The Admiral’s Swan Song

Admiral Mullen long thought to be a friend of Pakistan (by Pakistanis) with a special rapport with its leadership made what he said was his last appearance before the US Senate Armed Services Committee. In his testimony Admiral Mullen last Thursday blamed Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) for aiding the Haqqani Network in launching attacks on US Embassy and NATO headquarters in Kabul. He called the Haqqanis a “veritable arm of the ISI”. Panetta had earlier hinted at US strikes in North Waziristan if the Haqqanis were not taken on by the Pakistan military. The White House on Friday called on Pakistan to sever ties with Haqqanis. Admiral Mullen also said –”in choosing to use violent extremism as an instrument of policy, the government of Pakistan, and most especially the Pakistani army and ISI, jeopardizes not only the prospect of our strategic partnership but Pakistan’s opportunity to be a respected nation with legitimate regional influence. They may believe that by using these proxies, they are hedging their bets or redressing what they feel is an imbalance in regional power. But in reality, they have already lost that bet.”

Mullen is the first American official to directly and publicly link Pakistan’s intelligence agency to the attacks and this indicates a change in the US approach to Islamabad. “In the past, US criticism of Pakistan had been mostly relayed in private conversations with the countries’ leaders while American officials publicly offered encouraging words for Islamabad’s participation in the terror fight. In recent days, US officials have been explicit in linking the government to extremists who are attacking American forces in Afghanistan”. “With ISI support, Haqqani operatives planned and conducted that truck bomb attack, as well as the assault on our embassy,” Mullen told the Senate Armed Services Committee. He also said the United States had credible information that Haqqani extremists, with help from the Pakistani intelligence agency, were responsible for the June 28 attack on the Inter-Continental Hotel in Kabul and other small but effective assaults—.” “Even the usually composed Ryan C. Crocker, the US ambassador, abandoned caution and issued undiplomatic statements pointing the finger at Pakistan. The evidence on which these serious allegations are based has not been shared. “Military and intelligence media managers were quick to lay the blame at Pakistan’s door without explaining why the US military, CIA, NATO, the Afghan national army and police failed to secure the area between Kabul and Pakistan’s border, assuming that that is the route taken by the attackers as US officials allege” (Oziforum). The Haqqani Network, a former potent US ally in the war against the Soviets in Afghanistan has also not been targeted by the Drone strikes nor has it been declared a terrorist organization.

General Kayani’s response was carefully worded and had three elements—surprise that the Admiral had said what he did because he knew of those who had contact with the Haqqani Network implying that Pakistan was not the only one in contact, indignation because what had been stated was contrary to the discussion in their meeting about public statements and finally denial of all the allegations leveled by the Admiral that Pakistan had supported attacks in Afghanistan and was supporting cross border activity. While taking note of the recent statements made by Admiral Mullen, General Kayani, termed these as “very unfortunate and not based on facts’, — he said that ‘the allegations are especially disturbing in view of a rather constructive meeting with Admiral Mullen in Spain’. On the specific question of contacts with Haqqanis, he said that “Admiral Mullen knows fully well which countries are in contact with the Haqqanis. Singling out Pakistan is neither fair nor productive.” Pakistan’s political leadership also made statements of denial and outrage. The CENTCOM commander has visited Pakistan after these exchanges and has had meetings with the military and political leadership. General Kayani has chaired a special conference of the Corps Commanders. The usual purpose of such a conference is to brief the commanders and elicit their views as well as review preparations for all contingencies to deal with possible internal and external situations. The political leadership is busy in interacting and developing a consensus position on the developments taking place.

The downhill descent in US-Pakistan relations began with the Raymond Davis affair and gained momentum with the unilateral action by the US to take out Osama bin Laden. It has come to a head with the attack in the heart of Kabul because this attack coming in the wake of several high profile assassinations has highlighted the failure of the US/ISAF in Afghanistan. The men testifying before the Senate Armed Forces Committee were desperate men trying to justify the Afghan venture and laying the blame at Pakistan’s door. Listening to them one could almost believe that all that stands between the US and victory is the Haqqani Network. Pakistan’s contacts with the Haqqani Network and others does not mean that Pakistan is supporting or directing them — such contacts should be seen in the context of an uncertain and fluid situation with many vying for a place in post reconciliation Afghanistan. For Pakistan, with its long land border with Afghanistan, a Pashtun population that straddles the border and India trying for a role in Afghanistan, the stakes are very high. The Pentagon has said that the relationship with the Pakistan military would continue and this indicates the reality that the US and Pakistan have to work together for success in Afghanistan — but first they have to be on the same page. This cannot happen if the US chooses to publicly blame Pakistan while privately talking to it. Public posturing to cover up lapses and failures cannot build trust and lead to an understanding on strategic issues — it will keep us mired in minor tactical issues. In Brussels General Kayani had expressed reservations on the 2014 deadline and his opinion was based on the reality of the Afghan situation and the status of its police, security forces and governance. The US is set to pull out 10000 troops this year and another 23000 by next summer. Beyond that there is no clarity or certainty especially when the US is trying for an agreement with the Afghan government over bases and troops presence even as it talks of reconciliation — a process that if Afghan led would include all the factions. The assassination of Burhanuddin Rabbani is the Taliban / Al Qaeda answer to what they see as double speak — the reconciliation process is now in serious jeopardy. Pakistan thinks the military operations have run their course and the political process to resolve the situation must be single mindedly pursued.

