The Next Showdown in U.S.-Pakistan Relations

Fresh tests await the epically dysfunctional partnership

Last month’s agreement on NATO supply routes provided some hope that the two-year long free fall in U.S.-Pakistani relations was at an end.  But new serious tests await the epically dysfunctional partnership.

One sign of the tensions that remain is Islamabad’s mounting accusations that the U.S.-led NATO coalition in Afghanistan has turned a blind eye to Pakistani Taliban fighters who launch attacks into Pakistan from sanctuaries in Afghanistan.  One such attack last month resulted in the deaths of at least 13 Pakistani soldiers, seven of whom were decapitated.

Given Islamabad’s egregiously duplicitous actions in Afghanistan, the complaints must strike many U.S. officials as highly ironic and perhaps even tinged with poetic justice.  The issue sparked a tense public exchange two weeks ago between Douglas E. Lute, President Obama’s point person on AfPak policy, and Sherry Rehman, Pakistan’s ambassador in Washington.  After Rehman complained that “critical masses of people” are being allowed to mount cross-border incursions from Kunar and Nuristan provinces in northeastern Afghanistan, Lute fired back:

“There’s no comparison of the Pakistani Taliban’s relatively recent, small-in-scale presence inside Afghanistan to the decades-long experience and relationship between elements of the Pakistani government and the Afghan Taliban.  To compare these is simply unfair.”

The NATO command in Kabul also followed up with an unusually blunt rebuttal to Rehman’s accusations, citing the need for Islamabad to take stronger action against the Haqqani network, the brutal mafia enterprise/militia group that has emerged as the most formidable insurgent force in Afghanistan.  The group, whose top leadership is based in the North Warizistan section of Pakistan’s semi-autonomous tribal areas, has long enjoyed a close relationship with the country’s security establishment.  In early 2008, U.S. intelligence intercepted a telephone conversation in which General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, who had then just been appointed chief of the Pakistani army after serving a three-year stint as director of the powerful Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency, characterized the head of the Haqqani network as a “strategic asset.”

In testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee last September, Admiral Mike Mullen, then-chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, asserted that “the government of Pakistan and most especially the Pakistani army” along with ISI have chosen “to use violent extremism as an instrument of policy” in an effort to exert strategic influence in Afghanistan. In particular, he charged that the Haqqani network operates as “a veritable arm” of ISI. He further stated that the network, acting “with ISI support,” was responsible for a series of high-profile assaults, including a truck bombing at a US base in Wardak province that wounded 77 NATO troops, and day-long strikes on the US embassy and NATO headquarters in Kabul that coincided with the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks.

Among the group’s handiwork this year is a June 1st assault on Camp Salerno, one of the largest U.S. bases in Afghanistan, which killed two Americans and seriously wounded dozens of troops.  The event prompted Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta to bluntly warn Islamabad that “We are reaching the limits of our patience.”  It also reportedly caused Washington to think seriously about ending the relationship with Islamabad.  According to the New York Times:

“Inside the administration, it is a commonly held view that the United States is ‘one major attack’ away from unilateral action against Pakistan — diplomatically or perhaps even militarily, one senior official said. ‘If 50 U.S. troops were blown to smithereens by the Haqqanis, or they penetrated the U.S. Embassy in Kabul and killed several diplomats — that would be the game changer,’ he said.”

In recent days, Afghan security forces reported (here and here) that they disrupted Haqqani plots for mass attacks in Kabul, including planned assaults on the parliament and the residence of the country’s second vice president.  Pakistani identification cards, currency and phone numbers were recovered during the raids. (A side note: The Combating Terrorism Center at West Point has released a new report shedding light on Pakistani financial and logistical support to the group.)

The Times also provides details on another aspect of the festering antagonisms between Washington and Islamabad.  It quotes a senior U.S. official as saying ISI:

“now treats its American counterparts with deep hostility. C.I.A. visas are frequently refused, and its officials are periodically stopped and searched. Meanwhile, Pakistani employees of the American Embassy and consulates have come under intense intimidation: subjected to strip searches, kept in prison for weeks, induced to ‘turn’ against America, and sometimes threatened with weapons, the official said. ‘It’s Moscow rules,’ he said. ‘The ISI has become very K.G.B.-like — but without the restraint.’”

Seeking to calm things, the new ISI director, Lieutenant General Zahir ul-Islam, traveled to Washington last week, the first visit by an ISI chief in a year.  His discussions with U.S. officials were publicly described as “substantive, professional and productive.”  His request for concessions on the U.S. campaign of drone warfare in the tribal areas was deflected but the Wall Street Journal reports that progress was made on a new joint arrangement that would curb militant groups on both sides of the Afghan-Pakistan border from launching attacks into either country.  Pakistani officials, however, promptly threw cold water on the report.

Yesterday, Defense Secretary Panetta told the Associated Press that General Kayani has assured U.S. officials that Pakistan will launch an offensive into North Warizistan in the “near future,” though the main target will be the Pakistani Taliban rather than the Haqqani network.

Washington’s forbearance on the Haqqani issue is increasingly thin.  General Islam had barely departed Washington when President Obama signed legislation that opens the door to the group being declared a “foreign terrorist organization.” If such a declaration is made – and the law requires a decision by the administration within a month – it would in turn place Pakistan in jeopardy of being branded a state sponsor of terrorism, which could trigger the imposition of sanctions at a time when Islamabad is looking for a financial lifeline from the International Monetary Fund.

Congressional pressure for a tougher line vis-à-vis Islamabad is also building.  The White House’s new budget request for foreign assistance for the country ran into a scathing bipartisan reception.  Concerns about the administration’s approach to the Haqqani issue played a role in delaying until next month at the earliest Senate confirmation of President Obama’s nominee for the next ambassador to Pakistan.  And in Washington policy circles there is increasing talk (here, here and here) about the necessity of “containing” Islamabad.

As a previous post noted, Islamabad is increasingly isolated diplomatically and running out of strategic options in Afghanistan.  Its actions vis-à-vis the Haqqani clan in the coming weeks will provide a significant clue about whether anyone in the Pakistani high command has woken up to this fact.

This commentary is cross-posted on Chanakya’s Notebook, my blog on South Asia.  I invite you to join me on Facebook and follow me on Twitter.

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