The state of US-Pakistan relations fluctuates regularly to such an extent that it is difficult to determine where it may stand on a given day. Conflicting media accounts further complicate this task. The puzzling status of this relation may be inadvertent due to the nature of the differences between the two, but there may also be deliberate attempts to confuse matters. The question is, by whom and for what reason.
Perhaps the best way to determine the state of affairs between the two countries is through gauging how the Afghan reconciliation process and negotiations with different Taliban factions are progressing.
Fresh Drone Strikes
Consider, for example, the following scenario. A couple of days before the January 10th and 12th drone strikes in North Waziristan, the media reports in Pakistan indicated that the country was negotiating with US on the new flight paths and narrower boxes for the drones to operate in, and that the agreement in this regard was about to be reached. The story made sense since Pakistan had also indicated that it desired to revaluate previous agreements. More importantly, the news appeared to be preparing the audiences when it stated that after a brief lull, the strikes were about to resume.
On the other hand, after the attacks, the western media sources such as The Washington Post presented a different account. It stated that on one of the occasions the US had sought permission for a drone strike but that was denied by Pakistan. Subsequently, the US did not seek its approval, presumably for the January 12th drone strike that is believed to have killed Al-Qaeda leader Aslam Awan.
The American coverage of the strikes reinforced US policy of going after Al-Qaeda targets irrespective of Pakistan’s permission. At the same time, it also safeguarded Pakistan’s credibility by claiming that earlier attempt to strike was denied by it. On the other hand, Pakistan’s coverage was preparing the audience for the eventuality.
In the absence of this early warning, the strikes would have had a demoralizing impact. In the aftermath of the Mohmand attack on November 26th, Pakistan had declared that in the future it would shoot down any unauthorized intruding drone.
The parameters of the new agreement may be something like this: if the target is Al-Qaeda related then authorization from Pakistan would not be required. However, if it is connected to the Pakistan or Afghan Taliban, then informing and approval of Pakistani authorities would be needed.
There is an additional dimension to why there may have been conflicting reports. Media accounts emerged over the last weekend that Hakimullah Mehsud was killed in the drone strike on January 10th. It may be that the strike was allowed against the TTP leader by Pakistan because its exploratory talks with the group have faltered, as reported. And, as a result, it has already started retaliatory attacks. Since the Pakistani Taliban are also in bed with Afghan Taliban, whom Pakistan does not want to offend, the media reports may have been purposefully obfuscated.
The situation is no doubt connected to the Afghan reconciliation and the perceptions US and Pakistan want to create at this juncture. Some of the goals may be shared in this regard, while others may not be. For example, both countries are concerned and want to prevent any extremist alliance to emerge at this point.
In the recent meetings of Al-Qaeda, the Afghan Taliban and TTP, reportedly held in November and December last year, the aims of the newly formulated Shurae Murakabeh were to eliminate differences between the groups and stop targeting Pakistan’s military, while focusing more on the coalition forces in Afghanistan. The clause of stopping attacks on the Pakistan army may have been added to make it attractive for the military, and to develop divides between the US and Pakistan. So, as US and Pakistan attempt to create divides between various factions of extremists, they are also trying to do the same.
Conflicting reports have also emerged on where the Afghan reconciliation process currently stands. One of the slants suggests that the US has taken Pakistan on board now and has given a green light to the inclusion of Haqqani network in the talks, which was one of the key Pakistani demands. The report added that the US is now avoiding any head-on confrontation with the Haqqani network, believing that it has a pivotal role in any future political dispensation.
On the other hand, the Afghan government has complained that they were not consulted on the decision of opening a Taliban office in Qatar. Dr Abdullah Abdullah and Rashid Dostum have both criticized the peace process recently for keeping Afghans out of the loop.
However, if Pakistan main demands were met, then why was Marc Grossman visit put off this week? According to the foreign minister Hina Rabbani Khar, the relations between the two countries have not normalized since the Mohmand incident and Pakistan should not be pressured to bring the Haqqanis to the negotiation table. Additionally, until Pakistan’s completes its review of its US policy, the country wants the US to not send any senior officials for the time being. Meanwhile, Lt-Gen Shuja Pasha has been in and out of Qatar, which means he is in contact with US officials related to the Afghan peace talks. A similar discrepancy of reports has emerged on the timing of when Pakistan would open the NATO’s Afghan supply line.
Thus, there appears to be a coordinated Pak-US attempt to project differences and inject confusion regarding their real ties, because this helps in negotiating with different factions of Taliban. This approach also assists Pakistan to be responsive to the public sentiments that is increasingly hostile towards its cooperation with the US. This does not mean that there are no genuine differences between the two countries. Other than the apology over the Mohmand incident, these divergences are not publicly known anymore. This has also been one of the consistent Pakistani demands from the Americans, to not discuss their disparity of views in the media.