Good cop/bad cop in Pakistan

by Andrew Sprung

Two newswire-based briefs that ran on the same day last week in Pakistan's English language Daily Times online capture the ambivalent, not to say schizophrenic, nature of U.S. dealings with Pakistan. First, an AFP digest of what had been a front-page New York Times expose:

US threatens to chase Taliban into Pakistan

WASHINGTON: The US has warned the government that its forces will chase Taliban forces into Pakistan if Islamabad does not get tough with the insurgents, The New York Times reported on Tuesday. Citing unnamed US and Pakistani officials, the newspaper said the blunt message was delivered in November when national security adviser James Jones and White House counterterrorism chief John Brennan met with the heads of the military and intelligence. “Jones’s message was if that Pakistani help wasn’t forthcoming, the United States would have to do it themselves,” an unnamed official told the Times. That could mean the US expanding drone attacks beyond the Tribal Areas and special forces raids in Pakistan against Al Qaeda and Taliban leaders, the officials said. “I think they read our intentions accurately,” a senior US administration official said. US officials said the message was intended to press the Pakistani military to pursue Taliban insurgents.

Next, from unidentified wire reports, the same message delivered with the exquisite tact of Robert Gates:

US to extend more help if Pakistan wants, says Gates

KABUL: US Defence Secretary Robert Gates says the United States is prepared to give Pakistan more help fighting Al Qaeda forces if its government wants it. Gates, who arrived in Afghanistan late on Monday, said it is Pakistan’s “foot on the accelerator” when it comes to fighting terrorists. But he said the US could provide more assistance “at any pace they are prepared to accept”. While Pakistan is considered one of the closest US allies in the war on terrorism, it is also accused of giving anti-US forces a safe haven. The Obama administration has looked for new ways to expand cooperation while considering widening missile attacks on Al Qaeda targets inside Pakistan. Gates also said the US was prepared to work more closely with Pakistan as soon as the government there showed a willingness. “The more they get attacked internally . . . the more open they may be to additional help from us,” he said.

This is, shall we say, not a new tack for Gates. Here he is in January '08:

The US would consider conducting joint military operations against extremists inside Pakistan if requested by Islamabad, Robert Gates, US defence secretary, said on Thursday.

“We remain ready, willing and able to assist the Pakistanis and to partner with them to provide additional training, to conduct joint operations, should they desire to do so,” Mr Gates said....

Asked whether he would be concerned about Pakistani public reaction to US forces conducting military operations inside Pakistan, Mr Gates said: “I think that they have to evaluate the reaction of public opinion in Pakistan and how they would react to such co-operation. And I think we would take very seriously and clearly defer to their judgment about what works for them.”

Finally, from the same interview, note this mirror image of the current U.S. "threat" referenced in the first brief to conduct unilateral operations in Pakistan:

Mr Gates stressed that the US was not considering undertaking large military operations inside the country, saying “we’re talking about a very small number of troops, should that happen”

Just a wee little deadly commando raid there, Mr. Zadari.  Pay no mind.

As Michael Crowley noted last month in a long profile of Gates, the former CIA director is apparently haunted by U.S. neglect of both Afghanistan and Pakistan in the wake of the Soviet pullout in 1989 and the cutoff of all aid by both sides in 1991.  Not to probe the man's psychology, his public response to this recognition has been to go to extraordinary lengths to view the battle with the Taliban from the  Pakistani leadership's point of  view. Speaking to CNN this past April, he refused to be drawn into a Hillary Clinton-like condemnation of what's often viewed as Pakistani double-dealing:

Q But you do think that the [Pakistani] leadership gets it? Because I look at what's happened, Mr. Secretary. They have these Taliban forces, insurgency, 60 miles from the capital, 100 miles from the capital. And what they've done so far is move 6,000 troops from the eastern border to the western border out of an army of about a half-million.

This does not strike one as a full-throated response at every level that mobilizes the nation and its defense forces. Do you think that there is still a way to go for the Pakistani military in terms of focusing on this threat?

SEC. GATES: Well, I think what you have to do is look at it in some historical context. For 60 years Pakistan has regarded India as its existential threat, as the main enemy. And its forces are trained to deal with that threat. That's where it has the bulk of its army and the bulk of its military capability.

And historically, the far western part of Pakistan has generally been ungoverned. And the Pakistani governments going back decades would do deals with the tribes and the Pashtuns and would play the tribes against one another, and occasionally, when necessary, use the army to put down a serious challenge.

I think that - and partly it's because the Punjabis so outnumber the Pashtuns that they've always felt that if it really got serious, it was a problem they could take care of. I think the - that's why I think the movement of the Taliban so close to Islamabad was a real wake-up call for them.

Now, how long it takes them to build the capabilities, the additional military capabilities and the training that goes into counterinsurgency and so on and to develop the civilian programs that begins to push back in that part of the country, I think, is still a period ahead of us.

But I would just remind that, you know, the first al Qaeda attack on the United States was in 1993. We really didn't change much of anything we did until after we were hit on September 11th, 2001. So al Qaeda was at war with us for eight years, at least eight years, before we acknowledged that we were at war with them as well. And I think a little bit of the same denial has been going on in Pakistan. But I think that the recent developments have certainly got their attention.

Q Do you think they have the counterinsurgency capacity? Because at some level armies don't like to fight these kind of wars, as you well know. What armies like to do is have a big enemy so they can have a big budget and never have to fight a war. And that is, in effect, what has happened with Pakistan with India, which is they have this big enemy. It justifies a very large budget for the Pakistani military. But they don't actually have to fight, whereas this one, the insurgency, is one which they have to fight. They could lose. And so they worry, I think, that they even have the capacity. Do they have the capacity for real counterinsurgency?

SEC. GATES: Well, I think that they are at the beginning of the process of developing that capacity. But again, to provide some perspective, in 2003, when we went into Iraq, or even in 2001 and '02, when we went into Afghanistan, our Army didn't have that capacity either. We had forgotten everything we learned about counterinsurgency in Vietnam. And it took us several years to change our tactics and to get ourselves into a position where we could effectively fight a counterinsurgency.

So institutions are slow to change even in the face of a real threat. And I think that the Pakistanis are beginning to open up to others, to get additional help. I certainly hope that's the case. But I don't - it's not something where I would sort of blame the Pakistani army, because we went through the same process ourselves as we confronted a building insurgency in Iraq.

We had to learn all over again how to do this, and we had to acquire the equipment to do it effectively, completely outside the normal Pentagon bureaucracy, for the most part. So perhaps I have a little more understanding of the challenges that our Pakistani counterparts face than perhaps others.

"Institutions slow to change" is something of an obsession with Gates. To apply that prism to continued Pakistani reluctance to view all major Taliban factions as enemies bespeaks a degree of forbearance that perhaps only an old guard Cold Warrior can get away with.