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A very special relationship: the US-Pakistan alliance darkens

Commentary, 26 September 2011
Americas, Terrorism, Central and South Asia
America's top military officer has accused Pakistan of helping to bomb a US embassy. US-Pakistan relations are about to enter a much darker phase.

America's top military officer has accused Pakistan of helping to bomb a US embassy. US-Pakistan relations are about to enter a much darker phase.  

 Mullen, Kayani and Pasha (ISI)

By Shashank Joshi, Associate Fellow, RUSI

The bombshell

26 September 2011 - Last week, Admiral Mike Mullen informed the US Senate that Pakistan had committed an effective act of war against the US. For the first time in history, a 'major non-NATO ally' of the US had participated in bombing a US embassy. Mullen, speaking to lawmakers, first called the Haqqani network - an insurgent group allied to, but distinct from, the Afghan Taliban - a 'veritable arm' of Pakistan's intelligence service, the ISI. And then he pointed out that 'with ISI support, Haqqani operatives planned and conducted a ... assault on our embassy'.

David Ignatius, writing in the Washington Post, immediately dubbed this a 'bombshell', but it could only have been so to those who hadn't been paying attention.

Mullen, by his own admission, has been one of the most pro-Pakistan military officers in the US establishment. He has clung to hopes that Pakistan's calculus might be transformed by patient diplomacy and the right inducements, long after others gave up.

His public willingness to say what has been said in private or anonymously leaked for years, as well as the coordinated American plan to apply pressure from all arms of the US government, is a sign that the relationship has reached a nadir.

The Haqqanis

For months, the US Senate has been demanding that the Haqqani network be placed on a list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations (FTOs). The State Department had resisted, hoping that parts of the Haqqani network might be persuaded to reconcile with the Afghan government.

After all, Jalaluddin Haqqani was famously described by US Congressman Charlie Wilson as 'goodness personified' for his role in battling Soviet forces in the 1980s. Jalaluddin's son Sirajuddin, now the leader of the group, only days ago promised that he would fall in line behind any deal agreed by the leadership of the core Afghan Taliban led by Mullah Omar.

The apparent conciliation is awkward. A recent authoritative report on the Haqqanis noted that 'al-Qa'ida and other transnational terrorist actors - including the Islamic Jihad Union (IJU) and the Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP) - also rely on and leverage the Haqqani network.'

The report, from the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, went on to note that 'throughout the 1990s, the relationship between al-Qa'ida and the Haqqani network only deepened, Today, this context endures as the Haqqani network remains the primary local partner for al-Qa'ida, the IJU and other global militants.'

The argument for peacemaking in Afghanistan has always hinged on the idea that there's a distinction between local and global actors, those who are participating in a national struggle as opposed to those in a wider transnational jihad. The Haqqanis blur that line, and Pakistan - relying on the Haqqanis as a crucial proxy - has intentionally blurred it further to secure its perceived interests in Kabul. This issue has become all the more acute, as 'cross-border attacks by the Haqqanis into Afghanistan have increased more than fivefold this year over the same period a year ago, and roadside bomb attacks are up 20 per cent compared with last year'.

The future of the US-Pakistan relationship

Where does the relationship go now?

First, we ought to remember that Mullen also told his political masters that 'a flawed and strained engagement with Pakistan is better than disengagement'. This was his way of pointing out that Pakistani duplicity was, even now, preferable to outright hostility. Until 2014, when Pakistan will no longer be essential to supplying US troops in Afghanistan, that will remain a constraint.

Second, remember the 'enhanced partnership' promised in the landmark 2009 Kerry-Lugar aid bill, promising $7.5 billion of US aid to Pakistan? That stands in tatters. It's been dying since January, when a US spy was imprisoned in Lahore; its death spasms included the raid for Osama bin Laden, the murder of Pakistani journalist Saleem Shahzad (which Mullen publicly attributed to the Pakistani government) and the ongoing Haqqani-led suicide attacks in Afghanistan, each of which humiliates NATO by highlighting its inability to bring security only three years before the intended withdrawal.

A profound sense of disillusionment has fallen over a generation of US officials, diplomats, and spies, many of whom genuinely believed, just a few years ago, that the US would be able to turn Pakistan if it offered a long-term, rather than 'transactional', relationship.

Third, the relationship is going to become fundamentally more adversarial. Mullen noted in his testimony that 'it's not just Haqqani. We've also had problems with Lashkar-e-Taiba [LeT]', the group responsible for the 2008 Mumbai attacks. He added, in a line that had Indians red with furious vindication, that 'to support terrorism is part of their national strategy'. As US scholar Christine Fair argued in a recent paper, 'even if Pakistan and India could normalize relations' - and presumably even if the US sanctioned or cajoled Pakistan enough - 'Pakistan would not likely turn against LeT'.

Fair argues that LeT 'is an existential asset in the same way that it is an existential enemy for countries like India and even the United States'. Fair says that it has not attacked the state like other militant groups, and its theology - Ahl-e-Hadith rather than Deobandi - is useful in counteracting the anti-state message of groups like the Pakistani Taliban. And for the ISI to abandon the Haqqanis would be to give up their principal lever determining Afghanistan's future. In other words, the khakis won't go quietly.

