The South Asia Channel

Drone strikes aren’t the real issue in U.S.-Pakistan relations

Drone strikes aren’t the real issue in U.S.-Pakistan relations

Earlier today, the provincial assembly of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province passed a resolution asking for an end to drone strikes in Pakistan’s tribal areas. The resolution was presented by Bashir Ahmad Bilour, the province’s Senior Minister, a member of the secular Awami National Party (ANP) and one of Pakistan’s strongest voices against the Taliban. As recently as a few months ago, the ANP leaders privately supported the drone strikes, arguing that drones are the best available means against al-Qaeda and Taliban and even describing them as "ababeel" a term used to describe small birds who came to the rescue of Mecca during a Sixth-Century siege.

This change of heart follows the explosion in the past two months of official criticism of the drone strikes, first initiated by army chief Gen. Ashfaq Pervez Kayani’s public condemnation March 17 after a strike allegedly killed up to 40 tribesmen (though the United States disputes this claim), and which erupted again last week after two strikes were carried out just days after a meeting in which Pakistani intelligence chief Lt. Gen. Ahmad Shuja Pasha is believed to have asked CIA director Leon Panetta to curtail the strikes. Yet the dramatic escalation in rhetoric is not just about political posturing, but rather demonstrates the extent to which both the civilian government and the army see the need to shore up their credibility in reaction to events in Pakistan and elsewhere.

Between 2004 and 2010, both the relatively weak Pakistani government and the country’s powerful army opted for silence, often considered consent in legal terms, over the strikes. Despite the chorus of public disapproval from some religious parties and public commentators over those years, neither the army generals, nor the civilian governments, both the previous and present, showed any signs of resistance to the strikes. Instead, they kept their focus on gaining more aid for their own counterterrorism programs even as their U.S. and NATO allies regularly insisted that Pakistan "do more" to confront the growing terrorist threat within its borders. The government’s actions only began to change late last year, with the cutting off the supply route to Afghanistan in response to a cross-border helicopter strike that killed three Pakistani Frontier Corps members. The blockade was followed by attacks on fuel tankers and trucks carrying oil and goods for NATO troops in Afghanistan, which gutted scores of vehicles and goods worth millions of dollars, before the crossing was opened.

It is clear that the recent uptick in aggressive rhetoric is prelude to broader Pakistani attempts to renegotiate the relationship with the United States.

One area of the relationship that Pakistan would like to revise is the ongoing secret (or not-so-secret) talks with the Taliban. President Asif Ali Zardari’s recent trip to Turkey, believed to be a facilitator in the talks, followed by the visit of Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani, along with General Kayani and ISI Chief General Ahmad Shuja Pasha to Kabul, indicate that the Pakistani government is attempting to insert itself into the talks with or without U.S. consent. Members of Karzai’s inner circle have indicated privately that the conversations were fruitful, and both sides expressed satisfaction with the meeting, in which both sides agreed to set up a "joint peace commission" to help end the Taliban insurgency.

The Pakistani army also wants to continue working to decrease the substantial Indian leverage with the Afghan leadership; the army is the key force handling the country’s Afghan, India and U.S. policies in addition to several other key areas of "national interests," and the generals will likely not accept a solution in Afghanistan that does not keep India at bay.

And while the presence of a "large number" of CIA operatives in Pakistan may bother the country’s intelligence services, as evidenced by the objections raised during meeting with Panetta last week, the real issue with the CIA’s presence in the country is the specific intelligence gathering operations related to the militant group Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), a key concern for America’s military and intelligence services, as well as Pakistan’s nuclear program. According to Pakistani electronic media and various reports, CIA contractor Raymond Davis was gathering intelligence on the Pakistani nuclear program and the LeT operations inside and outside Pakistan when he allegedly shot and killed two men in Lahore in January.

As part of a new deal, Pakistan will likely push for guarantees for its nuclear program and a reduction in U.S. efforts against LeT, both considered key strategic pillars for the country’s security establishment, and both part of efforts to constrain Indian influence in what Pakistan considers its backyard.

Finally, the condemnation of drone attacks and harsh statements about America’s military and covert presence in Pakistan – despite military and government’s heavy involvement with both – serve currently to bolster the image of both the army and the government with the Pakistani public. Both have recently lost trust of the people in the face of the prevailing lawlessness, terrorism and military operations in different parts of the country, and the release of Raymond Davis after the payment of "blood money" to the victims’ families.

While the current government is often a target of media criticism, private Pakistani television stations no longer go out of their way to praise the army, which has recently been subject to critiques over several issues, including the army’s refusal to rein in warlords such as the Khyber-based Mangal Bagh and even the army and intelligence support for militant groups such as the Haqqani Network and LeT. By constantly bolstering a negative image of the U.S. in Pakistan, the armed forces can regain its "hero" image with the people, while obscuring the double game it plays with the United States, alternately combating militant groups and keeping others at the ready for future use in Afghanistan, Kashmir, or even India.

The political leadership, on the other hand, has had no other option but to submit to the army’s will, and joined the chorus of condemnation of the United States only after the army took the lead. Both Gilani and Zardari believe that public opposition to the drone strikes will keep parties like Jamaat-e-Islami, Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam or the opposition Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) from scoring political points because of the issue.

Ultimately, the current round of opposition shows once again the willingness of the Pakistani leadership to alternately "push" and "pull" in their relationship with the United States, constantly reacting to the changing domestic, regional and international political situation. Pakistan will tolerate or encourage the drone strikes in the future, as long as its status as a regional fulcrum and its strategic interests remain protected in the long-run.

Daud Khattak is a Pashtun journalist currently working for the Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Pashto-language station Radio Mashaal.