A New, New Low in U.S.-Pakistan Relations

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Last week, Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen set off a landslide when he testified before Congress that the Haqqani network – a group U.S. officials call the most deadly insurgent group in Afghanistan — was a “veritable arm” of Pakistan’s main intelligence agency, the ISI. Since then, a series of tit-for-tat public statements by American and Pakistani leaders, as well as attempts by U.S. officials to downplay Adm. Mullen’s comments, have left many confused about the state of U.S.-Pakistan relations.

We talked to Daniel Markey, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, to understand the implications of  the latest developments — and just how far this relationship has deteriorated.

You’ve said that evidence of the ISI’s support for Haqqani operations in Afghanistan is hardly new.  What’s different about Adm. Mullen’s statements now that has set off such frenzy?

“For those who thought that the period immediately after the bin Laden raid was a new low in U.S.-Pakistan relations, I think we’ve discovered that it can still go lower. And things can get considerably worse.”

What’s really different now is the way that he’s characterized [the Haqqani network] as being a “veritable arm of the ISI.”  In the past, [criticism has] been characterized as Pakistan has not done enough to confront the Haqqani network, that Pakistan could do more, in particular that Pakistan could expand its military operations into North Waziristan, where [the Haqqanis] are located.

In the past, the [claim] has not been that the ISI owned and operated essentially a terrorist organization that just pulled off an attack on or near the U.S. embassy compound in Kabul.

This allegation is significantly more stark.

That you’re seeing all these challenges to it, from other unnamed administration officials who are backing away from this claim has not so much to do with this idea that the Haqqani network is a strategic asset of Pakistan’s, but more the degree to which Pakistan and the ISI control Haqqani operations.  The question inside the administration is to some degree whether it should it be characterized as a relationship quite as tight as Mullen stated and whether the evidence really shows that.

What is the evidence?

Most recently there were cellphone intercepts traced back to numbers that are apparently associated with ISI connected individuals, but that’s still a little vague.  It’s a very legalistic argument.

For many, it’s enough to say they’re connected. But the legalistic question is whether senior leaders inside of Pakistan are directing the Haqqani network to attack the United States in Afghanistan or elsewhere.  And here the evidence is a little less clear.  They’ve certainly assisted Haqqani. They’ve done little to attack Haqqani directly, but it’s less evident that they have directed them to take these particular actions.

The Washington Post reported that Pentagon officials have said that Adm. Mullen’s testimony “overstates the case” of Pakistan’s links to the Haqqani network.  And today the White House refused to endorse Mullen’s criticisms.  Is the U.S. getting tougher on Pakistan — or is this just Adm. Mullen’s approach?

When I first heard [Mullen's] testimony and I saw that he was sitting side by side with the secretary of defense and before the U.S. Congress, I assumed that this absolutely had to be that this was the United States speaking with one voice, and shifting its strategy with respect to Pakistan in a significant way.

Since then, you’ve been seeing these leaks and public statements by press folks at the White House who appear to be trying to walk this back. I find this incredibly frustrating.  This is obviously sending an incredibly mixed message to Pakistan.

If you’re working to either constructively cultivate a better working relationship with Pakistan — or on the opposite extreme, you’re seeking to send a very firm and coercive message — then you have to do it with one voice. The idea that the U.S. is sending a coercive message that’s attached to a single individual, or perhaps Panetta’s on board, but maybe the U.S. isn’t, that’s just unforgivable and completely counterproductive.

My concern today relates to this question of unity within the U.S. government. I can get on board with a coercive strategy. I can get on board with an engagement strategy, but I cannot get on board with a muddled mess of a strategy that doesn’t actually coerce or engage.  That’s what it appears we have now and it’s really troubling.

“If you’re working to either constructively cultivate a better working relationship with Pakistan, or on the opposite extreme, you’re seeking to send a very firm and coercive message, then you have to do it with one voice. …Sending an incredibly mixed message to Pakistan…that’s just unforgivable and completely counterproductive.”

Adm. Mullen said there are steps Pakistan could take to impact the Haqqanis over time.  What are those steps?

Presumably he meant stop supporting them with resources, either money, weapons, or technical assistance of any kind, and to basically over time uproot them, or make it difficult for Haqqani to find safe haven inside of Pakistan.

