US-Pakistani relations are going from bad to worse. The latest attempt to assuage the war of words between Washington and Islamabad was made by Lieut.-Gen. Ahmad Shuja Pasha, the head of Pakistani military intelligence, the controversial ISI, who Wednesday, July 13, suddenly hurried over to Washington for a day's trip and a man-to-man talk with the new Central Intelligence Director Gen. David Petraeus.
Relations started souring in January from the popular backlash after a CIA contractor killed two Pakistanis he claimed in self-defense. The downward slide accelerated from May, after US commandoes killed Osama bin Laden in a secret raid on his Abbottabad hideout.
The Pakistanis were especially chagrined by American boasts that the termination of the al Qaeda leader was an exclusive US intelligence feat which, moreover, laid bare the nefarious ties between Islamabad and al Qaeda, the Taliban and other extremists. Islamabad accused Washington of deliberately putting out disinformation to cover up the cooperation the ISI provided – without which the Americans could not have pulled off the Bin Laden operation.
The ISI chief's abrupt departure for Washington was precipitated by two further setbacks Monday and Tuesday (July 11-12): The US suspended $800 million – one-third of the $2 billion security aid package for Pakistan – in displeasure for Islamabad's cutback by one-third of US military trainers and a new ceiling on visas for US personnel.
Riyadh advises Islamabad to pull away from Washington
Pakistani defense minister Ahmed Mukhtar struck back by announcing that Pakistani soldiers would be evacuated from 1,100 observations posts along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. This leaves the border unguarded and wide open to Taliban movements.
General Petraeus and General Pasha are well acquainted. They worked together after the American general took command of the Afghanistan war two years ago and managed to overcome the obstacles set up by the mistrust between their governments and earn each other's respect. At times, they had to override their superiors' mutual suspicions of cheating and go forward with their allotted missions for the Afghan war and the battle against terror.
Like Gen. Pasha, many other Pakistani officials are convinced that if Petraeus had been CIA director in May, the falling-out between Washington and Islamabad over the Bin Laden operation would not have developed – or at least not got this far. When Leon Panetta, CIA chief then, arrived in Kabul Saturday, July 9, as the new US Defense Secretary, vibes from Pakistan told him he would not be welcome in Islamabad.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly's intelligence and Persian Gulf sources note that a third player outside the control of either of the two generals is busily occupied in the sparring arena alongside Washington and Islamabad: The royal rulers of Saudi Arabia are quietly and proactively present and making their own rules for relations with the US and the Taliban.
According to our sources, Riyadh is not deliberately heaping fuel on US-Pakistani discord but is nonetheless taking a firm stand on the issues at stake, using the clout provided by the secret military and intelligence accords the Saudis signed with Pakistan in the last seven months (See DEBKA-Net-Weekly 494 of May 27: A Joint Saudi-Pakistani Venture Gives China a Foothold in the Gulf)
They therefore made bold to direct four pieces of "friendly advice" to Pakistan's political and military, all of which add pain to Islamabad's rift with Washington:
Saudis will make up $800 million cutback in US aid package to Pakistan
1. Coordinate your security and foreign policies with us and not with Washington. In any event, the Americans will soon be gone from Afghanistan and South Asia.
2. Do not trust in the promises made you by Barack Obama and his administration.
3. Do trust Riyadh to make up for any cutbacks in US military or economic aid.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly's Gulf sources report that the Saudis have already put similar financial aid arrangements in place for Bahrain and Jordan. Another is under consideration for the Egyptian military junta in Cairo.
4. Insofar as Islamabad winds down its coordination with US military and intelligence counterparts, Pakistani-Saudi cooperation between those authorities will prosper.
In the light of Saudi promises, Pakistan's military and policy-making leaders could afford to shrug indifferently over Washington's $800 million cutback in military aid this week.
Pakistani defense minister Mukhtar's decision to evacuate the observation posts monitoring the Afghan border was also a component of Islamabad's understandings with Riyadh. Both their governments seek to strengthen their ties with Taliban – a policy diametrically opposed to that of the Obama administration, which seeks to weaken the Afghan insurgents and pave the way for the drawing-down of 30,000 US troops by the end of this summer.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly's sources note that Saudi Arabia is pursuing in full flight a global enterprise on a scale unmatched in modern Muslim Arab history for harnessing Sunni Muslim military might against Shiite Iran.
(See DEBKA-Net-Weekly 495 of June 3: The New Saudi Muslim Legion-A Sunni Rapid Response Force Available to Muslim Regimes.).
Giving Taliban a free run to control South Afghanistan
The oil-rich kingdom has big plans, not only for Pakistan as an abundant source of combat manpower, but also for the Taliban. It is worth recalling here that in the latter half of the 1980s, when the Saudis joined forces with the American CIA to recruit, fund and train jihadi fighters for driving the Red Army out of Afghanistan, they also helped install a Taliban government in Kabul.
It was designed 25 years ago to counteract the Shiite Hizballah militia Iran had established in Lebanon and be on call for action in the Middle East when necessary to defeat the Iran's Lebanese proxy.
Today, Riyadh envisions the Taliban as the most powerful Sunni force in Afghanistan and seeks to strengthen its resources to provide a bulwark against Shiite Iran to the east.
Pakistan laid its Afghan border open to free Taliban passage by removing all the manned observation posts in order to help the insurgents consolidate their grip on the southern regions of Kandahar and Helmand, which US-led NATO forces regard as their most stable front lines in Afghanistan.
Taliban planners accurately read the Saudi-backed message from Islamabad and made their move: Tuesday, July 12, Afghan President Hamid Karzai's half-brother Ahmad Wali Karzai was murdered at his home in Kandahar. Karzai dominion of the southern regions on the Pakistan border was instantly loosened by several notches, forging cracks in the president's grip in Kabul.
However amicable the conversation in Washington between the two intelligentce chiefs Gen. Petraeus and Lt. Gen. Pasha may be, offsetting Saudi inroads on the Pakistani government will be well beyond their power.