This past week, two U.S. envoys – Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte and Assistant Secretary of State Richard Boucher – visited Pakistan to meet with the country’s newly elected leaders, as well as President Pervez Musharraf, the head of the ISI, and Gen. Ashfaq Kayani. A news analysis released by the NY Times aptly noted – “If it was not yet clear to Washington that a new political order prevailed here, the three-day visit this week by America’s chief diplomat dealing with Pakistan should put any doubt to rest.” Negroponte’s visit to Pakistan turned out to be “a series of indignities and chilly, almost hostile, receptions as he bore the brunt of the full range of complaints that Pakistanis now feel freer to air with the end of military rule by Washington’s favored ally, President Pervez Musharraf.”
Although the diplomatic visit was scheduled earlier and deemed as “routine” by the Foreign Office, media outlets reported that the officials, particularly Negroponte, were “castigated for barging their way in and trying to influence the hardly-formed new government before parliament could start its business of discussing foreign policy.”
The tides seem to have turned in the historically fickle U.S.-Pakistan relations. Regardless of whether one can argue that anti-Musharraf sentiment fueled anti-U.S. perceptions or vice versa – the newly elected government is committed to proving they will not go down that same path. Negroponte, during his news conference on Thursday, “publicly swallowed a bitter pill,” and acknowledged that “there would now be some real differences in strategy between the United States and Pakistan,” noted the Times piece. Pakistan’s Daily Times reported the official insisted “there was no hidden agenda to his visit and the U.S. did not intend to interfere in the political developments in Pakistan.” He told reporters, “Mr. Musharraf is the president of your country. The U.S. will respect whatever Pakistanis decide about their president…Certainly [the U.S. administration has] no desire … to interfere in [Pakistani] political arrangements.”
Despite these statements, the front-page of yesterday’s Washington Post reported that the United States has escalated unilateral strikes against Al Qaeda members and fighters operating inside Pakistan’s tribal areas, “partly because of anxieties that the country’s new leaders will insist on a scaling back of military operations in that country.” The Post cited U.S. officials, who noted, “The attacks followed a tacit understanding with Musharraf and Army chief Gen. Ashfaq Kayani that allows U.S. strikes on foreign fighters operating in Pakistan, but not against the Pakistani Taliban.” The “shake the tree” strategy, as dubbed by a senior U.S. official, has not been without controversy, and the belief is now that with the newly elected government, these efforts will be curtailed. Leaders of the PPP and PML-N have suggested that they are interested in negotiating with local Taliban leaders and giving a political voice to those who live in the FATA region. Boucher and Negroponte reportedly heard the message directly from tribal elders in the village of Landi Kotal in the Khyber area this past week. A tribal elder told the Post, “We told the visiting U.S. guests that the traditional jirga [tribal decision-making] system should be made effective to eliminate the causes of militancy and other problems from the tribal areas.” He added, “The tribal turmoil can be resolved only through negotiations, not with military operations.”
If the new government strategy is to negotiate with members of the Pakistani Taliban – we should distinguish just who is “reconcileable” from who is “irreconcileable” – a distinction made during Negroponte’s speech yesterday. He told reporters, “Security measures are obviously necessary when one is dealing with irreconcilable elements who want to destroy our very way of life…I don’t see how you can talk with those kinds of people.” There are, however, always elements who are willing to be part of the political process, whose overarching objective stems more from social and political grievances than gaining power by promoting instability. In Iraq, a similar strategy was concocted and applied in order to isolate and marginalize Al Qaeda in Iraq from the rest of the population. Today, the “Sons of Iraq” are made up of many former Sunni insurgents who have taken up arms against AQI, a solution that may not be fully sustainable, but has been deemed a success nonetheless. In Pakistan, not enough is known about the groups in the roguish frontier region and their distinctions from one another. Before we can fully decide whether we can negotiate with Pakistani militants or not, we need to not oversimplify the problem and instead know who exactly we are talking to.
Below is a recent news clip [from Al-Jazeera English] about the Negroponte-Boucher visit and a commentary on the security situation.