The visit to Islamabad last week by Adm. Mike Mullen, Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, may have worsened rather than improved bilateral military ties in the short-run. But a little shock therapy might actually have done the US-Pakistan relationship some long-term good.
Mullen caused some controversy when he stated in a series of media interviews before his meeting with Pakistani Army Chief Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani what everyone already knows: that certain elements within Pakistan’s intelligence community retain ties with certain jihadi groups. Although after the meeting Mullen told journalists travelling with him that bilateral security ties remained strong, he acknowledged that, ‘Still, not all is brightness and light.’
He was right to highlight the continuing problems presented by this jihadi connection, and the relationship between the US and Pakistani governments can only really get stronger if both sides work on reforming Pakistan’s security sector.
It’s true that significant progress has been made in this area already, especially through four years of direct talks between Mullen and Kayani. But more needs to be done to address the trust deficit between the two countries, as well as to ensure that elements in Pakistan’s security sector don’t become a disruptive force as the US military starts to reduce its presence in Afghanistan.
Mullen was nominally travelling to Islamabad to help mend fences broken by the Raymond Davis affair. Davis was a CIA contractor working under the cover of the US Embassy in Islamabad who shot two Pakistani men in January. Davis claims that he thought the two men, who some believe might have been Pakistani intelligence agents keeping him under observation, meant to rob him. Regardless, the affair highlighted the complex relationship between the two intelligence agencies, whose members distrust one another even as they work together in joint operations.
Although a Pakistani court released Davis after compensation was paid to the victims’ families, the affair has badly strained relations, with the Pakistani government refusing to support US claims that Davis enjoyed immunity from prosecution. Many Pakistanis complain the incident exposed problems inherent in the large US intelligence presence in their country, with the CIA not only working with the Pakistani government to identify and arrest suspected terrorists, but also collaborating to identify targets for US drone strikes on Pakistani territory.
Yet it wasn’t long before Mullen’s candid discussion with the media about the continuing links between Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) and the Haqqani network became the focus of attention. The ISI supported the network, as well as the Afghan Taliban, in the 1990s, but claims to have severed all ties with these groups since the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The Haqqani network, which supports some of the most brutally effective insurgents in Afghanistan, and which has links with al-Qaeda, still has its main base of operations in North Waziristan, on the Afghan-Pakistan border. This area remains outside the control of the Pakistani military, leaving US drone strikes as the sole means of attacking targets there given that Pakistani authorities have prohibited cross-border operations by US and Afghan government forces on their territory.
But the militant link doesn’t end there. US intelligence also fears the expanding global role of jihadi groups based in Pakistan. Lashkar-e-Taiba and the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), which until recently directed their operations against India, now plot against Western targets as well as their opponents in Pakistan. According to media accounts, US intelligence has confirmed that these groups, which enjoy considerable support within the Pakistani government, were responsible for the 2008 Mumbai massacre.
During his visit to Washington just ahead of Mullen’s arrival, ISI head Lt. Gen. Ahmed Shuja Pasha asked the CIA to withdraw intelligence operatives from Pakistan and curtail its unpopular drone strikes. After the Mullen-Kayani meeting, the Pakistani side released a statement that said the drone strikes ‘not only undermine our national effort against terrorism but turn public support against our efforts.’
However, although no one likes using unmanned aerial vehicles for air strikes, Mullen made clear they would continue when he described the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region as the ‘epicentre of terrorism in the world.’
Such comments come as intensified fighting in Afghanistan has led US officials to adopt a less tolerant attitude toward the presence of Afghan guerrillas in Pakistan. According to the independent iCasualties.org website, the United States lost more combat troops in Afghanistan last year—499 killed—than during any period since the war began in late 2001. This year’s casualty toll could be even higher as the coalition seeks to weaken the insurgency before the number of US and other NATO troops in Afghanistan begins to decrease with the end of the surge.
Whatever the two governments’ differences, though, they have no choice but to collaborate. The reality is that the United States needs Pakistani support to transit military supplies to its troops in Afghanistan and to achieve a favourable regional environment for an eventual peace settlement there. Washington also relies on Pakistan’s assistance in monitoring and sometimes disrupting regional terrorist groups. Finally, the United States is eager to collaborate with the Pakistani military to secure the country’s growing nuclear weapons arsenal.
Pakistan, for its part, needs financial and diplomatic support from Washington to complement that provided by China. Beijing is a generous supporter of Pakistan but it has placed firm limits on its annual aid levels. The United States, in contrast, gives billions of dollars in direct assistance to Islamabad as well as considerable revenue to Pakistanis involved in the shipping of US military supplies to Afghanistan. US diplomats have also helped dampen Indian desires to retaliate militarily against Pakistan for earlier terrorist attacks.
But the problem goes deeper than just isolated examples of opposing national interests. Another issue is Pakistan’s flawed security sector and the interconnected communities represented by the leaders of the country’s armed forces, police, and the intelligence agencies.
