As the US and Pakistan continue to bluff and posture to influence each other’s position over Afghanistan, one is hard pressed to think where the relation is heading. After every incident, they appear to kiss and make-up, without budging from their stands or expectations. The US continues to maintain it has a strategic partnership with Pakistan. On the other hand, Pakistan feels its strategic interests have not been looked after in Afghanistan.
The trajectory of events seems to run into a serious crisis every 4 to 6 months. The latest one being the Mohmand Attack, after which Pakistan took several retaliatory steps. These actions appear to be premeditated, as after the Osama Operation, there was a possibility of another unilateral attack. However, after the latest incident, Pakistan claims it would not continue as usual. For the first time, the country has threatened to defend if attacked in the future.
Barring any significant change in the position of both countries, both parties seem to be moving towards confrontation. In this light, understanding the dynamics around the Mohmand Attack becomes critical.
It is difficult for the general public to assess what actually may be transpiring between the US and Pakistan as most of the relation is of covert nature. The US judges Pakistan’s performance based on how well it cooperates clandestinely, and this also determines the health of the overt ties between the two countries. Since 9/11, Pakistan has assisted the US in three main areas: allowing the use of its airspace, sharing intelligence, and providing bases. However, the devil is in the details of what these three areas constitutes.
For example, for effective intelligence sharing and for manning US facilities at Pakistani airbases, US boots on the ground were needed. American staff was also needed for providing training to Pakistan’s security forces in latest counter terrorism tactics and for using and monitoring the modern technologies that US gave Pakistan. Moreover, Special Forces advisors were also embedded with Pakistani forces involved in military operations.
Pakistan’s fear has always been that although the focus of the mission was Afghanistan, US personnel may also be conducting activities related to its nuclear program and other objectives it shares with India. Furthermore, they could also be carrying out scanning against China and Iran, from bases and facilities in Pakistan.
To Pakistan, the Raymond Davis incident and OBL operation validated these apprehensions, causing it to curtail its intelligence sharing with US while threatening to close the Shamsi airbase that housed several types of drones. While most of the media attention has focused on the predator done, there are several other types of surveillance and reconnaissance drones present in the region. And, its not clear if they take off from Pakistan or Afghanistan to conduct their activities. Media reports indicate that Global Hawk, another sophisticated surveillance drone, was also present at Shamsi airbase. Additionally, the recent acquisition of RQ-170 stealth drone by Iran has raised concerns in the region. Reports now indicate that the RQ-170 had intruded from Afghanistan.
Based on recent discussions with security and defence analysts from the region, PoliTact was unable to deduce if RQ 170 was ever based in Shamsi airbase. Although they did verify that the site was probably being used for surveillance over Iran and that US bases in Pasni, Dalbandin, Jacobabad, Shamsi, Tarbela and ‘Near Kahuta’ have now been vacated.
If surveillance was indeed carried out against adversaries of US in the region, this would not be the first time Pakistani air base was used. During the Cold War days of the 60s, U2 spy planes used to fly from Peshawar to carry out reconnaissance over Soviet Union. One of these planes was eventually shot down causing an international crisis. The US Badhabar base was ultimately shut down.
The question that emerges now is: by blockading NATO’s supply line, stopping intelligence sharing, and shutting down US facilities, has Pakistan used up all it leverages over US?
Equally, other than suspending military and economic aid, what more can US do to harm Pakistan strategically. India and Afghanistan have already signed the strategic deal and Pakistan’s red lines have all been violated.
On Pakistan’s side, the country has threatened to revoke the use of its airspace in the future. Moreover, it is conducting a review of its US policy. The military orders passed after the Mohmand Attack already declared NATO would now be considered a risk, a fundamental shift in the threat perception of the country. If the orders are taken on face value, it would no longer be possible to conduct business as usual.
If NATO is now a threat, then Taliban and Pakistan share the same threat perception. Moreover, in the future, Pakistan could decide to replace the American bases with Chinese. Keeping in view the recent statements made by President Obama in Australia and the geopolitical situation in the Asia Pacific and Middle East, there is increasing likelihood the Chinese may respond affirmatively to the offer.
From the American side, the pressure could come in the form of isolating Pakistan internationally, by moving to have it declared a state sponsoring terror. Recent activities related to Dr Fai in Washington provide clues towards how Pakistan’s support for Kashmir cause could suffer. Although the present state of affairs between US, China and Russia, makes the prospect of Pakistan attaining the state sponsor of terror label, unlikely.
In this context, there are two ways to interpret the Mohmand Attack. Firstly, while the US has threatened military incursions in the tribal areas, and has actually done so on a limited occasions, it’s more a posture to pressure Pakistan into acting. US would not want to trigger a premature confrontation with China, or push Pakistan decisively in to the Chinese arms.
Keeping the American strategic perspective in mind, this perhaps is inadvertent in the long run, but the point is to delay it as much as possible. If this was indeed the intent, then Mohmand Attack seems to have accomplished just the opposite, and US AfPak policy is now left without any option but Pakistan. The second explanation being, US does not have the privilege of time and it wants to speed up things. This position puts the onus on China i.e., if it wants to confront or allow US to carry on.