Tensions at historic highs.
Outgoing chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, caused a ruckus in both Washington and Islamabad when he stated flatly before the Senate Armed Services Committee that the Taliban-supported terrorist group Haqqani was "a veritable arm" of Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence agency (ISI). Although this didn't come as a surprise to those following the US-Pakistan saga, what was stunning was the fact that he uttered the charge on the record -- a first for the US government. The United States has been complaining to the Pakistani government privately for years about the duplicity and treachery of the ISI as they support the Afghanistan Taliban and the Haqqani terrorist network as a matter of state policy. However, actually charging the ISI with collusion in attacks on Americans escalated the tensions between the two countries to historic levels.
The Pakistani government reacted angrily to the charges and thousands took to the streets around the country to protest against what they perceive as American threats to deal with the Haqqani network on their own. The government also went out of its way to praise China as an "all-weather friend" as a reminder to the US that they have a few cards to play in the region as well.
The State Department sought to distance itself from Mullen's remarks even while putting the finishing touches on designating Haqqani a foreign terrorist group. Why this hasn't happened before is due to the fading hope that the terrorists could play a meaningful role in peace talks between the Afghanistan government and the Taliban. Recent attacks against our embassy in Kabul and our soldiers at a NATO outpost by the terrorists would seem to have dashed whatever forlorn hope was harbored in the State Department that Haqqani could be relied upon as a partner for peace.
Meanwhile, the Obama White House tried to tone down the rhetoric, hoping to bridge the chasm that has suddenly opened between the two countries by refusing to endorse Mullen's remarks. And Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met for several hours with Pakistan's foreign minister last week and emerged saying the right things about "cooperation" and "vital strategic interests."
But unlike past dust-ups over border incursions from Pakistan into Afghanistan by the Taliban and Pakistan's perceived lack of aggressiveness in fighting terrorists in the rugged Northwest Frontier Provinces, the underlying contradictions in US-Pakistani relations are in the open, and both governments feel the need to defend themselves.
What are those contradictions? At bottom, the question that must be asked of Pakistan is: are they friend or foe?
Ever since the take down of Osama bin Laden in an al-Qaeda safe house 60 miles from the capitol Islamabad, relations have been steadily deteriorating. But despite the perfidy of the Pakistani military and the ISI, a break in relations would only assist the terrorists and destabilize Afghanistan even more than it is now. However, this "escalation" by the Pakistani military in directly countenancing attacks on US citizens must be dealt with and condemned or there simply is no hope in going forward with the Pakistanis on any reasonable basis.
Pakistani commentator Aqil Shah, writing in Foreign Affairs, cheered Mullen's comments, calling them "the most direct and daring official U.S. indictment of the Pakistani military to date," and pointed out that the Pakistani military's game has a lot to do with their concerns about India gaining a foothold in Afghanistan:
Ideally, the military would like Afghanistan to become a relatively stable satellite dominated by Islamist Pashtuns, which are much less likely than more secular Pashtuns to make irredentist claims on Pakistan's own Pashtun regions, or bow to Indian influence. The military's worst-case scenario would be an Afghanistan controlled or dominated by groups with ties to India, such as the Northern Alliance, which it fears would permit New Delhi to continue activities that are hostile to Pakistan even after the United States leaves the region.
Admiral Mullen made some other interesting comments at that senate hearing as well. He said, “With ISI support, Haqqani operatives planned and conducted that truck bomb attack" on September 10 that killed 5 and wounded 77 coalition soldiers. Mullen added, "We also have credible evidence that they were behind the June 28th attack against the Intercontinental Hotel in Kabul and a host of other smaller but effective operations.”
The State Department leaked to the Washington Post: “Adm. Mike Mullen’s assertion last week that an anti-American insurgent group in Afghanistan is a ‘veritable arm’ of Pakistan’s spy service was overstated and contributed to overheated reactions in Pakistan and misperceptions in Washington.”
What "misperceptions" could there be? An arm of the Pakistani government is colluding with terrorists to kill Americans. To most, that would seem a straightforward problem with which our government should be dealing. David Goldman (aka "Spengler"), writing on his blog at PJ Media, quotes another unnamed diplomat saying, “The administration has long sought to pressure Pakistan, but to do so in a nuanced way that does not sever the U.S. relationship with a country that American officials see as crucial to winning the war in Afghanistan and maintaining long-term stability in the region.”
The Pakistanis, in short, continue to murder Americans with impunity by threatening us with their own failure. It’s the geopolitical equivalent of the scene in Blazing Saddles in which the black sheriff intimidates a lynch mob by holding a gun to his own head and threatening to shoot himself.
The Pakistani military's response to Mullen's comments and the support he received from the Congress and notable pundits for his accusations has been sharp and without precedent. Not only has the Pakistani military angrily dismissed the charges made by Mullen, the it has flatly refused an American request to go after the Haqqani network in North Waziristan, while cozying up to China at the same time.
The civilian government, racked by corruption and seemingly powerless to control the military, was less direct in its criticism. It is trying to turn the issue into a question of nationalism and sovereignty, appealing to the people's anti-Americanism and patriotism. Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar said at the UN that "Pakistan's dignity must not be compromised." And thousands of protesters poured into the streets across the country on Tuesday chanting anti-American slogans and burning American flags. A speaker at one of the protests said, "We warn US not to indulge in any misadventure with us, or the whole nation will stand united to defend our country."
To tap into this sentiment and build support, Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani will chair an all-party conference on Thursday to come up with a position on fighting terror and the course of future relations with the US. This will give an opportunity for the politicians to posture against America while fanning the flames of patriotism and nationalism. How that will quiet the situation remains to be seen.
Some analysts believe the rupture in relations will last for years, that the inability of the Pakistani government to control the military in the foreseeable future means that no matter what the administration of President Zardari says about combating Haqqani, al-Qaeda and the Afghan Taliban, the military and ISI will continue to use terrorists to further their goals.
Others believe that the relationship was flawed to start with and that a final break is inevitable. Writing in Foreign Policy, Dan Twining sums up one possible future of US-Pakistan relations where the two countries are no longer allies:
Such an approach would require the United States not to leave Afghanistan to Pakistan's designs but to keep a significant deployment of U.S. troops in place to deter and defeat Islamabad's efforts to renew the sphere of influence it enjoyed there when its Taliban allies were in power. (Naturally, this would be harder to do if Pakistan refused us access to its territory to resupply our forces in Afghanistan). It would call for the CIA to cease cooperating with ISI, which it continues to rely on for access to the region, on the grounds that our fundamental goals are incompatible. It would suggest doubling down on our relationship with India, including supporting a greater Indian strategic, political, and economic presence in Afghanistan (which would be welcomed by most Afghans) as a stabilizing force in a troubled country. It would require us to convince Beijing not to fill the vacuum left by the withdrawal of American patronage towards Pakistan; China would need to pursue approaches that complement ours rather than continuing to provide unqualified support to its revisionist, increasingly radicalized ally.
It seems clear that relations between America and Pakistan have entered a new phase. Whether it will lead to an eventual break as Mr. Twining envisions remains to be seen. But it appears that the US will no longer tolerate a supposed ally colluding in the killing of its soldiers and citizens. There will be consequences going forward for Pakistan and it is time they were told that in no uncertain terms.
If this comes to pass, we'll have Admiral Mullen to thank for it.