The Khyber Observatory

Interesting footnote to the Khyber Agency raid that netted an alleged al Qaeda figure. 

BBC Urdu reports that locals claim two American commandos arrived on the scene in a tinted window vehicle to observe the operation.  Also, a U.S. Predator/Reaper drone flew over the area.  Pakistani government sources did not confirm or deny the reports.

The U.S. presence in Pakistan is both sensitive and, at times, underestimated.  

After September 11, Islamabad permitted a small, but significant U.S. intelligence, law enforcement, and military presence inside the country.  

Joint raids were conducted with the Federal Bureau of Investigations.  United States Special Forces were embedded with Pakistani troops on raids inside North and South Waziristan.  The U.S. military was given access to airbases in Jacobabad and a couple in Balochistan.  Then there is the phenomenon of the missing persons. 

Pakistan also permitted “agents from the CIA, FBI and National Security Agency…to eavesdrop and conduct wiretaps on terrorism suspects” in the country.  This surveillance network has, perhaps, metastasized with or without the consent of Rawalpindi/Islamabad.  The United States has a “network of electronic data collection in Afghanistan and Pakistan [that] allows US experts to monitor hundreds of thousands of telephones and electronic mails every day.” 

It also has “set up a network of human intelligence collectors, which employs hundreds of Afghan and Pakistani Pashtun tribesmen.”  I would venture to speculate that officers of the Afghan National Army/Police often play such as role as well.

The level of access granted to the United States has ebbed and flowed since September 11, for a variety of reasons.  Obviously, not all of the access is based on Pakistani consent.  And, more importantly, consent does not mean consensus.  Signs of a growing U.S. presence on the ground will likely irk many in Pakistan’s military-intelligence establishment.

Her opinions likely coincide with someone’s at the GHQ or ISI HQ.  That is, probably, where her information comes from.  

So, I think a pertinent question is who in Pakistan’s military supports the granting of greater access to United States inside Pakistan and who’s against it?  Furthermore, how will these sentiments impact Chief of Army Staff Gen. Ashfaq Kayani and President Asif Zardari?  

Neither have the consolidated power (and de-facto legitimacy) of pre-2004 Musharraf.  While former President Pervez Musharraf faced stiff opposition, resulting in several assassination attempts, there was no real threat to his hold on power till early 2007 (2003 was a bit dicey).  Disgruntled generals were ushered out; many were paid off with cushy civilian jobs and real estate.  Access to the same resources is likely more limited now.  As for the general public, resentment toward U.S. involvement inside Pakistan has become deeply embedded inside the Pakistani middle class now more than ever.

Prudence and the law of unintended consqeuences call for a small footprint and treading lightly.

Kayani Seeks New Deal with Obama?

Barack Hussein Obama becomes the 44th president of the United States today, marking the end of the Bush administration and the beginning of a new era in American politics.  Among those hopeful for change appears to be Pakistan’s Chief of Army Staff Gen. Ashfaq Kayani.    

For the second time this month, Gen. Kayani has called for the ceasing of U.S. drone strikes inside Pakistan.  His statement yesterday was echoed by Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee Gen. Tariq Majid, who said the attacks were causing political and economic trouble for Pakistan.

General Kayani’s comments could be dismissed as posturing for domestic consumption.  But the timing — two statements in the final period of the Obama transition — suggests otherwise.

It is conceivable that Gen. Kayani consented to U.S. drone strikes in August as he concluded it was the lesser of two evils cash-strapped Pakistan had to choose from — the other evil being U.S. ground incursions.  Factoring in his calculation could have been the fact that the Bush administration was on its way out and there would be a potential opportunity to strike a new deal in four months.

Whether this was Gen. Kayani’s game plan is unclear and it’s uncertain as to whether it would even work.  After taking control over U.S. Central Command, Gen. David Petraeus reportedly told the Pakistani leadership that there will be no policy change in the next administration.  

But the role of Gen. Petraeus, who arrives in Islamabad today, in the Obama administration is unclear.  There appears to be a concerted effort by Chairman of Joint Chiefs Adm. Mike Mullen to sideline Gen. Petraeus (very transparent in Elizabeth Bumiller’s profile of Adm. Mullen).  

And there will be new, multiple (and perhaps overlapping/competing) centers of power in the Obama administration.  Managing the “team of rivals” will be a cerebral and pragmatic chief executive — a clear contrast from his predecessor.  Despite the continuity of challenges, policy outputs could very well be different.  And that might be what Gen. Kayani is banking on.

Change will not occur overnight.  The Obama administration’s review of the Afghanistan-Pakistan war is expected to conclude by early April.    

A dramatic game changer in Islamabad before then, however, would require an accelerated policy shift.