The current stand-off between the US and Pakistan has been triggered by the US through their public statements and a media onslaught that has targeted the military and ISI from various angles. For Pakistanis the allegations now being made are in line with the overall US strategy that started with Raymond Davis progressed through Osama bin Laden and now has the Haqqani Network and possibly Pakistan in its cross hairs. Has the US given up on Pakistan? The tail end of Admiral Mullen’s testimony is significant — “We must and will remain steadfast partners with Afghanistan and, yes, work closely with Pakistan, as difficult or as uneven as that relationship might be — And we must continue to work with the government and military in Pakistan to forge a constructive relationship. I have spent a great amount of time during the past four years cultivating a relationship with Pakistan’s military. I have been dedicated to this task because I know the importance of this relationship, strained as it is, and because I recognize the difficulties Pakistan has had and the many sacrifices it has made in its own internal fight against terrorism. And despite deep personal disappointments in the decisions of the Pakistani military and government, I still believe that we must stay engaged. This is because while Pakistan is part of the problem in the region, it must also be part of the solution. A flawed and strained engagement with Pakistan is better than disengagement. We have completely disengaged in the past. That disengagement failed and brings us where we are today. Thus, our engagement requires a combination of patience with understanding what is in Pakistan’s national interests, and a clear-eyed assessment about what is in ours. Even in the midst of extraordinary challenges in our relationship today, I believe we can take advantage of this situation and reframe U.S.-Pakistan relations. While the relationship must be guided by some clear principles to which both sides adhere, we can no longer simply focus on the most obvious issues. We must begin to address the problems that lie beneath the surface. We must also move beyond counter-terrorism to address long term foundations of Pakistan’s success — to help the Pakistanis find realistic nd productive ways to achieve their aspirations of prosperity and security. Those foundations must include improved trade relations with the United States and an increasing role for democratic, civilian institutions and civil society in determining Pakistan’s fate. We should help the Pakistani people address internal security challenges as well as issues of economic development, electricity generation, and water security. We should promote Indo-Pak cooperation and strategic dialogue. We should also help create more stakeholders in Pakistan’s success by expanding the discussion and including the international community; isolating the people of Pakistan from the world right now would be counter-productive—.”

In Pakistan, the military, the politicians, the media and public opinion are on the same page. There is consensus on the reaction to the US and response to what the US might do. It might be useful to note what some analysts think of a deliberate escalation by the US. On the US-Pakistan relationship Zahid hussein has written that — “ implicit in Obama’s words, and explicit in his actions, is a continued willingness to escalate US armed intervention in Pakistan should Pakistani cooperation prove insufficient. The alliance between the US and the Pakistani military remains, therefore, a relationship between parties viewing one another through gun-sights. Each side blames the other for putting its citizens in grave danger, and each is correct to do so.” “The real risk which must be avoided at all costs, is of “open intervention of US ground forces in Pakistan. For if ordered by their commanders not to resist, parts of the Pakistani army would mutiny in order to fight the invaders, and in such an eventuality Islamist upheaval and the collapse of the state would indeed be all too likely — not even the greatest imaginable benefits of US–Indian friendship could compensate for the actual collapse of Pakistan, with all the frightful dangers this would create not just for the West but for India too’ says Anatole Lieven. Zahid Hussein has also noted that — “By backing the Northern Alliance against the Taliban and then failing to include a meaningful representation of Pashtuns in a power-sharing deal in Kabul, the US not only sided with India in the Indian–Pakistani proxy war in Afghanistan, it also elevated a coalition of Afghanistan’s smaller ethnicities above its largest ethnic group, the Pashtuns. Conflict was inevitable, and since twice as many Pashtuns live in Pakistan as in Afghanistan, it was also inevitable that this conflict would spill over the border.” Also significant is the fact there are important voices in Pakistan that are calling for a review of strategy, for political direction to change policies that are driven by past mind sets.

This is just the right time to deescalate the situation through diplomacy at the highest levels. The US and Pakistan cannot afford a rupture that would be in nobody’s interest. The relationship can and should be structured in the forum of the strategic talks. The thrust should be on addressing each others concerns to find a way forward. If this happens then Admiral Mullens’ farewell speech would have served a purpose. Finally the consequences of an escalation have been summed up by Brian Cloughley in his article ‘Is the Price Worth Paying’ He writes that — “Currently the US is threatening to invade Pakistan rather than endorse ongoing negotiations with militants in Fata. The intention was made clear when defense secretary Panetta, referring to Pakistan’s supposed support of militant operations in Afghanistan, declared that “We’re not going to allow these types of attacks to go on.”

I’ve got news for Panetta. If he imagines the Pakistan Army will be a pushover like the Iraqis, he should think again. If US forces attempt an invasion of North Waziristan they will meet reaction not only from militants but from an army which will not accept flagrant violation of national sovereignty. I know the Pakistan Army, and I state flatly that man-for-man it will hammer any opponent, no matter if the skies are horizon-filled with US bombers. Does America think this is a price worth paying?” The answer is that the price is not worth paying — neither by the US nor Pakistan.

Spearhead Analyses are the result of a collaborative effort and not attributable to a single individual.

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