A Chill Has Crept over US-Pakistani Relations

Every effort was made to end President George W. Bush’s visit to Pakistan on a high note Saturday, March 4, despite the massive security blanket marring the event. Bush and his host, president Pervez Musharraf, were lavish in their praise of the strong strategic cooperation between them in the war on terror.
But debkafile‘s Pakistan correspondent reports the relationship has entered choppy waters. The two leaders were at odds on the two main themes of their talks: the spillover of Islamic terrorism across Pakistani borders and nuclear issues. On the global war on terror, the Bush administration is reviewing Musharraf’s centrality, while nuclear proliferation is more of a sore point than ever.
Pakistan is under heavy US pressure to cut its links with terrorist elements operating across the border in India and Afghanistan. Musharraf insists he is sincerely doing everything possible to uproot al Qaeda from the troubled Pakistan-Afghan tribal belt and halting cross-border infiltration into Indian-administered Kashmir.
Neither Kabul nor New Delhi believes him.
The Kabul government has accused Islamabad of turning a blind eye from time to time to the infiltration from Pakistan`s tribal areas into Afghanistan. After a recent visit to Islamabad, Afghan president Karzai handed the Pakistanis a list of 50 Taliban fugitives operating freely in the tribal belt with a request for their arrest.
On the day of Bush’s surprise visit to Kabul last week, Pakistani security forces launched an intense military operation in the South Waziristan region of the Pak-Afghan tribal belt and reportedly killed 35 to 40 al-Qaeda related terrorists, many of them foreigners. Another such action, allegedly killing another 50 terrorists, was announced Saturday, the day of the US president’s talks in Islamabad.
Even after three years of such military action, al Qaeda, Taliban and their supporters are still very much present and even regrouping. Pakistani military authorities claim they have eliminated most of the 500-600 foreign militants found in South Waziristan in early 2004.
While Islamabad strongly denies reports of Taliban and al-Qaeda infiltration into Afghanistan from the Pakistani side, the Karzai government insists that the infiltration was actually being orchestrated from the Pakistani border.
Pakistani military authorities claim that there were 500-600 foreign militants in the South Waziristan area when army operations first started in early 2004. Most were killed or captured. Yet the border strip continues to be a launching base for nocturnal cross-border forays against US-led coalition forces in Afghanistan. Since early 2005, Pakistan forces have also killed and arrested hundreds of foreign jihadists and their local facilitators in North Waziristan too.
American intelligence operatives stationed in Pakistan believe that Osama bin Laden and some of the top al-Qaeda figures are hiding somewhere in the mountain recesses of the region. For US-led coalition troops operating across the border in Afghanistan, effective Pakistani military operation in Waziristan holds the key to their mission and to saving lives in the battle against the al-Qaeda and Taliban.
But patience is running out in Washington, Kabul and New Delhi. Therefore, the
Bush visit to Islamabad was seen as a defining moment in the US-Pakistani anti-terror partnership and, by the same token, for General Musharraf’s own political future.
His iron hand, highly regarded by the Bush administration till now, is beginning to look counter-productive. The Taliban remnants are nowhere near being defeated in Afghanistan; Osama bin Laden and his top aides continue to defy capture, the Kashmir issue is an open wound.
Some informed diplomatic sources in Islamabad fear that the Bush administration is coming round to the conviction that a weaker Pakistani army is as necessary now as a powerful one was when the US needed its support to invade Afghanistan after September 11, 2001.
The army is Musharraf’s mainstay and so he finds himself in a cleft stick.
His generals refuse to withdraw their backing from the Islamic insurgency in Indian-controlled Kashmir. The Pakistani president, who derives his main legitimacy from the army, cannot force them to do so without exposing himself to condemnation as Washington’s stooge and of selling out Pakistan’s national interests to please the Americans.
He had hoped the army would become more amenable if Bush had offered Pakistan a nuclear contract on the same lines as the one he signed with New Delhi for Indian access to American nuclear technology without signing the Non-Proliferation Treaty. He therefore pressed the US president for a similar deal in the interests of parity and of preserving Pakistan’s deterrent strength.
However, this demand raised another contentious issue between Washington and Islamabad: Pakistan’s murky record on proliferation.
The Bush administration wants more effective Pakistani implementation of nuclear safeguards and export controls. But, above all, the Americans are frustrated at being denied access to the nuclear black marketer, Dr Abdul Qadeer Khan, particularly in the context of the current nuclear standoff with Iran. They need to find out what role he played in the Iranian program.
In these circumstances, Musharraf’s Pakistan is fast losing ground in the contest with India for a profitable strategic relationship with the United States. The Bush visit accentuated the widening cracks in the five-year old partnership. It appears that Washington is no longer buying the general’s posture as the only secular leader capable of dealing with the” mullahs and the jihadis” plaguing Pakistan.

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