It was Pakistan’s week in Washington with much talk of a new, deeper geopolitical understanding between the United States and a "major non-NATO ally." The star was Pakistan’s army chief, Gen. Ashfaq Kayani, and the country’s de facto politico-military power.
The Pakistani army has taken over from ineffectual, corrupt civilian governments four times since independence. This time, the civilians haven’t been ousted but outed as incompetent and irrelevant. President Asif Zardari, widower of Benazir Bhutto, is slowly ceding his frequently ignored powers and turning them over to Wazir-e-Azam (Grand Minister, or Prime Minister in Western governments) Yousuf Raza Gilani and his civilian government. But they can’t seem to keep major cities in around-the-clock electric power, let alone basic foodstuffs. Water shortages also plague Pakistan’s 175 million people.
Bottom line is that the Kerry-Lugar aid package of $7 billion over five years is yet to make a difference. Chances are it never will. As Kayani told his American interlocutors, the new aid package has created a battalion of administrators — i.e., much red tape — and is being allocated here, there and everywhere in relatively small amounts that cover key needy sectors, insufficient to produce tangible results.
Kayani impressed U.S. officials, think tankers and journalists with the extent of the military’s campaign against extremists. Since 9/11, the Pakistani army has sustained 30,810 killed and wounded, 10,000 in 2009 alone, or 10 soldiers a day. Terrorists arrested or killed: 17,742. Those who believe the army is reluctant to leave the Indian front to fight in Pakistan’s tribal areas were reminded Pakistan now has 147,000 troops on the western front. That compares favorably with the 101,500 from 43 nations on the other side of the border in Afghanistan against the same enemy — Taliban.
Out of all the nations with troops in Afghanistan, only the British and Canadians are authorized to fight under the NATO flag alongside U.S. units. But Pakistan has 88 infantry and 58 Frontier Corps battalions and 80 percent of army aviation assets involved in the same fight on the other side of the mythical border, known as the Durand line, a hangover from the British raj.
Pakistan also has 821 army border posts all along the 1,400-mile border versus 112 for coalition forces. Last week, a Pakistani colonel was killed in action in Orakzai, which brought the total number of officers KIA against Taliban and their foreign friends (mostly Uzbeks) to 82, including one three-star general, two two-stars and six one-stars. Those who say the Pakistanis are reluctant to fight their own nationals who are terrorists now have a different picture.
Pakistani regulars had never fought in South Waziristan, forbidding mountainous terrain favored by Taliban. It’s one of the seven "Federally Administered Tribal Areas," and Kayani told his American friends "is now completely cleared."
As the scenic Swat valley was taken over by Taliban in 2007, some 2.3 million people abandoned their homes for the safety of government refugee camps. Hedged by mountains up to 20,000 feet high, the valley was liberated by the army last year and most of the refugees are now back, Kayani told his American audiences.
North Waziristan is where both al-Qaida and the Afghan wing of Taliban are holed up in networks of tunnels and caves. Anxious to avoid another exodus of an estimated 400,000 refugees, the army operates there with a low profile; usually Special Forces acting on U.S. drone-supplied intelligence.
Pakistan’s military surge launched 138 operations in 2009 and 82 so far this year. There was, inevitably, a Taliban blow back. They launched almost 2,000 terrorist incidents throughout Pakistan. Yet U.S. and NATO supply lines from the port of Karachi into Afghanistan via the Khyber Pass and through Baluchistan to Kandahar have been secured after much sabotage and Taliban attacks. Kayani said Pakistan is still handling 84 percent of cargo container traffic to Afghan cities, 40 percent of fuel needs, or 120,000 gallons a day. Out of 58,700 container trucks that ply the two routes, Kayani said the loss was 0.1 percent in nine years.
Optimistic statistics aside, Pakistani public opinion is arguably the world’s most anti-American. A prominent Pakistani retired intelligence chief told the world, three weeks after 9/11, that the Twin Towers and the Pentagon had been part of an elaborate U.S.-Mossad conspiracy to deceive the world. Gen. Hamid Gul’s preposterous anti-U.S. yarn was swallowed hole by most Pakistanis — to this very day.
The purpose of the conspiracy, according to retired Pakistani intelligence operatives, was to provide a pretext for the United States to invade Afghanistan, the first stage, they explain, to moving into Pakistan to neutralize its nuclear arsenal. Even retired senior officers have told this reporter they tend to believe Gul. As do most Pakistani media.
There is also widespread paranoia about a nonsensical secret U.S.-Indian deal that would turn the part of Kashmir controlled by Pakistan over to India. So public opinion support for U.S.-Pakistan military cooperation is fragile. Anything that goes wrong will automatically be blamed on the "pro-Indian" Obama administration.
There is also a shallow political consensus on the home front against non-state actors, such as Taliban. This, in turn, means strategic constraints. The Pakistani army’s military budget sharply curtails cutting-edge military technologies.
The army has turned the tide against extremists and terrorists. Public opinion, for the time being, backs what the army is now doing. But the support is a mile wide and an inch deep. Pakistanis, for the most part, are anti-war and anti-U.S. Kayani has convinced them, at least for a while, to back a comprehensive approach in the way forward. Deny spaces to the terrorists by occupying their bases. "Like in baseball," he says, "four civilian bases" have to be loaded — religion, social justice, faster civil justice, law and order — to deny them to the enemy, along with four military bases — clear, hold, build and transfer.
The way forward, for Kayani, is to turn the tide by keeping up the momentum and "optimizing the enabling environment provided by the military." The key to success is a sound economy which is tantamount to strategic stability.
With one out of three Pakistanis below the local poverty line and half a million young men brainwashed to hate America/India/Israel graduating yearly from 12,500 madrassas, it’s an awesomely tall order.