"Let there arise out of you a band of people inviting to all that is good enjoining what is right and forbidding what is wrong; they are the ones to attain felicity".
(surah Al-Imran,ayat-104)
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30 JANUARY 2010

Whatever is decided at the Afghanistan conference this week, Christina Lamb says there will never be peace while Islamabad is hostile to Washington

Only a Pakistani journalist could have linked a New Jersey school’s decision to cancel its Christmas concert because of head lice with the American conspiracy to subjugate Islam.

In her ‘View From US’ column in the Dawn newspaper, Anjum Niaz, one of Pakistan’s leading journalists, quoted the letter to parents. ‘Although the likelihood of spreading lice by attending the concert is near zero, we feel that this is an appropriate precautionary measure at this time.’ In the same way, she complained, ‘peace-loving Muslims across the world are getting the flak’ as ‘the Americans are taking “appropriate precautionary measures” against the mother of all lice, al-Qa’eda’.

Over at The Nation, Ahmed Quaraishi had even less love for Washington. ‘The US design to destabilise Pakistan is becoming clearer by the day, even for the most blinkered Pakistani,’ he writes. ‘Now it is evident that the US is seeking to engulf the whole of Pakistan in an asymmetric conflict, which will eventually pit the people against the state, especially the military.’

From the daily diet of anti-American vitriol in the Pakistani media, you would never for a moment guess that the US is pouring in billions of dollars of aid to the country every year, not to mention $300 million for education and $20 million alone in Fulbright scholarships to American universities. Instead you will read about US plans to seize Pakistan’s nukes and to colonise the country with agents from Blackwater, the notorious private security company, accused of involvement in a deadly killing in Iraq. When Congress approved a $7.5 billion five-year aid package, Pakistani media accused the US of trying to interfere in its internal affairs.

These are not minority views. More Pakistanis lost their lives in Taleban bombings last year than Afghans, yet poll after poll shows that Pakistanis regard the US as more of a threat than the Taleban. A recent survey by the Pew Global Attitudes Project found a staggering 64 per cent of Pakistanis regard the US as an enemy, while only 9 per cent see it as a partner. ‘Americans are not appreciated in Pakistan, despite the fact we give them a huge amount of assistance,’ complained Richard Holbrooke, the US special envoy for Pakistan and Afghanistan, at a US Senate hearing last week.

This week at the London Conference on Afghanistan, Gordon Brown and the Afghan President Hamid Karzai will promote their big idea for ending the war by ‘integrating’ Taleban through offering jobs and bribes. Yet everyone knows that none of this can work as long as Pakistan refuses to end its safe haven for the Taleban leadership or put a brake on Taleban training, recruiting or fundraising. ‘It’s undoubtedly the key to the region,’ said Holbrooke. ‘Pakistan is an immensely complicated situation, far more than Afghanistan in my mind.’ What most worries Washington, given the longstanding influence of the Pakistani military over its national media, is that the conspiracy theories filling the pages actually represent the view of Pakistan’s top generals, their supposed partner in the war on terror.

Concerns first surfaced in 2007 when, at a flag meeting of commanders at Kurram on the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan, a Pakistani major drew his pistol and killed an American. The incident was hushed up as a gunfight.

US officials were dismayed last September when Hafiz Saeed, leader of the militant organisation Lashkar-e-Taiba, which was responsible for the Mumbai massacre, was the special guest at a reception hosted by Rawalpindi Corps Commander Lt General Tahir Mahmood. Two months later Saeed had terrorism charges dropped by the Lahore High Court.

Last month, a truck was seized in Kandahar containing enough ammonium nitrate to make a year’s supply of IEDs, the roadside bombs which are the biggest killer of Nato troops. It had come from Pakistan.

‘We’re very concerned about these issues — there are some definite problems,’ admits David Sedney, the US Assistant Secretary of Defence. Holbrooke went further, telling the US senators last week that ‘they [Pakistan] sometimes push us to the limits.’

This month the US made an official complaint to Pakistan’s national security apparatus asking them to ‘stop fanning the flames of anti-Americanism’. It was the second such complaint within a fortnight. The US embassy in Islamabad also put out a public complaint accusing Pakistan’s intelligence of harassing and detaining its diplomats and refusing visas to 250 people needed to run its embassy and aid programmes.

The US has quietly suspended aid, withholding $1.5 billion due under the Coalition Support Fund, through which Pakistan is reimbursed for its support of the war on terror. US officials said this was because among those not granted visas were the auditors. Pakistan’s military intelligence, ISI, which has been withholding the visas, offered to allow in those individuals if their names were provided. But, according to a top Pakistan official, the US response was: ‘you must clear all 250, not just those who write the cheques.’

