intelligence officers working in concert with Pakistani Frontier Corps and SSG intelligence officers.”

Further, in a “scene-setter” for General Kayani’s visit to the US in early 2009, Patterson notes that Kayani will be expected to “request increased intelligence sharing (real-time [Signals Intelligence] and ISR)”.

The existence of the IFCs, and mentions of “ROVER equipment” would indicate that the Pakistani military is receiving live feeds from drones flying over Pakistani airspace on certain occasions through US troops using Remote Operations Video Enhanced Receivers (ROVERs).

Mullick notes that the US military provided “critical ISR support to Pakistani 11 Corps and Frontier Corps (North) during the South Waziristan Operation 2009”, with signal intercepts proving “critical” in locating key Pakistani Taliban leaders.

The February 2009 scene setter also refers to Pakistan’s coordination with NATO and US troops in Afghanistan improving “dramatically”.  Mullick notes that both sides have been providing support to one another by “block[ing] insurgent border crossings and shar[ing] ISR”, though there are other areas in which cooperation has been more complicated.

Other analysts, such as retired Pakistani Brigadier Shaukat Qadir, say the US has not been doing enough, and that during that operation the 2009 South Waziristan operation, ISAF forces actually vacated six border posts on their side, “allowing [Pakistani Taliban leaders] to escape”. He added that the nature of the US troop surge in Marja in 2010 was such that Pakistani closing of border crossings would have been “ineffective”, as the US was attacking “unidirectionally”, rather than forcing Taliban fighters to the Pakistani border.

Following the release of these cables, the Pakistani military issued a “categorical” denial of both the presence of US troops in the Pakistani tribal areas (and at the Bala Hisar IFC), and of Pakistani requests for US drone support. The Inter Services Public Relations (ISPR) division, which issued the statements, said there has only “been sharing of technical intelligence in some areas”.

Maintaining the divide

In several places, the cables note the precarious balance of the two-faced nature of Pakistan’s position on cooperation with the United States.

After the 2008 drone strike on Jani Khel, in Bannu, referenced in the earlier mentioned November 24, 2008, cable, Patterson noted that the strike was being seen publically as a “watershed event”, since it was on a settled area in “Pakistan proper”.

She warns that the strike had drawn condemnation from across the political board, and could push Pakistan’s “private acquiescence” to the strikes to breaking point. Indeed, since that strike, only one other such strike has taken place outside of the tribal areas: it was again in Jani Khel, Bannu, in March 2009.

Wherever US deployments are mentioned, there is usually a quick reminder that if this information were to be made public, it would likely have negative political consequences and force the Pakistanis into adopting a harsher stance in working with the US.

In fact, in one cable, dealing with the United States’ sale of F16 aircraft to Pakistan, Patterson suggests that despite the fact that Pakistan will likely not be in a position to fully pay for the aircraft it has ordered, “walking away from this symbol of renewed post-9/11 cooperation would cause enormous political consequences”, adding that it would make it more difficult to continue counterinsurgency co-operation along the Pakistan-Afghan border.

In the 2008 meeting with Admiral Mullen, Kayani cautions against the Pakistani need for US military trainers being publicised “because it implied that the Pakistani Army was not capable of facing down the militant threat”. Kayani repeatedly asks for equipment over training, the cables show, while the US takes the contrary view, suggesting that counterterrorism training for Pakistani forces is both desirable and necessary.

Tensions at melting point

In the wake of the operation to kill Osama bin Laden (and the questions this raised about Pakistani complicity and/or incompetence in the matter) and the ensuing high tensions between the two countries, these revelations serve only to further raise the temperature on a partnership already at melting point.

Following the release of the cables, the Los Angeles Times reportedthat Pakistan has ordered the closure of three IFCs. The order came shortly after a demand for the US to further reduce its troop footprint in the country, with a significant cutback of trainers expected.

On the US side, following a visit by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Admiral Mullen to Islamabad, it would now appear that a Pakistani military operation in North Waziristan is on the cards, with initial strikes already launched in the agency. Pakistan has previously resisted launching such an operation, saying its troops are stretched too thin by other operations.

Pakistan has denied that it is launching such an operation.

‘As the gap between private [government] acquiescence for US action and public condemnation grows, Pakistani leaders who feel they look increasingly weak to their constituents could begin considering stronger action against the U.S., although we have yet to see any indication that such a decision is on the table.’

Former US Ambassador Anne Patterson, in November 2008.

The reality of the relationship, as further illustrated by many of the newly released cables, is that the Pakistan-US relationship is seen, both from the outside and internally, as something that is constantly tenuous – a partnership that is always in a delicate balance.

The cables reveal, too, a certain gap in the two countries’ strategic understanding of the geopolitical neighbourhood. US diplomats repeatedly note that Pakistan’s calculus is driven by its perceived need for “strategic depth” in Afghanistan in case of a conflict with India, who it considers its primary threat, going as far as to solicit from General Kayani what “political end state in Afghanistan would convince him to end proxy support for militants”. They also suggest that a solution to the Kashmir issue would greatly serve to downgrade Pakistan’s fears regarding India, and that “enhanced [US government] efforts in this regard should be considered“.

But what the cables do not pick up on is that Pakistan’s calculus of the situation goes beyond these two issues. On a more fundamental level, it would appear that the Pakistani state is on a different ideological page from the United States. Specifically, this has to do with the Pakistani backing of certain militant groups as tools of their foreign policy. Moreover, the Pakistani state makes distinctions between militant groups not on their ideology, but on who their primary targets are, Brig (retd) Qadir says. As such, it has no incentive to go after members of the Afghan Taliban and the Haqqani network, or Jaish-e-Muhammad and Lashkar-e-Taiba, as the US wants it to do, as these do not threaten the Pakistani state, as al-Qaeda and the Tehrik-e-Taliban do.

Ultimately, the Pakistani strategic view is internally consistent, banking on a US exit from an Afghanistan where the Taliban will be in some form of power (as it would appear the US is also reconciling itself to).
As for the Pakistani populace’s perceptions (the very reason for the repeated warnings that information on US-Pakistan cooperation must be kept secret), they, too, are married to the Pakistani state’s strategic perception of the situation: a view predicated on distrust of the US.

“The view in Pakistan has always been that the US is not interested in Pakistan except for how it serves its own purposes,” says journalist and activist Beena Sarwar.

She argues that Pakistanis view the United States through a historic lens of being used as a proxy for US interests in the region, often to the detriment of Pakistani development and democracy. She also points the finger at Pakistani political leaders, saying that they have repeatedly put short-term issues ahead of the country’s long term interests (such as investments in education and health).

Sarwar says the toxicity of being seen to publically be co-operating with the United States in a fight in which both sides are, theoretically, on the same side, comes from a history of “distrust”, and of governments not being able to create political narratives that are unequivocal regarding extremism.

Ultimately, given Pakistani (both state-level and public) distrust of the US and their divergent strategic and ideological views of the region, the question arises: are the two countries really natural allies? The intricate issues at play would suggest that in some areas they are, and in others they may not be. Geopolitics, however, seems to have thrown them from that more natural centre ground into an an often uncomfortable, too-close embrace.

Follow Asad Hashim on Twitter: @AsadHashim

Source: Al Jazeera