At an extraordinary meeting of Pakistan's Corps Commanders held last week, it was reportedly agreed that 'escalation is harmful. In the cost-benefit analysis there appears to be no benefit of a confrontation'. But what the commanders don't understand is that the US now considers the status quo to be inherently confrontational.

Fewer carrots, more sticks

Coming up against this opposition, it's likely that the US will use fewer carrots and more sticks.

Vikram Sood, who formerly headed India's foreign intelligence service, the Research & Analysis Wing (R&AW), wrote on Twitter that 'the decibel of ... anti-ISI music from DC [is] becoming higher. Similar to that before Vietnam, [the] Afghan jihad and Iraq'. He asked, ominously, whether it 'means action?' Probably.

That could take the form of more unilateral drone strikes and more special forces raids in the tribal areas. Afghan militias, backed by the CIA, have carried out numerous clandestine missions in Pakistan's tribal areas.  These militias, known as Counterterrorism Pursuit Teams, have mostly collected intelligence.

But on at least one occasion, they destroyed a weapons cache. On a separate raid, they sought (and failed) to capture a Taliban commander. There are reportedly six such covert groups operating under American direction, one of which is known as the Paktika Defense Force (the name refers to an eastern Afghan province). They were established as early as 2001, and one account judges them to be 10,000-strong.

Raids like these could significantly degrade Afghanistan-focused insurgent groups, even if they do little to erode LeT or other Punjab-based terrorist groups. The result will be more public spats, a greater squeeze on US intelligence officers inside the country, and possibly an escalation of violence in Afghanistan.

In October 2010, after an incursion into Pakistan by a US helicopter killed Pakistani soldiers, Islamabad reacted angrily by severing supply lines into Afghanistan.

Marc Ambinder has noted that 'several dozen [American] JSOC [Joint Special Operations Command] operatives have died in Pakistan over the past several years'. Clandestine unilateral raids have waxed and waned, but they seem likely to increase in number.

How Pakistan will respond

In the short-to-medium term, Pakistan's military is just as likely to ramp up its proxy war as it is to wind up this strategy. Army chief General Kayani and his fellow senior officers judge that they are in an advantageous position. Their thinking goes that if Pakistan can hold its nerve until US withdrawal, things can continue as normal - particularly as President Obama is seen as constrained from escalating US involvement as a result of forthcoming American elections.

That's wrong - not just because other states like Iran and Russia will not sit by as Afghanistan burns, but also because the US military has made the issue public. Mullen may be on the cusp of retirement, but he has made sure that his successors cannot ignore this provocation from Pakistan without taking a blow to their reputation. In highlighting this in front of the Senate, he's given Congress plenty of ammunition to use against a wary White House.    

There's a second problem. The army is going to be under intense pressure from all sides, including within. But Pakistan's self-appointed guardians have never dealt particularly well with crises of legitimacy, and may well lash out in desperation rather than slink back to the barracks. Myra MacDonald, a Reuters journalist and close observer of Pakistan, suggests 'this is like a rerun of the Kargil war writ large'.

When the Pakistan army lost that war, their response was not a withdrawal to the barracks but a military coup. A coup is highly unlikely today, for a variety of reasons, but other forms of domestic political assertion are possible. That would simply anger the White House and Congress further, as both are increasingly convinced, like much of the world, that only civilian empowerment can save Pakistan in the long-term. The dilemma is that the more the US pushes, the harder this becomes to achieve - which allows the civilian government to be used, as Ayesha Siddiqa puts it, as a sort of human shield by the army.

Duelling fictions

Two months ago, writing in The Friday Times, I called this predicament a case of 'duelling fictions' - Pakistan pretending to care about counterterrorism, and the US pretending to care for Pakistani sovereignty. Mullen's statement sharpens both those fictions, and the result is going to be ramped up US pressure.

It is true that as long as US and NATO troops in Afghanistan need feeding and fuelling through Pakistani soil, there are strong limits to how tightly the screws can be turned. But it is complacent and dangerous to dismiss the possibility of greater confrontation simply because of the fact of mutual dependence. In 2010, 70 per cent of American supplies travelled through Pakistan. Today, that figure has fallen to 35 per cent. Pakistan's leverage is falling every month that alternative supply lines are strengthened.

Economically, Pakistan is not as well-placed as oil-rich Iran to resist US pressure. In 2008, Pakistan's government was forced to turn to the IMF for a bailout after its foreign reserves fell 75 percent to $3.45 billion, and its currency weakened. In December 2010, the IMF extended its loan by nine months, but next year the country faces several repayments.

What about allies? China, long seen within Pakistan as an all-weather friend, is increasingly sensitive to its relationship with Washington - observe its remarkable caution in investing in Iran. Saudi Arabia is embroiled in its own regional problems, ranging from Yemen to Bahrain.

To assume that the US is unavoidably and perpetually locked into an abusive relationship is to miss the new plateau of US anger on display this month, and the complex ways in which each side's leverage over the other is changing.

For thirty years, Pakistan has taken on India in covert wars stretching from Punjab, to Kashmir, to Afghanistan. It's performed well, even if that has occurred at great cost to its internal security and diplomatic relations. But taking on the US is a different matter.

The views expressed here are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI.

Author

Shashank Joshi
Advisory Board

Shashank Joshi is Defence Editor of The Economist, where he writes on a wide range of defence and... read more

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