- By Arif Jamal
As U.S.-Pakistan relations continue to deteriorate, Pakistan is in the process of redefining its relationship with the United States. The official statement from Pakistan’s foreign ministry on Wednesday in response to a drone strike in Pakistan’s tribal areas, just two days after a meeting in which Pakistani intelligence chief Lt. Gen. Ahmed Shuja Pasha reportedly asked for a curtailing of the strikes (among other requests), called the CIA-run attacks on the militants in the Pakistani tribal belt the "core irritant" in counter-terrorism cooperation between the two countries. Public statements by the Pakistani officials asking the United States to scale down the drone strikes and intelligence operations show that Pakistan wants to reset the relationship with the United States on its own terms.
As the scheduled American withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2014 nears, there is a growing feeling among the Pakistani military establishment that Pakistan should get ready to play a bigger role in the post-U.S. Afghanistan, in order to secure its own interests and prevent or curtail an Indian presence in the country. In spite of U.S. officials’ statements to the contrary, the Pakistani military establishment feels the U.S. will once again abandon Afghanistan and the region. As they do not expect the flow of U.S. aid to Pakistan to continue, members of the Pakistani leadership want the U.S., to use an official’s words to me, to "bleed a little like the Soviets."
The Pakistani military establishment also believes that they control the lifeline to the U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, one which they feel they can choke off at will. The experience of "bringing the United States to its heels," as one Pakistani official put it to me, by blocking the NATO supplies through the Torkham border crossing in September 2010, only reinforced their belief. After blocking the route to protest the deaths of three Pakistani Frontier Corps members after a U.S. cross-border helicopter strike, the crossing was only reopened 11 days later, after several American and NATO officials publicly apologized to Pakistan. The closure of the border crossing clearly showed that the supplies to the U.S. and NATO are the Americans’ Achilles Heel. However, it also proved that at that time it was not possible for Pakistani military to withstand the U.S. pressure and keep it closed for very long in the given situation.
However, according to credible sources in the Pakistani government, a group of former Pakistani servicemen are currently preparing an unofficial "plan B" to once again halt the flow of supplies to U.S. troops in Afghanistan, with the knowledge of the Pakistani military. According to this plan, if the Americans do not agree to the new terms of cooperation from Pakistan, various civilian and political groups will block the highways leading to Afghanistan at some date in the not-so-distant future. Sources tell me that the legendary former Pakistani intelligence chief Lt. Gen. Hamid Gul, one of the key coordinators of weapons and money to the anti-Soviet mujahideen and a vocal supporter of the Taliban and Osama bin Laden, is playing a key role in the preparation of this plan. Gen. Gul enjoys the support of thousands of ex-servicemen who are organized as part of the Pakistan Ex-Servicemen Association (PESA). In a recent TV talk show appearance, Gul asked the government and the military to adopt this plan, and said that this blockage would turn Afghanistan into a graveyard for the American troops after 15 days, the time he estimated it would take for them to run out of fuel. In addition to ex-servicemen, Gul can also mobilize members of several jihadi-linked groups, including the Lashkar-e-Taiba-affiliated Jamaat-ud-Dawa.
The plan also has a role for pro-military political parties, such as cricket star-turned politician Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI). Khan has repeatedly threatened to block the highways leading to Afghanistan in recent public statements. He is also trying to unite pro-military political parties in a united front against the governing Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), in an apparent attempt to earn favor with the military.
Support from the opposition Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), headed by former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, will also be crucial for any major action. PML-N is one of the two most popular parties and is in power in Punjab province. The PML-N seems ready to play its part to oust the PPP in the next elections, which are scheduled for 2013, if not earlier. Additionally, A number of PML-N leaders have publicly supported a halt to the drone strikes; Punjab chief minister Shahbaz Sharif, who represents the pro-military hawks in the party, vowed to lead a long march to stop the drone attacks. Another PML-N lawmaker, Mian Javed Latif, pledged to start a civil disobedience movement if the drone attacks were not halted. Several PML-N leaders seem to believe that military’s support in 2013 would be crucial to their victory, and could gain support from the military for supporting the blockade while also undercutting their main rivals, the PPP.
Additionally, several other groups are already campaigning against the United States and drone strikes in the Pakistani street. They include the Labor Party of Pakistan, the Awami Party, the Workers Party Pakistan, the Revolutionary Socialist Movement, the National Students Federation and National trade Union Federation.
Imran Khan’s PTI has already called for a sit-in in Peshawar on April 23-24 on the highway leading to Afghanistan. This experimental blockade would be repeated from time to time, potentially drawing more people with each new protest, until the U.S. accepts Pakistani terms and agrees to revamp the relationship. Whenever such a blockade takes place, the U.S. government would have nobody to talk to, as the PPP would be isolated and the military back in control of Pakistan’s relationship with the United States.
Arif Jamal is the author of Shadow War: The Untold Story of Jihad in Kashmir.