Outgoing chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, caused a ruckus in both Washington and Islamabad when he stated flatly before the Senate Armed Services Committee that the Taliban-supported terrorist group Haqqani was “a veritable arm” of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency (ISI). Although this didn’t come as a surprise to those following the US-Pakistan saga, what was stunning was the fact that he uttered the charge on the record — a first for the US government. The United States has been complaining to the Pakistani government privately for years about the duplicity and treachery of the ISI as they support the Afghanistan Taliban and the Haqqani terrorist network as a matter of state policy. However, actually charging the ISI with collusion in attacks on Americans escalated the tensions between the two countries to historic levels.
The Pakistani government reacted angrily to the charges and thousands took to the streets around the country to protest against what they perceive as American threats to deal with the Haqqani network on their own. The government also went out of its way to praise China as an “all-weather friend” as a reminder to the US that they have a few cards to play in the region as well.
The State Department sought to distance itself from Mullen’s remarks even while putting the finishing touches on designating Haqqani a foreign terrorist group. Why this hasn’t happened before is due to the fading hope that the terrorists could play a meaningful role in peace talks between the Afghanistan government and the Taliban. Recent attacks against our embassy in Kabul and our soldiers at a NATO outpost by the terrorists would seem to have dashed whatever forlorn hope was harbored in the State Department that Haqqani could be relied upon as a partner for peace.
Meanwhile, the Obama White House tried to tone down the rhetoric, hoping to bridge the chasm that has suddenly opened between the two countries by refusing to endorse Mullen’s remarks. And Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met for several hours with Pakistan’s foreign minister last week and emerged saying the right things about “cooperation” and “vital strategic interests.”
But unlike past dust-ups over border incursions from Pakistan into Afghanistan by the Taliban and Pakistan’s perceived lack of aggressiveness in fighting terrorists in the rugged Northwest Frontier Provinces, the underlying contradictions in US-Pakistani relations are in the open, and both governments feel the need to defend themselves.
What are those contradictions? At bottom, the question that must be asked of Pakistan is: are they friend or foe?
Ever since the take down of Osama bin Laden in an al-Qaeda safe house 60 miles from the capitol Islamabad, relations have been steadily deteriorating. But despite the perfidy of the Pakistani military and the ISI, a break in relations would only assist the terrorists and destabilize Afghanistan even more than it is now. However, this “escalation” by the Pakistani military in directly countenancing attacks on US citizens must be dealt with and condemned or there simply is no hope in going forward with the Pakistanis on any reasonable basis.
Pakistani commentator Aqil Shah, writing in Foreign Affairs, cheered Mullen’s comments, calling them “the most direct and daring official U.S. indictment of the Pakistani military to date,” and pointed out that the Pakistani military’s game has a lot to do with their concerns about India gaining a foothold in Afghanistan:
Ideally, the military would like Afghanistan to become a relatively stable satellite dominated by Islamist Pashtuns, which are much less likely than more secular Pashtuns to make irredentist claims on Pakistan’s own Pashtun regions, or bow to Indian influence. The military’s worst-case scenario would be an Afghanistan controlled or dominated by groups with ties to India, such as the Northern Alliance, which it fears would permit New Delhi to continue activities that are hostile to Pakistan even after the United States leaves the region.
Admiral Mullen made some other interesting comments at that senate hearing as well. He said, “With ISI support, Haqqani operatives planned and conducted that truck bomb attack” on September 10 that killed 5 and wounded 77 coalition soldiers. Mullen added, “We also have credible evidence that they were behind the June 28th attack against the Intercontinental Hotel in Kabul and a host of other smaller but effective operations.”
The State Department leaked to the Washington Post: “Adm. Mike Mullen’s assertion last week that an anti-American insurgent group in Afghanistan is a ‘veritable arm’ of Pakistan’s spy service was overstated and contributed to overheated reactions in Pakistan and misperceptions in Washington.”
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