Shuja Nawaz is the author of Crossed Swords: Pakistan, its Army, and the Wars Within, which is based on 30 years of research and analysis. It is a critical analysis of the nature and role of the Pakistan army in the country’s polity as well as its turbulent relationship with the United States. Learn more about Nawaz at www.shujanawaz.com.
For anyone who has been following the US-Pakistan relationship over the years, the most recent clash in the Mohmand Agency bordering Afghanistan was to be expected. The wonder is that it did not happen sooner. This relationship has been marked by ups and down ever since the 1950s when the US signed up Pakistan as an ally against the Communist threat. In what was later described as a “hoax” by a senior State Department official, the US-Pakistan military alliance turned out to be nothing more than empty words, with Pakistan seeking to bolster its defense against India and the US wanting a seamless fence of allies stretching from Turkey through Iran to Pakistan to prevent any Soviet incursion toward the oil fields of Iran and Iraq and the warm waters of the Persian Gulf. The US has always been looking for short-to medium-term strategic aims. Pakistan has been thinking very long term. That has been the disconnect.
Even after the shotgun wedding between Presidents George W. Bush and Pervez Musharraf after 9/11, it became clear that there was a Trust Deficit between the two allies. Pakistan fully expects that the US will decamp from Afghanistan once again (having done so in the late 1980s after the Soviets exited the country) suddenly, leaving a mess behind for Pakistan to handle. The abrupt US shift of attention from Afghanistan to Iraq in 2003 helps feed that Pakistani perception. A resurging Taliban in the border regions and a rising militancy inside Pakistan have been the legacy of the most recent US involvement in Afghanistan. Once the US leaves, Pakistan will remain, stuck inside its geographic reality and its concomitant evils: Taliban, Al Qaeda, and all.
When the recently departed NATO Commander American General Dan K. McNeil warned Pakistan that it might expect US action if it did not stop the Taliban from using its borderlands for attacks on Afghanistan and NATO forces there, the writing was on the wall. What happened in Mohmand Agency two days ago, with the US intruding into Pakistani territory in what a Pakistan army spokesman termed an “unprovoked and cowardly” attack will have deeper repercussions.
It will further weaken the ability of the fledgling civilian government to call the shots in Pakistan, allowing the army to take center stage. And it will further raise public ire against the US, whose image has suffered dramatically inside Pakistan for having supported an autocratic military ruler, Musharraf, against the will of the people of Pakistan for the past eight years.
The US needs to rein in its forces in the border region and engage the Pakistan army in vigorous behind-the-scenes discussions on what needs to be done by both sides to bring the temperature down. Otherwise, Afghanistan may become an even hotter zone than it is today with the Pakistan army entering the fray against the US effort to stem the Taliban attacks from the volatile border region. And Pakistan’s internal politics may take a turn to the extreme and nationalistic right; washing away the centrist coalition that now tenuously holds power at the center.