The South Asia Channel

A new understanding for the U.S. and Pakistan?

During a briefing at his office in the garrison town of Rawalpindi earlier this month, Pakistan's Chief of Army Staff Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani staunchly defended Pakistan's efforts to combat the militant groups operating on its territory, while pointing toward the still-prominent perceived threat from India as a reason for not taking the operations further.

"During our counterterror campaign we have lost 2,273 army and paramilitary soldiers including three generals, five brigadiers, as many as 73 senior intelligence operatives, and also faced the blowback from Islamist militants," Kayani told us, citing internal instability, a violent spate of suicide bombings -- 87 in 2009 alone -- and an adverse impact on Pakistan's economy.

The Pakistani Army has been conducting counterinsurgency campaigns in 11 tribal areas plus Swat since 2007, including some 209 major military operations, and has committed almost 150,000 of its 550,000-troop army to this effort in the northwestern border regions, the general told us. Kayani noted that Pakistan remains concerned about India's Pakistan-specific military capability, as six of India's 13 strike corps are currently deployed along the border, and India's involvement in Afghanistan is ongoing.

Kayani also pointed to the "Cold Start doctrine" propounded by archrival India and the talk of "limited war" under a "nuclear overhang," suggested by the outgoing Indian army chief in November, saying that this policy and rhetoric do alarm Pakistan's security apparatus. "You plan on an adversary's capability and not intentions," Kayani explained. While the capability takes years to build, intentions may change overnight and Pakistan simply cannot depend on other's intentions, he reasoned.

"I explained to NATO leaders in Brussels [during a recent security conference there] that understanding Pakistan's strategic framework would help them understand the situation in a much better way," Kayani said. Before his late January presentation in Brussels, Kayani had made a similar forceful case before the U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates at the Army's headquarters in Rawalpindi. "If you care about India getting upset, care about us as well. You have to balance the concern for India with concern for our interests," was the blunt message he described.

Kayani reiterated Pakistan's commitment to a "peaceful, stable, and friendly Afghanistan." As he said earlier this month, "We cannot wish for Afghanistan anything that we don't wish for Pakistan." In this context he brushed aside the allegations of Pakistan pursuing "a strategic depth policy" in Afghanistan. "This does not imply controlling Afghanistan. If Afghanistan is peaceful, stable, and friendly we have our strategic depth because our western border is secure... You're not looking both ways -- as simple as that."

Kayani again insisted that Pakistan must "consolidate our gains and fully stabilize the areas secured, lest they fall back to terrorists," in response to the oft-repeated demand from the U.S. that Pakistan move against militants based in North Waziristan. "Constraints of our capability to absorb and operate, limited cutting edge counterintelligence and counterterrorism capability, and limited budgetary space should be factored in," he said, referring to last fall's Pakistani military operations in South Waziristan, which had served as a of terrorism for Pakistani, Arab, and Uzbek Islamist militants. Kayani explained that the Army had managed to hamper militant logistics and restrict operating space in North Waziristan.

From that, it's straightforward to discern that Kayani's army would far prefer to choose the scale and timing of any military operations into North Waziristan, rather than be dictated to by the United States. The Army says that any "military adventures into the tribal regions require extreme caution and consideration for the future." International troops will not be in Afghanistan forever, the Pakistani argument runs, so in several years Pakistan will be on its own to co-exist with the very tribes that would be hurt when or if the Pakistani Army moves against the militants nestled among them. Thus, Kayani has been explaining to the U.S. and NATO that Pakistan must balance the West's comparatively short-term interests in containing and eliminating the insurgencies with its own long-term objectives, namely securing its western border without offending the tribes that live in that region.

And when Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen said in December that he "couldn't give the Pakistani Army anything but an ‘A' for how they've conducted their battle so far," it was after Mullen had spent several hours flying over the mountains and gorges of Pakistan's Swat Valley with Kayani. Mullen was apparently so impressed that he asked Kayani to take the top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan Gen. Stanley McChrystal on a similar tour so he could "get a sense of how and what you need to fight in such a difficult terrain," according to the general.

McChrystal flew over from Kabul shortly thereafter for the detailed aerial view of Swat's hilly and forested topography that had served as a natural sanctuary for the terrorists of Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), and left with an appreciation for Pakistan's counterinsurgency campaign, according to Kayani. For Kayani, who took charge of Pakistan's army in November 2007, this was hard-earned praise.

And recently, President Obama asked Congress for an additional $500 million to support Pakistan. If approved, the ‘Pakistan Counterinsurgency Capability Fund' would jump to $1.2 billion in the fiscal year beginning on October 1, 2010, and the money under the fund would be used to train and equip the Pakistan military to fight militants more effectively along the Afghan border.

Several Pakistani generals, including Kayani, believe the praise by Mullen and the subsequent request by Obama for additional counterinsurgency funding for their anti-militant reflects a new understanding among the coalition of Pakistani concerns and constraints. The language and vocabulary emanating from Washington and London toward Islamabad has changed in recent months, a prerequisite for creating greater trust among the coalition partners, according to Pakistani generals. Let us see what wonders the changed vocabulary can work in the coming months.

Imtiaz Gul heads the independent Centre for Research and Security Studies in Islamabad. He is the author of Most Dangerous Place -- Pakistan's Lawless Frontier, due out in May by Penguin USA/UK.

AAMIR QURESHI/AFP/Getty Images