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Fears of an unlikely invasion.

Byline: Seldom before has Pakistan been threatened as now with United States-Nato punitive military action.

Bilateral relations between Pakistan and the United States have historically been prone to fluctuations. Expediency has occasionally made Washington elevate Pakistan to the status of the most allied state in the region while, in other situations, it has imposed harsh sanctions on it. Perceptions of American opportunism in bilateral ties have combined with a perennial resentment at the US policies in the Middle East to create an abiding popular distrust of the United States that often becomes a problem for essentially pro-western governments in Islamabad.

Having sunk to a low point in 1990s, the relationship built up quickly once Washington decided to bring down the Taliban. Pious statements made by both sides claimed that they had finally found a framework of eternal friendship. Pakistan was declared a non-Nato ally and received assistance worth billions of dollars to bolster its capacity to fight the global war on terror. Ironically, it is this very war that is injecting an extraordinary complexity into bilateral relations now.

On the positive side, US Senators Joseph Biden and Richard Lugar have sponsored a bill that would make $ 7.5 billion (Dh27.5 billion) available to Pakistan over five years significantly shifting the focus from military sales to projects that benefit the people and strengthen democratic governance. Conceptually, the bill belongs to the school of thought that commends transformative diplomacy towards Pakistan to help mitigate factors of deprivation and under-development responsible for fuelling extremism and militancy.

On the negative side, even though many neo-conservative hawks have left the US administration, there are still powerful voices that put their faith in military victories in the wars launched to reconfigure the Greater Middle East. There is at present a perceptible shift of attention from Iraq to Afghanistan. Identified as a battle that can still be won, Afghanistan has emerged as a key issue in the current US election campaign. There is a renewed emphasis on Taliban's ability to sneak through the formidable deployment of Pakistani troops to seek a temporary sanctuary on the Pakistani side of the international frontier as the explanation for the Western failures in Afghanistan.

Seldom before has Pakistan been threatened as now with US-Nato punitive action.

Highly volatile region

Till the other day, there were just leaks in the mainstream American media portending widening of operations so as to include Pakistan's highly volatile and religiously-motivated tribal belt. Even though Pakistan had lost more than a thousand soldiers in tribal battles, it was blamed for not doing enough.

More recently, its policy of containing the conflict by entering into peace agreements with amenable tribes seems to have irked the United States. An obvious consequence has been a spate of statements from responsible quarters in the United States raising the possibility of cross-border military operations.

Some aggressive statements made by the Democratic presidential candidate, Barack Obama, with an eye on the November election have revived old doubts about the permanence of Pakistan-US strategic partnership. The unscheduled visit to Pakistan of a very senior military officer, Admiral Michael Mullen, a few days back was reported in the American media as the occasion to "read out the riot act to Pakistan".

Pakistan's frayed nerves are all too visible. Scores of private TV channels keep alive a constant electronic chatter about Washington intimidating Pakistan with the threat of "surgical strikes" by air or by Special Forces reportedly amassing on the Afghan side of the border.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai's statements ranging from critical to downright provocative have drawn sharp ripostes from Pakistan and exacerbated existing tensions. There is consensus in Pakistan that any direct US incursion would be counter-productive and play into the hands of the insurgents who, given the terrain and the highly dispersed demography of the tribal belt, would probably suffer only minimal damage.

The fear in Pakistan is that hawks in Washington may opt for catharsis of anger at American losses suffered in an audacious attack by the Afghan Taliban on July 13 inside Afghanistan allegedly with the support of volunteers from the Pakistani tribal area to the detriment of larger strategy.

There is also deep concern at a new hiccup in India-Pakistan relations caused by the situation in Afghanistan. India has made a large investment there since the fall of the Taliban regime and now has a strong and visible presence. In recent years, Pakistan has complained that Indian intelligence services are using Afghan soil for subversion in the Pakistani province of Balochistan.

India too has occasionally talked of terrorists with Pakistani links. The general tendency in New Delhi and Islamabad has been to handle such misgivings on either side in a low key. But a dastardly suicide bombing of the Indian embassy in which more than 50 people including two senior officers of the embassy died has created grave apprehensions of the Afghan crisis impinging negatively on India-Pakistan peace process.

India's National Security Adviser, M.K.Narayanan, otherwise known for his statesmanlike caution and restraint, has implicated a Pakistani intelligence service in this attack. It has shocked the people of Pakistan as they cannot imagine that any government agency could conceivably endanger the architecture of peace, security and cooperation that India and Pakistan are so painstakingly putting on the ground. Afghanistan is important for Pakistan but it knows too well that its own future and that of a billion people in South Asia hinges on a rapprochement with India.

India and Pakistan need to focus on this reconciliation irrespective of the great power compulsions of the United States and the expansionary urges of Nato that is evidently seeking a global role. Understandably, the two sub-continental states have to locate themselves in the international system so as to maximise their national interest but on calm reflection a clear prerequisite of that exercise is the climate of amity and harmony between them. This is the quintessential message of the history of the past 60 years that must not be ignored.

Tanvir Ahmad Khan is a former ambassador and foreign secretary of Pakistan. He currently heads the Institute of Strategic Studies, Islamabad.

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Publication:Gulf News (United Arab Emirates)
Date:Jul 20, 2008
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