By Ali Imran
WASHINGTON, June 7 : When Pakistan’s army chief and Obama’s top national security advisor met in Abu Dhab last October, the background was as complicated as extraordinary.
The stakes for the US were already high: there had to be a cooperative effort by Pakistan to end the costly and decade-old Afghan war successfully. And the US had to be seen doing everything to protect its Afghanistan-based troops from the militant attacks.
For Pakistan it was as much a matter of sovereignty in the wake of unilateral Abbottabad raid that took out Osama bin Laden, as it was about the future of relationship with its globally influential ally.
Against this background, new details of the the Abu Dhabi meeting in David Sanger’s new book “Confront and Conceal” make an interesting read.
At one point, the Pakistani army chief clearly that the United States could never ever again violate Pakistani sovereignty as the two sides tried to grasp the nettle of counterterror campaign in the region and the Pakistani tribal areas.
The meeting between Gen Ashfaq Parvez Kayani and Obama’s National Security Advisor Tom Donilon and his aides took place months after the May 1, 2011 American raid on Abbottabad hideout of Osama bin Laden.
According to the book hitting stores on Tuesday, the U.S. message to Pakistani army chief centered around the premise that it reserved the right to act, whenever it saw its Afghanistan-based forces were threatened by the Afghan Haqqani network militants, which operated out of safe havens in Pakistani tribal areas and were responsible for recent attacks in Kabul.
Ahead of the meeting, Donilon had also sent a document laying out the long-term American strategy that indicated presence of 10,000 and 15,000 American counterterrorism troops in Afghanistan, with the implicit message that it would do whatever will be required in the face of a militant threat from across the Afghan border.
The first chapter of the book devoted to the meeting says Gen Kayani kept his cool, smoking and listening to his interlocutors. The Pakistani army chief presented Pakistan’s point of view about some of the worst dangers the American policy in Afghanistan could entail for the country and the region in the post-US withdrawal time.
David Sanger, who is Chief Washington Correspondent for The New York Times vividly reveals new details on President Obama’s secret wars and surprising use of American power.
The meeting with Kayani – “the most powerful man in Pakistan” – was the idea of National Security Advisor Donilon, who feared more trouble brewing, in the wake a daring attack- blamed on the Haqqanis – on an American base in Wardak province of Afghanistan and a an all-day attack on American embassy in Kabul.
“When Donnilon’s team (Douglas Lute, the military advisor and Marc Grossman, the civilian advisor on Pakistan and Afghanistan) arrived, Kayani was already in the house, chain-smoking his Dunhill cigarettes. The out of way secrecy was pure Kayani, and the fact that Obama decided to send a high-ranking delegation to see him, not Pakistan’s elected leadership, stroked his ego by reaffirming his primacy.”
Setting the meeting in prespective, Sanger also notes in his account that President Obama was outraged by remarks the outgoing chairman of the Joint Chiefs Admiral Mike Mullen made, when he described the Haqqanis as a “veritable arm” of the Inter Services Intelligence.
“When Obama heard that his top military officer had made that charge in public, he was outraged – Mullen, he thought , was trying to save his reputation, to go out of office in a blaze of anger at the Pakistani military officers he had negotiated with for years,” Sanger writes.
Obama, the writer adds, didn’t contend that Mullen was wrong, “although the evidence that the ISI was directly involved in the attacks on Americans was circumstantial at best.”
The book notes that to Kayani, managing Americans meant following through with just enough promises to keep the brittle US-Pakistani alliance form fracturing.
“Polite and careful most of the time, he knew to charm them by offering up memories from his years in officer training in the United States. At other times, he was angry and bitter, lecturing the Americans about how often they had promised the world to Pakistan and promptly abandoned the country out of pique, anger or a short attention span, ” the writer says of the army chief’s earlier meetings with US officials.
Though the Americans could have settled into a comfortable living room for the meeting, Kayani insisted they sit more formally at a table. The general was clearly no in the mood for casual chitchat.
Donilon opened the meeting where Mullend had left off.
“The ultimate responsibility of the president of the United States is to protect Americans,” he said.
He was reiterating what Obama had said to Kayani one day in the Roosevelt Room of the White House. Either Pakistan was going to deal with the Haqqani network or the Americans would.
Then came the bottom line: “I know you want a guarantee from us that we won’t undertake unilateral operations in your country again,” a reference to the bin Laden raid.
“I can’t give you that,” Obama’s national security advisor added.
If seventy Americans had died in the bomb attack in Wardak the previous month, rather than just suffered injuries,” we wouldn’t be having this conversation,” Donilon said.
