May 27, 2012

The US plays hardball in AfPpak

By Brian M Downing


Relations between the United States and Pakistan have deteriorated badly over the past year. Pakistan was initially embarrassed when US Special Forces found and killed al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden just down the street from a Pakistani army camp, but the country - or at least its generals who hold sway there - turned the raid into an affront to national honor.

Last November, US troops fired on a Pakistani army camp, killing 24 soldiers. Its national honor injured once more, Pakistan closed off North Atlantic Treaty organization (NATO) supply lines into Afghanistan and confidently awaited an apology and redress from the US. Neither has happened; neither is likely to happen.

In the past week, President Barack Obama snubbed his Pakistani counterpart at the NATO meeting held in his hometown of Chicago, and a Pakistani tribal court sentenced Dr Shakil Afridi, the medical doctor who assisted the US in the Bin Laden operation, to a draconian 33-year sentence. The US is racing to respond with a US$33 million cut in aid to Pakistan. The parity in the sentence and the aid cutoff is not a coincidence and will not be lost in the conversion to rupees.

The US shows no concern over Pakistan and its supply lines. This raises the question not only of the future of the US-Pakistani partnership, but also the question of Pakistan's usefulness to the US. One might further wonder what options the US has for supplying the war in Afghanistan and what plans it has for its erstwhile South Asian partner. None of the prospects augur well for Pakistan's political and military elite.

Pakistan cut off US/International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) supplies into Afghanistan once before. In 2010, after US aircraft struck inside Pakistan, Islamabad severed supply lines through the Khyber Pass. Dependent on Pakistani routes, American generals had no choice but to apologize. But it became clear to the US that Pakistani supply lines were unreliable and it began to use longer, more expensive but more stable routes through Russian and Russian-influenced territories, including Uzbekistan just to Afghanistan's north.

Approximately 75% of supplies into Afghanistan were coming through Russia last autumn. After the November border incident closed Pakistani routes once more, all such supplies have come through Russian territories. Six months without the use of Pakistani routes and the war goes on. American generals are breathing a sigh of relief over their foresight; Pakistani generals are anxious over their miscalculation and where it is leading.

The supplies coming through Russian territories are reportedly "non-lethal", that is, they exclude bullets, artillery rounds, bombs and the like. But the US has almost certainly built up immense stockpiles inside Afghanistan. In any event, the war turned away from ground engagements back in 2007 and no longer requires large amounts of bullets and bombs.

Operations today mainly involve patrolling enclaves in the south and counter-insurgency operations that provide medical services and agricultural help. The old combat sweeps are few in number. Afghan army units and insurgent leaders are feeling each other out on local truces. US/ISAF troop levels are declining rather sharply.

Combat could pick up, perhaps at the behest of the Pakistani army, and almost certainly aiming at ISAF supply depots, which are to say the least combustible. The Taliban have begun their warm-weather offensive, but in recent years this has meant more improvised explosive devices, not more ground engagements. The US will have to increase mine-clearing operations and road patrols, neither of which calls for large amounts of lethal equipment.

There may be surreptitious sources of lethal equipment in the region. Pakistani army and Frontier Corps commanders may supplement their meager salaries with sales across the Durand Line that separates Pakistan and Afghanistan. Iranian commanders to the west may have similar inclinations and indeed are thought to have already done so with opium dealers.

The manufacture of guns and ammunition is one of the more vigorous industries of the tribal areas of Pakistan and has been since the days of Rudyard Kipling if not the Moghuls. The town of Darra Adam Khel is thought to have some 900 weapons factories. [1] The loyalties and scruples of the owners are unclear but money is thought to speak loudly, clearly, and cogently in Khyber marketplaces.

More reliable sources can be found with Indian intelligence. It is likely to have clandestine supply routes from its days of supporting the Northern Alliance against the Taliban from the early 1990s to the Taliban's ouster in 2001, and these are almost certainly kept at the ready.

The US's recent refusal to issue an apology to Pakistan contrasts with General David Petraeus' (now director of the Central Intelligence Agency) contrition when supply lines were cut two years ago.

Obama's refusal to meet Zardari recently was a calculated insult. The US must have confidence in stable supply channels for lethal equipment and perhaps Russia has privately given that confidence. After all, Russia is very much interested in seeing Islamist militants ground down in Afghanistan lest is spread into Central Asia. What Russian President Vladimir Putin will ask in return is unclear but cooperation in hydrocarbon development and countering Chinese influence may be high on his list.

The US has additional leverage against Pakistan. Cutting off Western supply lines hurts Pakistanis as well, especially among the Pashtun workers in the port of Karachi and along the approaches into Afghanistan in Khyber and Balochistan - two regions with limited respect for the Islamabad and the generals.

Further, the US can cut more aid to the Pakistani army and state and future International Monetary Fund loans may be in question. Pakistan may have more in common with Greece than a visit from Alexander long ago.

A case may be made that Pakistan, or at least its generals, are sponsors of terrorism. Several countries may support the effort: India can point to the 2008 Mumbai attack by Lashkar-e-Toiba which operates openly in Pakistan; Iran has objected to Pakistan-based Jundallah groups that strike inside its portion of Balochistan; even China is wary of Uyghur guerrillas operating along the Durand Line. The example of harsh sanctions lies just to the west in Iran.

Pakistan has also run afoul of two transnational professional networks who will spread the message and press for justice. Reporters are part of an international association and they are appalled by the deaths of dozens of their colleagues in suspicious circumstances, including Asia Times Online correspondent Syed Saleem Shahzad in May of last year.

The draconian sentence handed down on Dr Afridi is beginning to stir action within the well-placed and influential medical profession - a group closely tied to humanitarian causes in the world. They, like many other people, are bewildered that a man who helped find the deadliest terror leader in history has been severely punished while those who hid him walk freely in Abbottabad and Islamabad.

1. See Michael Bhatia and Mark Sedra, Afghanistan, Arms and Conflict: Armed Groups, Disarmament and Security in a Post-War Society (London: Routledge, 2008), p 39.

Brian M Downing is a political/military analyst and author of The Military Revolution and Political Change and The Paths of Glory: War and Social Change in America from the Great War to Vietnam. He can be reached at

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