With friends like Pakistan, the U.S. doesn't need enemies

Pakistan is helping insurgents. Could that be seen as an act of war?

With friends like these, who needs...

Shah Marai/AFP/Getty Images

The United States has never directly attacked Pakistan’s premier spy agency, the Directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), despite the ISI’s long-standing ties to Islamist militias and terrorist groups opposed to the U.S. and its allies. Yet Pakistani spies occasionally still die from American bombs.

In 1998, the Clinton administration launched cruise missiles at jihadist training camps in Afghanistan in retaliation for al-Qaeda’s bombing of two American embassies in East Africa. The missiles missed Osama bin Laden but killed a team of ISI agents training militants at the camps.

In November 2001, as many as 1,000 ISI agents and Pakistani soldiers from the Frontier Corps found themselves trapped in the Afghan city of Kunduz—along with their Taliban allies and members of al-Qaeda and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan. The Pakistanis had been ordered to leave Afghanistan after 9/11 and had had two months to do so, but they decided to stay and fight with the Taliban instead. The Pakistanis might have reasonably expected to share the fate of their compatriots who died as collateral damage in the American cruise missile attacks three years earlier. Instead, Pakistan asked for and received U.S. permission to send rescue planes. Along with the airlifted ISI agents and Pakistani soldiers were Taliban commanders and international jihadists, including al-Qaeda.

And earlier this year, the Pakistani government loudly condemned an American drone attack on a market in the village of Datta Khel, in North Waziristan. The Pakistanis said innocent tribal elders had been killed. An American official offered New Yorker reporter Dexter Filkins another explanation: “It turns out there were some ISI guys who were there with the insurgent leaders. We killed them, too.”

What all this history means is that when Admiral Mike Mullen, who retired last month as America’s top military officer, accused the ISI of backing insurgents who attacked the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, his comments were surprising more for their candour than content.

Mullen told a Senate panel that the Haqqani network, a militant group based in North Waziristan and the southeastern Afghan provinces of Khost, Paktia, and Paktika—and once an ally of the United States during the anti-Soviet jihad—acts as a “veritable arm” of the ISI. “With ISI support, Haqqani operatives planned and conducted a truck bomb attack [on Sept. 11] as well as the assault on our embassy [on Sept. 13],” he said. “We also have credible intelligence that they were behind the 28 June attack against the Inter-Continental Hotel in Kabul and a host of other smaller but effective operations.”

Pakistan predictably condemned Mullen’s statements, and Washington tried to distance itself from them. Asked if he agreed with Mullen that the Haqqanis are a “veritable arm” of the ISI, White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters: “It’s not language I would use.” Carney didn’t say Mullen’s claims weren’t true. He couldn’t. While some analysts may differ over exactly how much influence the ISI exercises over the Haqqani network, no one seriously disputes that the bonds exist.

“There has been no question over the last several years that the United States, the Canadians and the British have put together a good picture of the Haqqani network’s links with the Pakistani government, including Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate,” says Seth Jones, a senior political scientist at the RAND Corporation who recently worked in the Pentagon on counter-insurgency in Afghanistan and Pakistan. “That doesn’t mean that Pakistan controls all aspects of the Haqqani network, but it does mean they provide them a sanctuary in North Waziristan. It does mean that they have provided some financial assistance. They’ve provided some information, intelligence. They’ve provided some tactical and operational aid, including non-lethal and possibly lethal assistance. But it doesn’t mean they control them, per se.”

Stripped down to its most basic level, this leaves the United States in a messy and unseemly position. Pakistan is a supposed American ally and receives more than $2 billion a year in aid as a result. In return, its spies back a group that attacks the U.S. Embassy—American soil—in Kabul, and other American targets besides. It’s not much of a stretch to see this as an act of war. And yet in the wake of Mullen’s comments, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said only that relations between the United States and Pakistan were “very difficult and complex,” adding, “but I also believe strongly that we have to work together despite those difficulties.”

Pakistan’s ties to the Haqqani network are decades old and fit in with its larger strategy of pursuing foreign policy goals through proxy militias and terrorist groups. Pakistan’s primary enemy is India. Rather than confronting it directly, it sponsors insurgents in Kashmir, and groups such as Lashkar-e-Taiba, which is widely believed to be responsible for the 2008 terrorist attacks in Mumbai.

Pakistan’s links to the Taliban and other insurgents in Afghanistan must also be seen through this prism. Pakistan fears encirclement and believes a government in Kabul that is friendly to India would accomplish this. It wants “strategic depth” in Afghanistan—a secure rear flank. If it can’t control the Afghan government, it wants to destabilize it. And it wants alliances with insurgent groups that can hold Afghan territory. The Haqqanis, with their territorial base along the border and ability to penetrate Kabul, provide this. But they are also unique, and uniquely dangerous, among Afghan insurgents.