Durrani Sacked; Leadership Crisis Blows Up

In his first display of real authority, Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani has sacked National Security Adviser Mahmud Ali Durrani.  The move will improve Gilani’s public opinion standing, but it will be a fleeting show of strength.  The prime minister is unlikely to be politically empowered.  In fact, his relationship with President Asif Ali Zardari is expected to deteriorate further.  This and other parallel trends will accelerate Pakistan’s descent into a massive leadership crisis precipitated by the collective delegitimization of its major leaders, both civil and military.  I’ll deal with this subject at the end of the post.  Let’s first discuss Durrani.


Earlier in the day, Durrani tacitly admitted to CNN that Ajmal Kasab, one of the Mumbai attackers,”had Pakistani connections.”  He added: “So one cannot deny there was zero link with Pakistan. How much, who all was involved, that we have to investigate.”  Late in the evening, the prime minister’s office announced the firing of Durrani “for his irresponsible behavior for not taking the prime minister and other stakeholders into confidence, and a lack of coordination on matters of national security.”

Durrani’s admission on CNN, however, was not as blatant as has been suggested elsewhere in the media.  And so it is difficult to believe that this interview was the sole factor behind his dismissal.  

More inflammatory were the damaging leaks he made off the record to Zahid Hussain of the Wall Street Journal in late December on the interrogation of Zarar Shah.  Durrani’s dismissal was likely caused by a pattern of behavior on his part.  

But rightists in Pakistan also question Durrani’s loyalty to the Pakistani state.  Gen. (Retd.) Mirza Aslam Beg, formerly chief of army staff, labeled Durrani today an “American agent.”  Whether these allegations played any role in Gilani’s decision is unclear.  The Beg-Durrani dispute is also interesting because each has been alleged to have been part of the assassination of President Gen. Zia-ul-Haq in 1988 (for separate reasons).  Durrani is said to have loaded crates of mangoes upon Gen. Zia’s plane, which some claim contained a poison gas that incapacitated the pilots.  So Beg could be saving his own skin or genuinely believe Durrani acts on the behalf of a state other than his own.


Durrani’s statements were reiterated in more blunt terms by Information Minister Sherry Rehman — via text message  – and Foreign Office Spokesman Muhammad Sadiq.  They have not been replaced.

Now why did Sherry and Sadiq make such claims about Kassab?  For Sherry, I think there are two potential explanations.  

One, she could have been given the green light by Zardari.  If this is the case, then it indicates the absence of a formal policy making structure inside the coalition government.  For all of its talk of democracy and institution building, the present government in Islamabad — like all Pakistani governments — is dominated by personalities and factions, not institutions.  Zardari’s arbitrary decision making (remember from last summer, “I am the expert!”) has been at Gilani’s expense.  And this has caused the deterioration of their relationship.  The firing of Durrani could very well be a salvo directed at Zardari.

Two, Sherry could have wrongly assumed that Zardari had given the green light to admit Kasab is a Pakistani.  More specifically, her answer could have been shaped by the question she was asked.  It’s plausible that Durrani’s statement was referred to in the question posed to her, and that she replied as she did on the assumption that Durrani was articulating the government line.  But still, this would indicate the absence of discipline and organization in the PPP-led coalition government.

The Sadiq factor is more interesting.  He is close to Durrani.  When Durrani was ambassador to the United States, Sadiq served at the embassy as deputy chief of mission.  His concurrence with Durrani seems to contradict the consensus at Pakistan’s Foreign Office (and the words of Pakistan’s foreign secretary uttered not too earlier), which has assumed a very defensive posture.  

At the same time, Pakistan’s foreign policy is being disproportionately shaped by its ambassador to the United States, Husain Haqqani, whose appointment was not well received in the Foreign Office.  He shares a similar worldview (and in the eyes of some rightists, paymaster) as Durrani.  Various reports suggest he is at odds with Pakistan’s defensive posture post-Mumbai and is effectively running his own game in Washington.  

Sadiq’s behavior could point to a convergence of efforts by Durrani and Haqqani (who, along with his counterpart at the UN, has rushed back to Islamabad).   And it is not without coincidence that Sadiq is the ambassador-designate to Afghanistan — a very sensitive posting.  Let’s see if Pakistan’s High Commissioner in New Delhi Shahid Malik will stay in place. 


Today’s events come a day after two key developments: another U.S. ground incursion inside Pakistani territory (this time in North Waziristan); and the Inter-Services Intelligence Director General’s dovish interview with Der Spiegel.  Both further the perception that the Pakistan Army is not adequately playing its role in defending the Pakistani state.  This will add to the mounting stress inside the army on both Chief of Army Staff Gen. Ashfaq Kayani and DG ISI Ahmed Shuja Pasha.

There are significant civil-military, intra-civil government, and intra-military tensions.  They will intensify.  There are no easy fixes; each actor is constrained by a poverty of choices, intellect, and good sense.  Having gamed out a set of scenarios, I believe Pakistan is headed toward a dangerous deadlock by late spring.  

