U.S. relations with Pakistan are edging toward a diplomatic precipice, with serious consequences for U.S. military forces in Afghanistan hanging in the balance.
Outgoing Chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Michael Mullen last week publicly accused Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) Directorate of direct complicity in a terrorist attack on the U.S. Embassy in the Afghan capital of Kabul that killed seven people and wounded 10 others.
He also indicated complicity by the intelligence agency, which is under control of Pakistan’s military, in an earlier attack by the Haqqani Islamist group on a U.S./NATO base outside the capital that wounded 77 people.
“With ISI support, Haqqani operatives planned and conducted that truck bomb attack as well as the assault on our embassy,” Mullen said in testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee.
“We also have credible evidence that they were behind the June 28 attack against the Intercontinental Hotel in Kabul and a host of other smaller—but effective—operations.
“ … The Haqqani network acts as the veritable arm of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency,” he said.
U.S. suspicion of Islamabad’s links to terrorist organizations—including the Taliban in Afghanistan and the Haqqani network, which also has ties to al-Qaeda—are not new. But such blunt public accusations are.
“U.S.-Pakistan relations have been on a downward slide, particularly since the bin Laden raid in May,” said Lisa Curtis, an Asian studies fellow at The Heritage Foundation in Washington, D.C. “However, what has happened over the past few days is significant.
“The United States just can’t afford to sit back idly when it has information in hand about Pakistan’s involvement in attacks on U.S. forces and the embassy.”
That information reportedly includes cell phones from dead Haqqani gunmen that show phone calls made to ISI operatives.
The information highlights and punctuates long-held U.S. suspicions, including that Pakistan on occasion passes intelligence information given it by the United States to terrorist groups, and that passing of such information may not just be the result of rogue elements within its military and security services.
One result of those suspicions has been an increase in unilateral drone strikes against Afghan terrorists who use Pakistan’s lawless tribal border areas as sanctuary. The strikes have, of course, roiled the country’s government and anti-American public.
Another was Washington deliberately not informing Islamabad in advance of the U.S. raid in Pakistan in May that resulted in the death of al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.
Bin Laden was living securely in a compound in a Pakistani military town near Islamabad, just a stone’s throw from a military academy.
Pakistan reacted with embarrassment, insult and injury, denying it had any knowledge of bin Laden’s whereabouts or had in any way protected him. Embarrassment and outrage morphed punitive. Despite U.S. requests, Islamabad allowed Chinese military officials to inspect undestroyed portions of a secret U.S. stealth helicopter that U.S. forces had to abandon during the bin Laden raid because of mechanical failure.
Islamabad is playing a similar card in the latest imbroglio, acting the aggrieved party to “baseless” accusations while simultaneously reminding Washington that Pakistan’s important support in the Afghan conflict could be in jeopardy.
“American statements shocked us, and negate our sacrifices and successes in the ongoing war against terror,” Pakistan Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gillani said.
“The blame game should end, and Pakistan’s sensitive national interests should be respected.”
Other officials accused Washington of playing a “blame game” because it couldn’t stop the Haqqani infiltration and attacks despite tens of thousands of troops, and because it was “losing” the war in Afghanistan.
It was then reported that top military commanders met to discuss potential military threats to the country by U.S. forces, and that China was lavishly praised as an “all-weather” friend during a visit to Islamabad by a Chinese security official.
If a rose by any other name is still a rose, then the same could he said for blackmail. Pakistan’s hand in dealing with Washington and NATO comprises its ports and roads, through and on which 30% to 50% of supplies for troops in Afghanistan pass.
The United States provides Pakistan with billions of dollars in civilian and military aid. Washington could cut back on that funding, but there are the roads and ports to consider.
“I think Pakistan is overplaying its hand by defying the United States so brazenly,” Curtis said. “The United States does have some options, but they are not cost-free options.”
In short, it comes down to political will in Washington. And that is an iffy question.
Initially, the White House reacted to Mullen’s statement by calling on Pakistan to dismantle all links it has to the Haqqani network.
“We know that the Haqqani network was responsible for the attacks on our embassy in Kabul,” White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said.
“We know that the Haqqani network operates from safe havens in Pakistan, and that the government of Pakistan has not taken action against those safe havens. This has been a longstanding concern of the United States, and one that we discussed with Pakistan, in public and in private.”
Carney and unidentified U.S. military officials in Washington, however, are reported to have since quibbled over Mullen’s use of language—the semantics—involved in his statements.
That’s not surprising. Mullen’s comments sparked outrage on Capitol Hill and a warning by Senate Armed Services Committee member Lindsey Graham that all options, including military, are on the table in dealing with Pakistan’s terrorist links and continued U.S.-Pakistan relations.
The fact that the accusations were leveled by Mullen, long a supporter of Pakistan in the War on Terror, is something that no one can ignore, and calls for action won’t be a dribble.
“I am losing people, and I am just not going to stand for that,” Mullen said in a later interview with the Wall Street Journal.
“I have been Pakistan’s best friend. What does it say when I am at that point [of making the information public]? What does it say about where we are?”
The Heritage Foundation’s Curtis believes the Obama administration contributed to the situation by giving a year certain for full U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan (2014). Pakistan may be trying to more rapidly ensure influence in Afghanistan if the Taliban should return to strong postwar influence, if not power itself.
The Haqqani network, allied with the Taliban and promoted by Pakistan for participation in Afghan peace talks, is one route to that. So too the Afghan Taliban itself, which enjoys safe haven in Pakistan’s tribal areas near the border with Afghanistan.
The Haqqani network is an Islamist organization based in Pakistan’s North Waziristan and conducts operations mainly in Afghanistan’s Paktia, Paktika, Wardak and Khost provinces, as well as in Kabul Province.
It is believed to receive funding from supporters in the Gulf, and has as many as 15,000 gunmen and operatives.
Its supreme leader is Jalaluddin Haqqani, who developed ties with the ISI when he fought Soviet forces with support from Pakistan and the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency. He also held a cabinet post during the Taliban regime in Kabul, which allowed al-Qaeda training bases in the country.
Pakistan is obviously playing a double game of selective counterterrorism insurgency—fight those groups in the countries that directly threaten the Islamabad government, while turning a blind eye or supporting those conducting violence in Afghanistan or in archrival India, with whom it has fought three wars.
Those either receiving support or benign neglect are said to be the Haqqani network and Afghan Taliban, and Lashkar-e-Taiba. The Afghan Taliban and the Haqqani can further Pakistani influence in a postwar Afghanistan and thus blunt Indian ties to the country.
Lashkar-e-Taiba is officially outlawed in Pakistan, yet also serves a purpose. It uses violence against India in Kashmir, a Himalayan region divided by Pakistan and India, and a military flash point between the two. The group is believed responsible for the 2008 attacks on hotels in Mumbai, India, that left scores dead.
Pakistan, accused by Indian politicians of complicity in the attacks, proclaims its innocence.
Under attack in Pakistan, however, is the Pakistan Taliban, which is trying to take over Pakistan and has resorted to suicide bombings to do so. Also in its gunsights are a variety of tribal and regional separatist groups as well as sectarian gunmen.
Al-Qaeda is also targeted, and for good reason. Terrorism experts say the group’s operatives appear to be acting as mediator between rival anti-Islamabad terror cells.
The dirty laundry between Washington and Islamabad is now in the public domain, and American power and prestige—not to mention American lives—are the stake.
As the old English proverb goes, “With friends like these …”