Khalid Iqbal

The year 2011 was, indeed, an annus horribilis in the chequered history of the Pak-US relations. Likewise, it was a year of global retreat for America. The US kept an unrelenting pressure on Pakistan by taking pot shots on its core national interests. Even the Kashmir cause, so dear to candidate Obama’s heart, was not spared. An effort to dismantle the stature of Dr Ghulam Nabi Fai was one of such events. Dr Fai has been projecting the Kashmir cause for over the last two decades in a pacific and prudent manner, yet with a missionary zeal. He has, indeed, earned an iconic stature for himself. As the founder of a non-profit entity, Kashmiri American Council (KAC), he pursues the resolution of Kashmir dispute on the basis of UN resolutions. He was arrested in July 2011, and his connection with the ISI was blown out of proportion to create an aura of mistrust and deception.

Dr Fai was charged for illegally lobbying the Kashmir cause without registering himself with the American administration and receiving foreign support to fund these activities. However, he had also been in contact with Indian diplomats and other officials. He has also been carrying out Kashmir-related activities in consultation with Indian entities, especially those based in America. Keeping in view that in America, lobbying is a legal instrument of reaching out to the decision makers, biased handling of Dr Fai’s episode was to implicate the ISI, tarnish a legitimate movement for independence, embarrass Pakistan and please India.

The effects of the US initiated process of strategic divergence that started with the creation of a misplaced frenzy by the Americans, in the context of culpable homicide by a CIA operative Raymond Davis, continued snowballing throughout the year. Other significant events were Abbottabad and Salalah attacks. Furthermore, threat of physical attack on Pakistan’s nuclear assets was so real and pronounced that Iranian President Ahmadinejad made a public statement on June 7 to highlight the gravity of the issue.

The memogate might as well be an American knitted sting episode to rupture the civil-military relations at the national leadership tier and generate a sense of political paralysis. After all, there have been many a twists from the American actors of the memo saga. Hand in glove are the ‘His Masters Voice’ anchor persons and ‘His ‘Masters Pleaders’, who having lost the case professionally, prefer to fight it through the media and political jingoism.

In 2001, Pakistan was coerced into a war by the USA. For 10 years, there was no policy review to correct the course. Now a comprehensive policy review is underway to recast the Pak-US relationship; the engagement between the two States is likely to be reworked on equitable terms. This does not suit America. Hence, an environment is being engineered whereby the entire government system appears in doldrums.

On the global front, the underlying economic meltdown of America is translating into an enormous scaling down of its military capability. Expensive weapon acquisitions like F-35 have been deferred; the option of changing the composition of force from all standing to a combination of standing and reserve components is being considered. Affordability appears to be the main driver behind the presidential review; Sustaining US Global Leadership: Priorities for 21st Century Defence that was issued on January 3.

America’s self-assumed role of the world’s policeman will be trimmed. The Americans will not be patrolling everywhere all the time. Some of their troops guarding Europe since World War II may return home. The army and marine corps will shrink; and the number of the weapon systems would reduce. Despite such a loss in capability, it would only be a tiny step in the direction of $487 billion in military cuts, agreed to in the bipartisan debt deal.

On the Afghan front, opening of the Taliban office in Qatar is indicative of the haste in the ‘run away’ saga that is likely to unfold soon; 2012 would, indeed, be the ‘Year of the Taliban’. Known as tough negotiators, they would accrue all they want without ceding an iota. The year started with the news that a senior Taliban official, Mullah Mohammed Fazl, might be released from Guantanamo or transferred to Qatar as a “confidence building measure”. Mullah Omar has been taken off the terrorist list; soon the Haqqanis would also stand drycleaned.

Against this backdrop, North Korea’s nuclear follies have long been forgotten. Iran is under focus, but in all probability, things will not move beyond rhetoric. Tehran is very well placed to go nuclear; if it decides so. So far, it is an ardent follower of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).

More so, the squeeze on Obama resembles the final months of President Carter. The Nato Summit in Chicago is round the corner. The economic crisis in Europe is diminishing the European will to continue supporting expensive US war in Afghanistan. The Chicago Summit may meet the fate of Istanbul Conference, held in November 2011, and Bonn II Conference, convened a month later. After rupturing the Nato/Isaf supply line, Pakistan and Iran are now on the fence, both know it well that there is no sustainable solution to the Afghan conflict without their consent.

The US emphasis on rising power of China in a negative sense, and shift of American military focus to Asia-Pacific region and reliance on India as provider of security in the Indian Ocean, as articulated by Leon Panetta in his recent strategic guidance for department of defence, must have not gone down well with the Chinese leadership. Beijing has strong interest in stabilising Afghanistan. However, the opportunity of a helping role by China has been watered down by portraying it as a rival country.

Russia is no longer willing to give the US a free ride in Central Asia. Ambassador M.K. Bhadrakumar, in his article, Enter the year of the Taliban, published by Asia Times Online, has narrated the outcome of the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) Summit held in Moscow last month; Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbayev announced with a straight face: “, in order to deploy a military base of a third country on the territory of a CSTO member State, it will be necessary to obtain official approval of all CSTO member States.......” Hillary had recently visited Uzbekistan and offered it military assistance to undercut the CSTO unity. However, Uzbek President Islam Karimov attended the summit and supported the alliance's decision. This Russian-led alliance includes Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. The new agreement gives Russia an opportunity to prevent the deployment of the US airbases in Tajikistan or Uzbekistan, and puts an effective halt to eastward expansion of American Missile Defence Systems.

The US has a choice either to eat the dust and seek Pakistan's favour for reopening of the transit routes, or use unsustainable Northern Distribution Network. The CSTO stance would continue to haunt the fate of the US base in Manas, Kyrgyzstan, which is a strategic hub for air transportation. President Almazbek Atambayev has repeatedly called for the closure of the Manas Airbase on expiry of the current agreement in 2014.

Like every receding empire, the US is frustrated. It is not yet in a mood to reconcile with the reality. Pakistan is certainly not short on leverage vis-à-vis America. The time is on Pakistan’s side. At this point and time, Pakistan needs a cool-headed leadership with a strong nerve.

The writer is a retired Air Commodore and former assistant chief of air staff of the Pakistan Air Force. At present, he is a member of the visiting faculty at the PAF Air War College, Naval War College and Quaid-i-Azam University.