Yet until recently, relations between Pakistan and the US seemed to be improving. Washington was quick to praise Pakistan’s military last year, as it sent troops into Swat to clear out the Taleban of Maulana Fazlullah, and then into the tribal area of south Waziristan to take on the Taleban of the Mehsud clan. However, in neither case were any of the leaders caught. And the army command showed no enthusiasm for taking on the Afghan Taleban in Baluchistan, or moving into north Waziristan to go after the network of Jalaluddin Haqqani and his son Siraj, or the al-Qa’eda leadership, instead arguing that they had no spare forces. ‘The Pakistanis have a very strong incentive not to go after these people,’ said an adviser to General Stanley McChrystal, the US commander in Afghanistan. ‘It’s their cash cow and the reason we’ve given them $15 billion since 9/11. They know as soon as these people go from their soil we will lose interest in them.’

Yet without Pakistan’s co-operation, there is little hope of achieving peace in Afghanistan. A few days before the London conference, Robert Gates, the US Defence Secretary, flew into Islamabad to confront the problem head on. Gates had not been to Pakistan for three years because of sensitivities over his past role as head of the CIA in the late 1980s. But he plunged in last week and gave a speech at Pakistan’s National Defence University to an audience full of generals. ‘Let me say definitively the US does not covet a single inch of Pakistani soil,’ he stated. ‘We seek no military bases and we have no desire to control Pakistan’s nuclear weapons.’

His audience was unconvinced. ‘Are you with us or are you against us?’ one general angrily demanded, recalling America’s question to Pakistan after 9/11.

What has become known as the ‘trust deficit’ goes back to the 1980s, when Pakistan feels it was used by the US for its Cold War objective of giving the Red Army a bloody nose in Afghanistan, then abandoned. President Obama unwittingly played on this fear last month when his speech announcing the sending of 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan also proposed a date of July 2011 to start withdrawing, leading some of Pakistan’s establishment to calculate that it is not in their interests to help take on the Taleban, as the US will once again soon be gone. The line had been inserted into Obama’s speech by the White House at the last minute to assuage Democrats worried about getting sucked into another Vietnam, and US officials have subsequently insisted it is not a withdrawal date. But as far as Pakistan is concerned, these were the President’s words and no amount of visits from US politicians and military to Islamabad will convince them otherwise. ‘Every day another US official,’ grumbles a senior Pakistani diplomat.

President Obama wrote to President Asif Zardari last month asking Pakistan to take action against the Taleban and several other terrorist groups. But the Pakistani military, which has close ties with both the Taleban and the Haqqani network, referring to them as ‘assets’, simply refused. Major Gen Athar Abbas, the army spokesman, said they had told Robert Gates it would take at least ‘six months to a year’ to mount an offensive in north Waziristan. But Washington is no longer in any mood to listen to excuses about needing more time. The revelation that the Jordanian agent who blew up seven CIA agents in Afghanistan in late December was working with the Pakistan Taleban, led by Hakimullah Mehsud, infuriated the Agency. The CIA has documented links between Mehsud and Haqqani.

Outraged by the worst attack on its agents in almost 30 years, the CIA sent a thinly veiled warning to ISI that if Pakistan does not start acting against the Haqqanis and the Afghan Taleban, it will do it alone. A senior Pakistani official who saw the message said: ‘The Americans are gradually notching things up and eventually will be so pissed off they’ll do their own thing.’

Already, in the three weeks since the attack, the CIA has pounded the area with drones, launching 12 strikes in retaliation. These strikes, which often cause civilian casualties, provoke much public resentment in Pakistan, and the Pakistan government continues to pretend that they are carried out without its agreement. However, it is well-known that this is untrue and that, although they are controlled by satellite link from CIA headquarters in Virginia, the planes take off from a secret airbase in Pakistan.

What Pakistan really wants is its own drones to use on its eastern border. Gates duly arrived in Islamabad bearing a dozen drone-shaped gifts. However these were ‘shadow drones’, which carry cameras and surveillance equipment but are not capable of firing missiles, which is what the military really want.

Washington may be running out of patience, but Pakistan still has one major card up its sleeve — its nuclear arsenal. ‘Look at what Pakistan is holding over the US,’ says Professor Shaun Gregory, director of the Pakistan Security Research Unit at Bradford University. ‘The Americans need Pakistan’s help for gathering intelligence — their material supply routes into Afghanistan go through Pakistan, and on top of that you have the nuclear issue. Pakistan can say “If you think we’re being uncooperative now, what if we were to give nuclear weapons to militants?”’

Christina Lamb is the Washington bureau chief of the Sunday Times.

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