Pakistan: Now Or Never?
The United States has turned on Pakistan with such dizzying speed over the past few weeks that it is difficult to keep pace. Yet what is clear after Admiral Mike Mullen’s extraordinarily blunt statement that the Haqqani militant network is a “veritable arm” of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency is that it now has the Pakistan army very firmly in its sights.
Mullen accused the ISI, which is effectively a wing of the Pakistan army, of supporting the Haqqani network in a truck bomb attack on a U.S. base in Afghanistan and an assault on the U.S. embassy in Kabul which led to a 20-hour siege. “We also have credible intelligence that they (the Haqqani network) were behind the June 28 attack against the Inter-Continental Hotel in Kabul and a host of other smaller but effective operations,” he said.
It was the most forthright assertion yet by the Americans that the Pakistani military is not merely turning a blind eye to militant groups based on its border with Afghanistan but actively encouraging them to attack American interests. The Pakistan army says it is overstretched as it is tackling militant groups which target Pakistan without creating new enemies by attacking Afghan militants and denies it retains links with the Haqqani network.
Just one month ago in a report titled “Pakistan, the United States and the End Game in Afghanistan” a group describing themselves as “the foreign policy elite” laid out what Pakistan wanted to happen in Afghanistan. Among their suggestions were that both the Afghan Taliban led by Mullah Mohammed Omar and the Haqqani network be included in talks on a political settlement in Afghanistan. The report was heavily criticised by those who saw it as an attempt by Pakistan to maintain its old policy of “strategic depth” – using militant proxies to stamp its influence on Afghanistan and counter India.
It looks like the United States is having none of it. I dislike the expression “end-game” applied to either Afghanistan or Pakistan (or Britain for that matter) with its implication that the people living in those countries come to an end when outside powers lose interest. But it is worth considering the expression just to show how much has changed. The so-called “end-game” is now in Pakistan.
That is not to say there are not worsening problems in Afghanistan itself, especially with the assassination of peace council chairman Burhanuddin Rabbani “laying open again the fracture lines” of civil war, as Kate Clark wrote at the Afghanistan Analysts Network. Nor is to suggest thatanyone disputes the need for a political settlement in Afghanistan. Nor indeed that American tactics and strategy in Afghanistan are not open to criticism – Pakistan repeatedly says it is being used as a scapegoat for U.S. failures in Afghanistan. And nor would it be fair to dismiss Pakistan’s own concerns that by going after the Haqqani network – with its links to the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan and other militant groups – it would face even greater violence on its own soil. Those are all subjects which merit separate and serious discussion.
But it is to say that the particular end-game going on now is between the United States and the Pakistan army. Look closely at the proposition being made by Washington. According to Mullen’s testimony Pakistan – and specifically its army – must give up support for the Afghan Taliban (the so-called Quetta shura Taliban) and the Haqqani network. In return the United States will help Pakistan find “an increasing role for democratic, civilian institutions and civil society in determining Pakistan’s fate.”
Whatever language you couch that in, that is quite a difficult proposition for the Pakistan army. First it is being asked to turn on old militant proxies which for decades it saw as its main leverage against both India and a hostile Afghanistan and which for the ISI in particular were a considerable source of power. Second the army – an institution which is used to being the most powerful in Pakistan – is being asked to relinquish its dominance and cede its place to a civilian democracy. Third, even if it were willing to give up some of its power – and the considerable economic advantages that go with it – it would need to make a leap of faith that Pakistan’s warring and often corrupt politicians could get their act together to govern the country effectively.
Yet the message that appears to be being delivered by the Americans with increasing force is that if it resists, it will lose. Unlike during the Cold War when Pakistan was able to exploit U.S.-Soviet rivalry to maintain its position against India, Pakistan is looking very isolated right now. In the anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan in the 1980s it had American and Saudi support. This time around it is hard to find any country which will help it.
In Afghanistan ordinary people are opening blaming the ISI for the country’s troubles. Russia is worried about instability in Afghanistan spilling over into the former Soviet Central Asia and about drug smuggling pushing up the numbers of heroin addicts whose growth is already gnawing away at its economy. Moscow has been more resistant even than the United States to the idea of taking former Taliban off a UN sanctions list to create a better climate for talks. Relations with neighbouring Iran tend to go up and down, but are not helped by a spate of killings of Shi’ites by Sunni extremists in Pakistan. China is interested only in stability and securing its access through Pakistan to oil supplies and raw materials. For all Pakistan’s “deeper than the oceans” faith in Chinese friendship, it is unlikely to ride to its rescue in a confrontation with the United States over Afghanistan.
Ironically, India is being projected as a way out of the quagmire with the prospect of regional trade offered as a solution to Pakistan’s deepening economic gloom. But India – indeed far more than the United States – has tended to be more suspicious of the Pakistan military and the government has justified to its domestic critics the current peace process as a way of supporting civilian democracy in Pakistan.
So the question we need to ask is this. Will the Pakistan army fold? Institutions do not give up power easily and arguably the Pakistan army as an institution is more powerful than the individuals who lead it.
In many ways this is like a rerun of the Kargil war writ large. In 1999, the Pakistan army occupied mountain positions in the Kargil region on the Line of Control separating the Indian and Pakistani parts of the former kingdom of Jammu and Kashmir – its troops encroaching on part of the territory that was supposed to be under Indian control. In doing so, it breached a 1972 agreement with India that neither side would attempt to change the Line of Control, or ceasefire line, by force.
There was in fact an underlying – though heavily contested – logic to Pakistan’s actions in Kargil. Pakistan considered India’s occupation of Siachen (in the Karakoram mountains beyond the Line of Control) in 1984 as a similar breach of the 1972 Simla agreement. Since the late 1980s – or so I have been told by one of the generals involved – it had thought about occupying the heights above Kargil as a way of training its artillery on the main road from Kashmir towards Siachen, thereby cutting off the Indian army’s supply route.
Yet the Pakistan army had over-reached. It first denied that it had any troops in Kargil at all, saying that mujahideen and irregulars had moved into positions in the mountains as part of their campaign to free Indian Kashmir from what it calls Indian occupation. In an odd foreshadowing of the current situation in Afghanistan, it chose to launch its Kargil war at a time when India and Pakistan were engaged in peace talks. After a brief and bitter war with India, the Pakistan army was forced by international pressure — especially from the United States but more discreetly from China – into a humiliating retreat.
This time around the Pakistan army appears to have over-reached in a way which could prove to be its undoing. It has taken on the United States – a declining but still superpower – in Afghanistan. The issue here is not really who is right or wrong but rather which country can bring the greater force to bear and the greater international leverage.
The other possibility is that the confrontation between the Pakistan army and the United States could become more and more dangerous. But with its very public comments on the Haqqanis and the ISI, the United States has just rolled a dice that it hopes and believes is weighted in its favour.