Pak-US diplomatic gulf widening


LAHORE: In view of the rising tension between Washington and Islamabad, Pakistani Army Chief General Ashfaq Pervez Kayani has decided not to lead the country’s military team for the summit-level trilateral Pak-Afghan talks being held in Washington next week.

Well placed diplomatic circles in Islamabad say the Pakistani move is contrary to the American expectations as the Obama administration was keen that General Kayani also travels to Washington for the three-nation talks, which are to be to led by the presidents of Afghanistan, Pakistan and the United States. The three leaders are scheduled to meet on coming Wednesday and Thursday along with their key civilian and military aides. The diplomatic sources say top operational level officers from Pakistan would represent the military in a series of planned sessions aimed at joint efforts to end the growing militancy in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

However, the military sources in Rawalpindi say the Army chief’s decision not to go for the Washington talks was motivated by the alarming security situation in the country and the ongoing military operations in parts of the NWFP and Fata to counter insurgency. Also, they add, it was felt that with the top civilian leader heading the delegation, the inclusion of the top military man was unnecessary. General Kayani has been in close contact with the top US generals and has been regularly exchanging notes on operational matters with Chairman of US Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen, who is a frequent traveller to Pakistan and was here on his 12th visit last week.

According to the Pakistani military spokesman Major General Athar Abbas, as the Army chief would not be travelling to Washington for the talks, the ISI chief Lt General Ahmed Shuja Pasha and the director-general Military Operations will be representing the Pakistani military side in the inter-agency Washington talks. The two officials, who had also participated in the first round of the talks led by the foreign minister, will leave on May 4. Amid mounting international pressure on Pakistan to do more to curb militancy and forewarnings from key world capitals that the coming weeks may be very crucial for the country Pakistan’s embattled, President Asif Zardari will also be leading a high-powered delegation to Washington early next week that will include foreign minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi.

Interestingly, hardly a week before President Zardari was to reach Washington, the US has piled on the pressure on the civilian government. On April 30, 2009, President Obama explicitly spelled out his concern: “The civilian government there right now is very fragile and [doesn’t] seem to have the capacity to deliver basic services.” Obama’s 100th day prime TV time press conference created a grossly uneven playing field for Zardari’s upcoming visit to Washington, as the candid and frank, almost brutal, observations of Obama have already cut Zardari to a very small size besides giving the Pakistan Army much more importance than the Pakistani leadership would like to hear. Obama also revealed some fundamental shifts in Pakistan’s India policy and the thinking of the Pakistan Army vis-a-vis India. Such a shift, willingly or unknowingly, has not yet been remotely reflected in the policies or statements of the civilian leadership of Pakistan.

Obama’s assertion that Pakistani civilian government was very fragile, without any capacity to deliver almost anything of consequence, was made in the same breath when he made several statements showing a superb degree of confidence in the Pakistan Army. It dug deep into the credibility and future of the civilian set-up, specially the fate of Zardari himself, who everyone in Washington knows, has been running Pakistan as a one-man show. So the criticism hits the Pakistani president right where it hurts.

Perhaps Obama meant less to undermine the civilian government in Islamabad and more to alert the US political firmament of the need for immediate action (“we need to help Pakistan help Pakistanis”). But then on May 1, the US media reported extraordinary comments made by General Petraeus, the top military commander for South Asia, to American lawmakers and Obama administration officials. General Petraeus reportedly warned that the next two weeks were critical to the government’s survival and that if “concrete action” was not taken to “destroy the Taliban” the US would have to determine its “next course of action”. Damningly, the general went on to label the Pakistan Army under General Kayani as “superior” to the “civilian government led by President Asif Zardari”.

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