It’s a problem that goes back decades.
The Pakistani military has had excessive influence on Pakistani security policies for more than half a century, and even when Pakistan has a civilian government, the armed forces have retained control over the country’s defence, foreign, and intelligence policies. The military establishment’s influence can also extend to other areas, such as the national economy or inter-ethnic relations. Although Pakistani military leaders can justify their indirect and occasional direct control of the government by citing weaknesses in the country’s civilian leadership, the military’s perpetual interference in national politics is an important factor in preventing the development of an effective civilian political system.
The ISI is a major part of this problem. Although it formally reports to Pakistan’s civilian prime minister, in reality the directorate answers to the military establishment, of which it’s a major component. Former ISI members such as Kayani hold important posts throughout the Pakistani government, while many ISI members are leading propagators of the erroneous worldview that the United States favours India over Pakistan and is seeking to constrain Pakistan’s regional influence and hobble its nuclear arsenal.
Such voices also mistakenly argue that the rise of suicide terrorism within Pakistan is due to Islamabad’s support for US counterterrorism policies, such as sending in the army to fight Islamists in the semi-autonomous Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), and not to their own sponsorship and misguided belief that they can separate ‘good’ from ‘bad’ terrorists. Some extremist groups originally sponsored by the state as proxy forces against India—such as Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammed—have shown evidence of acting on their own against Pakistani targets. Indeed, extremist influences were evident in several recent developments, including the January 2011 assassination of the Punjab’s secular governor by his police guard.
All this isn’t to say that the United States is without blame over the current state of affairs. Past administrations haven’t strongly resisted military coups or Pakistani governments’ support for Islamist policies. More recently, the United States and other donors have devoted insufficient attention to reforming and strengthening the Pakistani police, still known for its politicization, outdated equipment and techniques, and resulting ineffectiveness.
Research by the RAND Corporation and other analysts highlights the importance of an effective police force for countering terrorists and insurgents, and a strong civilian police force is essential for countering domestic terrorism since properly trained and equipped local police officers have superior situational awareness and can better perform some functions than can military or intelligence personnel.
In the case of Pakistan, the weaknesses of the police force have only encouraged the military and intelligence services to expand their roles in the country’s internal affairs, reinforcing their influence over Pakistani domestic politics. In its counterinsurgency operations in the FATA, the Pakistani army can ‘clear’ territory, and the intelligence services can capture terrorists, but without an effective police presence neither can be sure of keeping that area secure for long.
Since 2001, almost all US support for Pakistan’s security forces went to its military. In 2007 for instance, the United States allocated $731 million to help the country's military and only $4.9 million for its police. This failure to invest in law enforcement reform and modernization has unsurprisingly perpetuated poor police performance in counterterrorism and counterinsurgency.
On top of this, the independent role of the judiciary over Pakistan’s security services needs to be strengthened to help check the encroachment of the security services on the authority of democratically elected bodies. An independent judiciary and legislative and executive branches also have essential roles to play in curbing security sector abuses. At present, the military and intelligence services are only loosely supervised by the civilian government, while the country’s public safety commissions are sparse and lack enforcement mechanisms.
But more broadly, there’s still more the United States can do to assist. For example, at the regional level, the Obama administration needs to do more to reduce tensions between Pakistan and India. One reason why the Pakistani military tolerates the ISI sponsorship of terrorists is because terrorism is seen as an essential asymmetric tool for negating India’s superior conventional military capabilities. (Former ISI Director-General Lt. Gen. Hamid Gul has said that inciting domestic unrest in India was equivalent to Pakistan’s having two extra divisions).
But using terrorist proxies is a dangerous game, and Pakistan’s sponsorship of anti-Indian terrorists presents tremendous risks for Islamabad. Not only might the Indians one day employ their increasingly superior military capabilities to retaliate, risking a nuclear war, but the terrorists sometimes act independently of their ISI handlers, including by conducting operations against Pakistani targets, despite the mistaken Pakistani belief that they can promote ‘good’ terrorism without risking the growth of ‘bad’ terrorism.
The same phenomenon has occurred in Afghanistan itself. Many Pakistanis see the Afghan Taliban, the Haqqani network, and other extremists as useful instruments for exercising influence in Afghanistan against India. But this sponsorship has helped give birth to the so-called Pakistani Taliban, which seeks to impose its radical views within Pakistan itself.
It’s clear, then, that the Obama administration should step up its efforts to promote Indian-Pakistani reconciliation, which have lagged since the untimely death last year of Special Envoy Richard Holbrooke. The administration also needs to press the Afghan government to cease using the Indian presence in Afghanistan as a means of limiting Islamabad’s influence in their country, which only exacerbates Pakistani concerns.
Mullen was correct to cite the ISI as a problem, since its ties with terrorist groups harm foreign as well as Pakistani security interests. But the United States needs to continue to press the point. After all, persuading the Pakistani security services to end their ties with jihadi organizations is in the interests not just of the United States, but also Pakistan itself.