[In terms of what Pakistan can do], the only way to get rid of Haqqani would ultimately be to take some military action.  The problem here, first, is there are a number of military planners and strategists I’ve talked to who doubt Pakistan’s ability to undertake that kind of an operation very effectively without very significant loss of life.

Secondly, the Haqqanis have means of undermining Pakistan’s security that go well beyond the F.A.T.A. [Pakistan's Federally Administered Tribal Areas].  They’re a well-connected, highly sophisticated terrorist organization that could easily pull off attacks in other parts of Pakistan, if it chose to.  And so far, they haven’t chosen to.

So the fear among Pakistanis is quite real, and I would say fairly well-founded. They would be picking a fight with a powerful organization.

Today The New York Times reported that Pakistani military officials have conveyed their response through “public posturing,” — for example, Pakistani Army Chief Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani cancelled his visit to the United Kingdom, “stoking a sense of crisis.”  How bad is this crisis?  And how bad can it get?

This is a very bad point in the relationship. For those who thought that the period immediately after the bin Laden raid was a new low in U.S.-Pakistan relations, I think we’ve discovered that it can still go lower.  And things can get considerably worse.

It’s not surprising that Gen. Kayani and the rest of Pakistan’s leadership feel a great deal pressure from their own constituencies not to cave in to U.S. demands or threats, at least not publicly and quickly. They believe they have to show a relatively united front, a stiff resistance to things they feel are either unfair or unhelpful from Washington. So none of this posturing is especially surprising, but if the U.S. pushes the envelope, Pakistan does have cards to play.

It can shut down temporarily or for a longer period of time supply routes from Pakistan into Afghanistan. It can take diplomatic steps to kick out U.S. officials, like the ambassador, or reduce the size of U.S. presence inside of Pakistan.

It can get much, much worse, up to and including military hostilities between the two.  Neither side wants to see that, but it is possible that you get this tit-for-tat war of words escalating beyond what would make rational or objective sense for either side from the outset.

You’ve written that conflict could perhaps even escalate to the point that Pakistan shoots down U.S. drones that fly over its tribal areas.  What’s the likelihood of something like that?

Today or tomorrow? Not very high, but imagine a scenario in which the United States decides to accelerate its drone campaign in North Wazrisitan and there are considerable civilian casualties, and the Pakistan government is increasingly under pressure from the public, and the military is increasingly under pressure from its own forces not to put up with these American acts on Pakistani territory.  A drone isn’t especially hard to shoot down, so Pakistan would probably have the technical capacity. If things got that bad, it is possible.  I hope we don’t get there. We are not there right now, but it is well within the range of possibility.

On Tuesday, Pakistani Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gillani said China “categorically supports Pakistan’s efforts to uphold its sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity,” which has been perceived as veiled threat to the U.S. about Pakistan’s relationship with its adversary.  Pakistan seems to be playing the China card more and more. Will it have any effect?

I don’t think so. This has been true since May 2 [when Osama bin Laden was killed] and to some degree even before that.  Whenever Pakistan faces some international pressure, some of its leaders will try to play the China card.  I believe it to be more significant if I hear it from the Chinese. And I don’t hear it from the Chinese. At least I don’t hear a Chinese desire to interpose itself into this particular bilateral dispute between the U.S. and Pakistan. I hear silence. That doesn’t sound like a particularly strong China card.

What will be the longer-term impacts of Adm. Mullen’s very public criticisms of Pakistan?

What Mullen’s statement has done effectively is to further tie the hands of U.S. Congress when it comes to providing military assistance to Pakistan.  Because of the bin Laden raid and other events before that, there’d been a mood on the Hill to further condition assistance, to say that if Pakistan doesn’t do more to help us in Afghanistan, then military assistance would not be forthcoming.

Now that mood has hardened.  Mullen’s commentary will provide those on the Hill who are looking to cut assistance to Pakistan even more reason to do so, and will seriously undercut those who — while they recognize that Pakistan has been an imperfect or partial or frustrating partner – still thought that providing assistance might be a useful tool for the United States, at least for some period of time.  It makes their lives and jobs, far more difficult, perhaps even impossible .

By my estimate this administration will not be able to certify that Pakistan has taken steps to attack the Haqqani network anytime in the near future. If that’s the case, and if legislation stands the way it’s currently written, then it will be impossible to continue military assistance to Pakistan.

(Full disclosure: I previously conducted research for Markey at the Council’s D.C. office.)

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