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It’s mostly about N-Pakistan ... USA in Afghanistan

IN a New York Times report of Jan 27, US officials have admitted what some Pakistanis have long asserted: that the purpose of retaining US and Nato troops in Afghanistan post-2014 is “really more about Pakistan than Afghanistan.
The report says that if, due to Karzai’s reluctance to sign the US-Afghan security agreement, President Obama is obliged to decide on the “zero option”, the US will lose its bases in Afghanistan from where drones conduct counterterrorism raids and “nuclear monitoring” over Pakistani territory. “Alternative bases” (in the Gulf) are “too distant to monitor and respond as quickly as American forces can today if there were a crisis in the region, such as missing nuclear materials or weapons in Pakistan and India”.

It is unlikely that the “zero option” will come to pass. President Karzai’s current clumsy obstruction is likely to collapse once confronted by US pressure and the unwillingness of the Afghan Taliban to deal with him. A rump US-Nato force of 8,000 plus is likely to remain in Afghanistan after 2014. Apart from violating international law, the US intrusions impact on Pak-US relations on counterterrorism, Afghanistan and the nuclear issue.

The counterterrorism implications of a continued US military presence in Afghanistan are well known. Pak-US friction in this area may diminish for three reasons. First, President Obama, in his State of the Union address, limited counterterrorism targets to Al Qaeda.

Second, Pakistan’s army is likely to be allowed soon to conduct major military operations against the TTP and its Al Qaeda allies, including in North Waziristan, the location of most US drone strikes.

Third, it’s possible the US will work out some arrangement with the Haqqani Network, the main US target in North Waziristan, in the context of Afghanistan’s future political governance.

Minus the ingress into its territory, the remaining US presence would be politically acceptable, perhaps even positive. It could provide space to promote negotiations between the Afghan Taliban and other power centres in Afghanistan for its future political governance and thus avoid a resumption of civil war.

It is the nuclear dimension of the future US presence in Afghanistan which presents the major problem for Pakistan. The above mentioned report noted that while counterterrorism was to constitute the main focus of the talks in Washington last Monday with Pakistan’s national security adviser, Sartaj Aziz, “talking with Pakistan about its nuclear programme is especially delicate”.

In fact, the US and Pakistan have been engaged in discussions on the nuclear issue, at various levels and in different circumstances, for almost 40 years. Throughout, the US endeavour has been to restrain Pakistan’s nuclear capabilities but not those of its strategic adversary India. At every stage of the Indian-led nuclear escalation in South Asia, Pakistan was “punished” for its nuclear acquisitions while India was allowed exceptions.

It is no different today. Indeed, the US-Pakistan differences on the nuclear issue are wider now than they have ever been in the past.

Pakistan’s complaints include: the one-sided US legitimisation of India’s nuclear programme; sale of advanced weapons to India; the attempt to impede Pakistan’s nuclear energy programme; pressure to halt its fissile material production designed to match India’s nuclear expansion; and opposition to Pakistan’s deployment of tactical nuclear weapons in response to India’s Cold Start doctrine envisaging a rapid military attack against Pakistan.

The US, for its part, based on the proliferation ventures of Dr A.Q. Khan and Pakistan’s past support to jihadi groups, has convinced itself that Pakistan’s nuclear materials and weapons are in danger of being taken over by extremists and terrorists or by “rogue” elements within the Pakistan Army. On this presumption, secret plans have been reportedly made for the seizure or neutralisation of Pakistan’s nuclear capabilities in case of a crisis.

Pakistan asserts that these are artificial scenarios. No terrorists have come close to any of Pakistan’s strategic facilities or assets. Pakistan’s safety arrangements have been ranked by the so-called Nuclear Safety Index as being better than India’s.

‘Rogue’ operations are virtually foreclosed by the personnel screening procedures for Pakistan’s strategic command which are as rigorous as those applied by the US. The chain of command has never been broken in the history of the Pakistan Army. It is now determined to crush the terrorists it is confronting.

Objectively, if there is a nuclear crisis in the region, it is most likely to arise from a Pakistan-India military confrontation rather than the takeover of nuclear materials or weapons. Dr Kissinger has opined that South Asia is the most likely place where nuclear weapons may be used. Yet the US appears uninterested in building balanced nuclear restraint by both India and Pakistan.

Pakistani strategists wonder: if Pakistan faces an overwhelming Indian conventional military attack and is obliged to threaten a nuclear response, would the US “respond” by attempting to neutralise Pakistan’s nuclear and strategic capabilities? The reports regarding secret US seizure plans have added a further destabilising element to the already dangerous South Asian security equation.

Clearly, Pakistan and the US need to address their nuclear differences, urgently and constructively. The US, in concert with other major powers, is also well placed to promote a more stable nuclear security environment between Pakistan and India.

Absent some measure of mutual assurance, accommodation and cooperation on the nuclear issue, the continuing US military presence in Afghanistan is likely to further intensify Islamabad’s concerns and Pakistan-US tensions and affect their positions on other issues, such as counterterrorism and Afghanistan’s stability, where their objectives appear to be increasingly convergent.

BY MUNIR AKRAM: Former Pakistan ambassador to the UN.
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