The fog of war

Fog tends to make things appear grotesque, larger and often uglier than they really are. Trying to understand the Pakistan-US equation right now is like driving through a thick fog with the night casting ghostlike shadows on the road ahead. You can only really see as far as your headlights but you know you still have to make the whole trip anyway.

Until a few days ago, top US officials, baddies and buddies alike, were all speaking in one voice. Today, it seems the White House and State Department are done breathing fire. Or at least the media and politicos here would like to believe Pakistan roared and the US scampered away with its tail between its legs.

Reality check: the change in tone suggests not so much the desire for an unconditional rapprochement as it does diplomatic distortion. Confusion is after all the hallmark of transition, and right now, there should be no doubt the Pak-US relationship is in transition. Which, perhaps, is what has been wrong with this relationship from the get-go.

A good, or rather an enduring, relationship, is one that doesn’t need to be redefined each time we come to the Rubicon. Here, the nomenclature changes every few months, with each new high-impact event. When the first batch of Wikileaks cables alleged Gen Kayani’s opposition had caused the domestic ruckus over the Kerry-Lugar Bill, Pakistan claimed it was the ‘most bullied ally’ of the US. After the Raymond Davis episode, the ‘bullied ally,’ in need of some cajoling, became a ‘much-needed counterterrorism partner’. In the days after the Bin Laden raid, Pakistan was a ‘high-stakes frenemy’. Today, following Adm Mullen’s accusations, we have become ‘stalwart allies’.

According to some, for the first time in 10 years, the US is approaching Pakistan as a potential adversary and putting the onus on it to prove that it is not. Not one person in both houses of Congress is willing to speak in favour of Pakistan, say top Pakistani officials in Washington. Anyone notice the silence of John Kerry, the Pakistan whisperer, Obama’s go-to-guy for Af-Pak statecraft? As they say, while politics and war are garrulous those who truly understand them are often taciturn.

Bottom line: the US may be walking away from the anger and exasperation of Adm Mullen’s statement but it is not backing down on the substance. The message is still the same: the links between the Pakistani military and the Haqqani network are troubling and we want action against them.

And why is the change of vocabulary surprising? A drip-drip of allegations backed by backchannel dialogue – isn’t that what international negotiations are all about? Calibrating one’s moves and options is the hallmark of diplomacy. International relations thrive on a certain relish for confusion. You begin with a threat, then back off for a while and wait; if you don’t feel you’re getting what you asked for, you up the ante again, threaten certain actions, back down a second time, push back some more, and so on. Diplomacy 101.

Indeed, there’s a lot less than an all-out military operation that Pakistan can do for appeasement: provide intelligence on X, arrest Y, surgically disable Z, and so on. Similarly, there are all sorts of acts of retortion – short of boots on the ground – that the US can take to voice its displeasure. Making good on the threat of cutting the purse strings could be step one. Step two could be reframing Pakistan from a non-Nato ally to a state sponsor of terror. Economic sanctions could be imposed.

But all that is secondary. The point is, even if some semblance of normality is restored to the relationship, Pakistan has to turn this confusion into a productive moment. One of the biggest blunders Pakistan committed post-9/11 was not clarifying expectations and possibilities in the form of a formal bilateral agreement with the US. Today, it’s reaping the whirlwind of that mistake, finding itself time and again in the womb of policies from which war threatens to be born. Many of the 180 million Pakistanis Prime Minister Gilani says will fight to protect Pakistan’s ‘sovereignty’ are fed up with old men dreaming up wars for young men to die in. The crash of guns, the clatter of cannons, the beat of the battlefield – the non-soldiers trapped in the turmoil of daily living don’t want this.

As for the Americans: after 10 long and punishing years of being at war in this region, how can they remain so overwhelmingly oblivious and insensitive to Pakistani interests? In the final leg of their surge-and-exit strategy and still unsure of what kind of Afghan settlement is acceptable to them – isn’t that baffling? The Americans want a “political settlement”. That’s all we know: that they will join initiatives that reconcile the Afghan people, including the Taliban.

But what will be the terms of this political arrangement with the Afghan Taliban? What is Pakistan’s role in the negotiations? How can the US blatantly ignore Pakistani interests while simultaneously acknowledging the country’s indispensability for a settlement in Afghanistan? A confusion of aims seems to be America’s main problem.

But maybe this is just how war works. Perhaps this is what Clausewitz meant by the ‘fog of war’ – uncertainty not just about the capability and intent of adversaries and allies but also about one’s own. So, how do we make sense of this fog? Alas, the owl of Minerva takes wing only as twilight falls.

(From The News, Pakistan)

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