The South Asia Channel

The Pakistani backlash you haven't heard about

Islamabad-Last Wednesday, the Pentagon announced it would soon built a new facility in southwestern Pakistan to house U.S. military officials. It was meant to be a bilateral "confidence-building measure" in the ongoing war on terror, according to U.S. officials -- but it has instead produced a furious backlash in Pakistan.

The title headlining the Pentagon's announcement was sober -- "Pakistan Army General Headquarters recently approved a U.S. Office of Defense Representative (ODR) and Coalition presence at the Pakistan military's 12 Corps HQ in Quetta" -- but it's clear that the new building was designed to symbolize the recent progress in the U.S.-Pakistani relationship. The city of Quetta, the capital of the province of Balochistan, has long been a bone of contention between Washington and Islamabad, and the Western intelligence community community believes that the top Taliban commanders known as the Quetta Shura have been living there with the tacit permission of the Pakistani state.

Just days before the Pentagon's announcement, Islamabad had spurned a U.S. request to extend the drone campaign to Balochistan. "There is no question that Pakistan will allow drone attacks in Balochistan or any other part of the country," Foreign Office spokesperson Abdul Basit told a weekly media briefing in Islamabad on Nov. 26. "We are asking the Obama administration to revisit its drone policy as it is counterproductive."

The U.S. drones currently are restricted to the Waziristan region, where the Predator and Reaper pilotless vehicles have made 97 strikes this year so far, hunting for al Qaeda and its close Afghan ally, the Haqqani network. Opposition parties and the public at large have been quite critical of such strikes, which have reportedly killed more than 600 people in Waziristan.

The planned U.S. building in Quetta only added fuel to the fire. The Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N), the country's main opposition party, immediately expressed its reservations. "We are extremely worried about what is happening in and around Quetta and demand a clarification by all those who permitted the establishment of the U.S. facility in Quetta," Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan, a PML-N leader, told reporters on Nov. 26.

On the other hand, a senior ODR official in Islamabad -- the Pentagon's main Pakistan office is located within the U.S. embassy in Islamabad, with further outposts in Karachi, Lahore, and Peshawar -- sounded pretty upbeat about the new permission to operate out of Quetta.

"This is a big confidence-building measure and also underscores the confidence of the Pakistani security establishment," the ODR official told me, requesting anonymity. This will help both parties, the officer said.

Although it would be naïve to believe the United States has had no security presence in Quetta until now, the new facility would provide the U.S. military, and presumably, its intelligence community, formal access to areas where Taliban leaders are suspected of planning attacks on NATO forces stationed in Afghanistan. It would also take some of the heat off the Pakistani security establishment, which has been heavily criticized for allegedly allowing the Quetta Shura to operate unmolested.

Officially, the Pakistani government denies the Taliban Shura is even in Quetta, and locals laugh off such allegations: With so many U.S. informants in the area, they say, it would be impossible for Taliban to stay in Quetta for too long. What is undeniable, however, is the frequent cross-border movement of Taliban leaders through different parts of Balochistan, which shares a border of some 1,200 kilometers with Afghanistan. Mullah Baradar, the Taliban's operations commander, for instance, was arrested in a joint CIA-ISI operation on the outskirts of Karachi in February 2010, as he was about to enter Balochistan from the south.

There still are occasional diplomatic skirmishes between the United States and Pakistan, especially between their respective militaries: One need only think back to the incursion of a U.S. gunship helicopter into Pakistani territory in late September, or the shelling on Nov. 26 by NATO gunships on targets in North Waziristan. The latest deluge of information through WikiLeaks such as frank dispatches by former ambassador to Islamabad Anne W. Patterson, who has been reporting on the nuclear issue, or comments attributed to Army Chief General Ashfaq Kayani about President Asif Ali Zardari, have also vitiated the atmosphere. The leaks continue to dominate the public debate in Pakistan because they have exposed the hidden facet of U.S. diplomacy, which analysts and common people at large are condemning as "espionage."

One, however, would hope that the strategic dialogue established by both countries this year will serve as a shock-absorber and help them get over such hiccups. The third round of the bilateral talks, held in Washington in late October, was attended by Kayani and Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi; it might have been then that they agreed to site a U.S. military site in Quetta.

The Pakistani army knows it must make concessions as the NATO campaign in the border region steps up, and the U.S. intensifies its drone attacks in Waziristan. But in addition to tending to its relationship to the West, Pakistani leaders will need to placate their own population. We'll soon know how they plan on finessing that potential contradiction.

Imtiaz Gul is author of The Most Dangerous Place: Pakistan's Lawless Frontier.