This summer, West Point’s Combating Terrorism Center published a research paper describing the Haqqani network as a “nexus player” among Afghan and Pakistani insurgent groups, as well as militants with more global ambitions, such as al-Qaeda. The network is their “primary local partner,” giving them sanctuary and protection to plan and launch attacks, write authors Vahid Brown and Don Rassler.

This is risky for Pakistan, Brown told Maclean’s. “It can have blowback against the state,” he says. While the Haqqanis have not attacked the Pakistani state, al-Qaeda has—as have the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, or Pakistani Taliban, another Haqqani partner. The Haqqanis have functioned as diplomatic liaisons between Pakistan and the Pakistani Taliban, which is useful for Pakistan, but the fact remains that hundreds of Pakistani soldiers have died fighting friends of its Haqqani allies. Pakistan is also playing a messy and dangerous game.

Admiral Mullen’s broadside against Pakistan’s spy agency—which he has pointedly not retracted—suggests an American craving for a less duplicitous relationship with Pakistan. But despite public rhetoric to the contrary, the two countries don’t share many goals in the region.

“We have tried to gloss over the fact that we have very big differences with the Pakistanis over the endgame in Afghanistan,” says Ashley Tellis, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “We want to leave behind an Afghan state this is both self-sufficient and independent. And the Pakistanis want an Afghan state that will be dependent on them and more solicitous of their interests in comparison to, say, the interests of the Iranians, the Indians, or even the Afghans themselves. Our objectives, Afghanistan’s objectives, and Pakistan’s objectives simply don’t add up.”

Pakistani co-operation “will always be limited and constrained,” Tellis adds, “unless the United States changes its objectives and in effect says, ‘We are willing to surrender Afghanistan to Pakistani hegemony.’ ” Instead, Tellis suggests a relationship that is even more explicitly “transactional” than it already is. “These are our objectives. We need these achieved. To the degree that you do this co-operatively, this is what we’re willing to put on the table. And if you’re not willing to do those things co-operatively, this is what we’re going to take off the table,” he says. “To my mind what matters most to the Pakistani army is big-ticket military toys. It’s all the stuff they want because they have their fears of war with India.”

When it comes to cracking down on the Haqqanis, though, even if the Pakistani army wanted to do so—which it doesn’t—it probably can’t. “We’re pushing the Pakistani military to do things that are beyond their capability, even though they are the only organization in Pakistan that works,” says Stephen Cohen, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. “This is a country where everything is failing. In a failing state, even the best organization has limited capability.” If the Pakistani military were to invade the Haqqani heartland in North Waziristan, for example, it would mean taking on all of the network’s allies that are sharing its sanctuary, notes Vahid Brown. “They wouldn’t just be fighting the Haqqanis, they’d be fighting a civil war.”

This leaves the United States with unilateral options. It is exercising some already. The U.S. has launched drone strikes against Haqqani members in Pakistan; these could be increased. Americans are also fighting the Haqqanis in eastern Afghanistan. Seth Jones suggests expanding the fight in Pakistan, where many of the insurgents fighting in Afghanistan have a safe haven. “At what point, and what are the costs and benefits, of doing what has not been done yet, which is targeting the Taliban command and control structure across the border?” he asks. “I think at the very least you’d want to do at least one targeted capture of a senior Taliban official in Pakistan and see how this plays itself out. Because if that sanctuary is not dealt with, I do not believe that the Canadians and Americans will be able to stabilize Afghanistan.”

Stephen Cohen of Brookings also believes the United States should more aggressively hit Haqqani and other insurgent sanctuaries in Pakistan—with drones and possibly conventional air strikes rather than ground troops or raiding parties. But such an escalation comes with costs. The American raid that killed Osama bin Laden triggered an uproar in Pakistan from civilians and state officials. Raids to kill or capture Taliban officials would do the same. There’s no guarantee how Pakistani soldiers would respond to any larger incursions. And a split in the army might trigger the collapse of Pakistan’s government. A planned 2005 raid into Pakistan, involving several hundred American troops and CIA agents, was called off at the last minute, in part because of fears it would endanger relations with Pakistan.

And the Pakistanis have leverage. They could shut down NATO supply routes through Pakistan to Afghanistan. And they may shift away from America and still closer toward the Chinese. “They will probably move in a different direction strategically. Relations with the Americans will plummet. And over the long run it will cause them to be even more firm in their belief that they need to back Afghan groups from Pakistani soil,” says Jones. “I’m not saying any of this says don’t take action in Baluchistan. You just have to think carefully about what they’re going to shut down.”

Pakistan’s greatest leverage may be its fragility, says Cohen. “Mullen and others can imagine what a failed Pakistan would look like: a nuclear weapons state with the capability of producing terrorists roaming around the world. People are afraid of that. Pakistan is too nuclear to fail. And nobody wants to see Pakistan fail. And that’s a great asset for Pakistan. Pakistan can threaten to fail.”

This means that the United States, when confronted with a supposed friend whose spies nurture and protect those killing its soldiers, has limited and unpalatable options. “There are no good policies and no good outcomes,” says Cohen. “At least we could face them honestly.”

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