The writer remarks it was not-so-veiled threat that Obama would have been forced to send Special Operations Forces into Pakistan to attack the Haqqani network – national pride and sovereignty be damned.
“We are at cross-roads,” Donilon concluded. “If this continues, you’ve really turned your fate over” to the Haqqani network.
When Donilon was finished, Kayani laid out his demands – and the chasm between them was obvious.
The writer does not cite exact quotes by the Pakistani army chief but paraphrases his response.
The United States, Kayani said, could never, ever again violate Pakistani sovereignty with an attack like the one they launched on Osama bin Laden’s compound. That attack, he said, had been a personal humiliation.
The Americans responded with silence, Sanger writes.
“That was the tensest moment,” one of the participants of the meeting noted, because it was an issue on which the two countries were never going to agree.
Kayani moved on to his other concerns. The Americans were spending billions – approximately $12 billion in 2011 – training the Afghan military and police.
Should Afghanistan collapse someday in the near future – not an unlikely scenario – it would have an armed, angry force just across the Pakistani border, Kayani said, many of them enemies of Pashtuns. And that would be a recipe for disaster.
If things fall apart, Kayani insisted, the Pashtuns in both Afghanistan and Pakistan could find themselves pitted against force armed and trained by the United States.
Had the American thought about that ? Or the possibility that as the US forces pull out of Afghanistan, India – which had already invested billions in the Afghan government – would continue to extend its prowess in an effort to encircle Pakistan?
The author then describes that having laid their cards on the table, the group of men went on to talk about their visions for Afghanistan’s future and their troubled effort to negotiate with the Taliban.
Donilon had sent ahead a document, laying out the long-term American strategy including a plan to keep somewhere between 10,000 and 15,000 American counterterrorism troops in Afghanistan, mostly at Bagram Airfield , a large base outside Kabul “to protect interests of the US in the region.”
His meaning was clear : the United Stats would remain, and its troops would be ready to go over the Pakistani border if they intended to, David Sanger writes in the first chapter of the book.
Sanger terms the conversation as “tinged with wariness” on all sides, reflecting the distrust that permeated a relationship fractured by decades of betrayals.
To Kayani the three men in front of him represented a United States that had abandoned Pakistan before – during its wars with India, after the Soviets left Afghanistan, after Pakistan’s nuclear tests. And to the Americans, the fact that Kayani spent five and a half hours blowing the refined smoke of his Dunhills into their faces said it all. The smoke cloud lingered, enveloping the men in a fog.
The three Americans told Kayani they had incriminating evidence about the latest two bold attacks against Americans in Afghanistan.
Donilon, according to the author, had spent hours poring through the intelligence, pressing the CIA and the National Security Agency – which routinely taps the ISI’s cell phones – for every scrap that would tie members of Pakistan’s elite spy service to the insurgents who had detonated car bombs and laid siege to the embassy.
“The case was circumstantial, as always. There was ample evidence that the ISI and others in the Pakistani military supplied the Haqqanis and gave them a free pass to cross the Pakistan-Afghanistan border along its most remote, dangerous stretches.
“But there was no smoking gun that the ISI had actually ordered the attack.”
“We will undertake whatever steps we need to protect our forces,” Donilon said. We would prefer to act jointly. But if you refuse” – he could have said, if you agree and do nothing – “we will come in and do what we have to do.”
He did not need to add that the American model of success in this regard was Abbottabad.
The unspoken message was, “We can do it again.”
Kayani took another drag on the cigarette and blew a little more smoke.
Donilon, Lute and Grossman knew what that meant. The Pakistanis had no intention of turning over or taking on the Haqqani network, it was their insurance policy for the moment, when the Americans would inevitably leave, the writer says.
The first chapter of the book ends with an interesting observation:
“And when Donilon, Lute and Grossman got home – a seventeen hour flight aboard a military jet – they knew their first stop : the dry cleaners.
“Getting the fumes out of their suits would be easy enough. Detoxifying the American relationship with Pakistan would be much more difficult,”
The first chapter of the book “Blowing Smoke” begins with a quotation from former US ambassador to Islamabad Anne Patterson, which disclosed by the Wikileaks, stresses the point that no grand bargain can wean Pakistan away from policies “that accurately reflect its deep-seated fears” and that the Pakistani establishment does not view assistance as a “trade-off for national security. “
- ‘US threatens Kayani, but he refuses to help’ (refreshingnews99.blogspot.com)
- US sees “considerable” progress towards NATO supply resumption via Pakistan (myglobalcommunitytoday.wordpress.com)