Since the late last summer, I have expressed my fear to friends that Pakistan is headed toward a scenario in which all its major actors — civilian and military — are collectively delegitimized and rendered impotent.  Such a context would produce a leadership void that is sustained by the constitutional and political setup (e.g. the hyperpresidency).  It is exacerbated by the insurgencies, ethnic strife, global pressure, and economic decline.  And it could induce an extra-constitutional ‘remedy’, which Pakistan must avoid.  But avoidance requires harmony between the various power brokers, a respect for public opinion and institutions, responsive governance, and restoring the constitution to its original form.
Without movement in this direction, the ship will sink.  And there’s no guarantee that another vessel can come by and ‘save the day’.

Zardari’s Presidency at Half-Life?

All is not well between President Asif Ali Zardari and Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani.  

In resisting the complete domination of Zardari, the man from Multan has signalled that he is a vertebrate.  That surprised Zardari, who for prime minister simply sought a backboneless ball of fat with a mustached face.  

Tensions between the two have metastasized so much that Zardari, according to Islamabad chatter, is considering replacing Gilani with another pir, Shah Mehmood Qureshi, presently foreign minister.  

A more deserving but less likely candidate would be Sherry Rehman.  Presently information minister, Rehman is far more diligent and intelligent than her Peoples Party peers (and pirs).  Making her PM would, however, spark further gossip regarding Zardari’s closeness to Rehman, notwithstanding its baselessness.

Qureshi is the more probable candidate to succeed Gilani should the latter’s relationship with Zardari deteriorate further.  He is certainly an upgrade.  Qureshi is more articulate and urbane than the present PM.  He exudes confidence and competence (just don’t ask him what’s the price of compressed natural gas).  And he is ambitious.  These traits put him on the radar of the ‘kingmakers’ abroad.  Then add the fact that his primary job is to deal with these parties.  

But Qureshi’s strengths are also, vis-a-vis Zardari, his weaknesses.  Zardari seeks a compliant PM, not a competent one.  His misplaced priorities have created tensions with the present PM and will likely do the same with the next.  That, combined with his neglect of governance and prioritization of power politics, will create serious trouble for him and Pakistan.  As a result, I am inclined to believe that Zardari’s presidency and the PPP-led coalition government are near the beginning of their end.

Zardari’s political opponents, in fact, seem to be mobilizing their forces for a campaign to check or remove him.  

Recent opinion articles in the Pakistani press, one of which was by an old Zardari friend, have catalogued Zardari’s failings since the February elections.  On the first anniversary of Benazir Bhutto’s assassination, Today with Kamran Khan, a major Pakistani public affairs program, devoted its entire program to argue that Zardari has neither taken real steps to pursue his wife’s killers (such as lodging an FIR), nor sought to implement her agenda.  The attempts by the normally cynical Khan to paint Benazir as a genuine supporter of Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry seemed fairly contrived.  

These arguments further the idea that Zardari not only killed the Bhutto political dynasty, which I believe, but that he also killed the Bhuttos (Mir Murtaza and Benazir).  There is no evidence he was involved in his wife’s murder.  But it doesn’t help Zardari that his government recently arrested critic Mumtaz Bhutto, Benazir’s uncle and eldest surving patrilineal relative.  Nor does it help that Sanam Bhutto, Benazir’s sister, seems to cry profusely every time she’s within Zardari’s proximity.

The two parallel cases being made in the public discourse against Zardari — one alleging misgovernance and the other malice — build as he becomes the locus of public and elite ire.  Zardari is the new Musharraf, but without the latter’s strengths, including army backing.  

And so Zardari’s winter of discontent will lead to a stormy spring.  Nawaz Sharif is steadedly shifting toward full-fledged opposition.  The lawyers will go on another long march in March and the PML-N will join.  Violent protests against loadshedding suggest public anger is rising, or some would like to make it seem that way.  Senate elections will take place in March.  Zardari will be expected to reduce his constitutional powers soon after, but few believe he will.  And then there’s Zardari’s relationship with the Army, which is dysfunctional at best.  Even Peoples Party workers are increasingly fed up with Zardari.  Pakistan will follow the world into a deepening recession.  Violence in the Pashtun belt will certainly intensify.  

A perfect storm is brewing, set to hit Zardari this spring.  But he can weather the onslaught.  To mitigate the political pressure against him, Zardari will need to accomodate the demands of his opposition and improve his government’s performance.  

More specifically, this would entail: restoring the presidency to its nominal status; empowering a new, competent prime minister; bringing back Iftikhar Chaudhry as chief justice; keeping the peace in Punjab with the PML-N by replacing Salmaan Taseer as governor; halting U.S. drone attacks; ending unannounced elecricity loadshedding; and making bold displays of merit-based appointments and good governance.

Above all, this government bereft of achievement, must show Pakistan it has a detailed policy agenda and political vision.  And it must begin immediately to implement it, rather than deferring and delaying as it has done for almost a year.


Arif Rafiq, a Washington, DC-based consultant on Middle East and South Asian political and security issues. [About]

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