COMMENTARY
 
Robert Gates’ Goodwill Gesture
Weekly Pulse
February 16-22, 2007
Robert Gates, the US Secretary of Defence, has held an hour-long meeting with President-General Pervez Musharraf at the Army House in Rawalpindi, where the two reportedly discussed how Pakistan and the United States could work together to combat Taliban’s renewed spring offensive in neighboring Afghanistan.

“We discussed the coming spring military activity on the border and the measures that the Afghans, NATO alliance, the US and Pakistan are putting together and the augmentation of the US forces on Afghan side of the border,” the US Defence Secretary said after the meeting.

Robert Gates hailed Pakistan’s role in the war on terror, saying: “Pakistan is clearly a very strong ally of the United States” and “is playing a very constructive role” in containing the Taliban and al Qaeda insurgency in the region. Pakistan, he added, is “incurring a significant cost in lives and, I might add, in treasure, in fighting this battle on the border.”

“If we weren’t concerned about what was happening along the border, I wouldn’t be here,” Gates said. Regarding the Miramshah peace deal, which has come under growing criticism from Afghanistan, the United States and a section of its media, the US Secretary of Defence said, “I think the president [Musharraf] himself has acknowledged there were problems initially with the enforcement of the agreement, but it is improving.” He thanked President Musharraf for “Pakistan’s efforts to enforce the North Waziristan agreement” and expressed “condolences to the families of Pakistani security forces who were killed on January 2, 2007.”

Robert Gates assured President Musharraf that the United States has a long-term investment in Pakistan, saying, “After the Soviets left, the United States made a mistake. We neglected Afghanistan, and extremism took control of that country. The United States paid a price for that on Sept. 11, 2001. We won’t make that mistake again. We are here for the long haul.”

Gates’ Encouraging Remarks

Robert Gates’ encouraging remarks about Pakistan’s contribution to the war on terror must have come as a sigh of relief for the Musharraf regime, which has consistently faced criticism on the issue of Taliban infiltration across the Durand Line and its contribution to insurgency in Afghanistan.

Given his background as chief of the US Central Intelligence Agency, Gates seems to be aware of the complex realities of the region, and Pakistan’s consequent limitations in “doing more” on the issue of Taliban infiltration across the Durand Line. He headed the organisation at a time when regional repercussions of the internationally-sponsored jihad against the Soviets in Afghanistan were becoming evident.

This is the first time that a top official of the Bush administration has so categorically acknowledged the fundamental mistake that Washington made then by abandoning Afghanistan, thereby failing to prevent the growth of Islamic extremism and its corresponding wave of international terrorism that eventually hit the United States.

He was gracious enough to acknowledge this mistake, and offer an assurance that the United States will not repeat it again and, therefore, will be committed to Afghanistan and the region as long as it takes to reverse the terrorist wave.

Such an assurance is extremely important for Pakistan, given its past memories regarding the American abandonment of Afghanistan and Pakistan after the Soviet troop withdrawal from Afghanistan.

A US Policy Shift?

Should we construe from Robert Gates’ encouraging remarks about Pakistan that an apparent shift in U.S. attitude toward the country is under way? If the answer is yes, then such a shift can be attributed to an anticipated up-tick in counterterrorism operations and Pakistan’s willingness to engage in a more comprehensive military strategy in its north-western areas along the border with Afghanistan.

The Taliban and its allies in al Qaeda are prepping for the spring offensive. As soon as the ice melts in the mountain passes between Afghanistan and Pakistan, Taliban and al Qaeda fighters will be able to ramp up their campaign against NATO forces in the region with increased suicide attacks.

The United States and its NATO allies are in the process of diminishing Taliban and al Qaeda capabilities as much as possible prior to the spring offensive, which inevitably will involve counterterrorism operations against militant strongholds on Pakistani soil. US forces already have increased their presence along the Afghan side of the border in preparation for this counteroffensive.

At a broader level or in the longer run, however, the relationship between the United States and Pakistan, especially with reference to the Afghan leg of the war on terror, will not be without tensions. One, unlike Robert Gates, other top officials of the Bush administration, especially at the State Department, may not have as much a depth understanding of the intricacies of the historically-rooted ground realities in Afghanistan and Pakistan’s tribal region as the US Defence Secretary does. Secondly, with the Democrats now controlling the US Congress, the Bush-Musharraf alliance vis-à-vis the war on terror in Afghanistan may face growing constraints within the domestic context of US foreign policy.

Overcoming Divergence

Washington still does not agree with Islamabad’s idea of fencing or mining the Durand Line or preventing alleged infiltration of the Taliban and their sympathisers across it through signing peace deals with them. Likewise, the positions of the United States and Pakistan regarding the status of al Qaeda in Pakistan are also poles apart. The government of Pakistan thinks it has broken the back of al Qaeda in the country. The US government, on the other hand, believes that Pakistan has become the principal sanctuary for al Qaeda.

The fact that Pakistan, as America’s frontline state against terrorism in the region since the events of September 11, 2001, has captured the largest number of al Qaeda terrorists is undeniable. The United States and Pakistan do agree on the need to establish Reconstruction Opportunity Zones (ROZs), and to mobilize resources for FATA Sustainable Development Plan. With encouraging remarks expressed by Robert Gates, the possibility of realising such constructive options for the tribal areas development looks bright.

However, it is also a fact that the issue of Taliban infiltration from Pakistan’s tribal belt into Afghanistan is a problem—which President Musharraf also admits frankly. The criticism of the country by the Afghan government and US/Western media and think-tanks for “not doing enough” in combating terrorism is not going to go away, despite Gates’ gracious gesture. Therefore, on tacking the issue of Taliban, Islamabad should explore all possible avenues, including that of partially fencing the Durand Line as well as closer collaboration with the US/NATO command in Afghanistan to combat the Taliban spring offensive.

Finally, John Negroponte’s remarks regarding Pakistan becoming a safe haven for al-Qaeda will not lose relevance after Gates’ visit to Pakistan, and the understanding he has shown about Pakistan’s enigma in the war on terror in Afghanistan. Pakistan has to proactively fight on the twin fronts of the issue of Taliban infiltration and the presence of al-Qaeda in the country, if it wants to overcome difficulties in its ties with the United States. For its part, Washington also has to show a mature understanding of the difficulties facing Pakistan in the tribal belt, in terms of combating the militancy of Taliban and their al-Qaeda compatriots.