You could be forgiven for dismissing the latest diplomatic spat between the United States and Pakistan as just another hiccup in a long-estranged marriage. Trading accusations and navigating diplomatic crises has become a weekly affair for this deeply troubled alliance. But the broadside launched against Pakistan by the US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in congressional testimony on September 22 represents a rupture so dramatic that its significance is difficult to overstate.
On Thursday, Adm. Mike Mullen told the Senate Armed Services Committee that Pakistan was using ‘violent extremism as an instrument of policy’ and said the Haqqani network, Af-Pak’s deadliest militant outfit, ‘acts as a veritable arm of Pakistan’s Internal Services Intelligence Agency.’ Mullen further explained that Pakistan was using militant proxies to ‘hedge their bets’ in Afghanistan, adding, ‘in reality, they have already lost that bet.’ To be sure, independent analysts and former government officials have been airing such complaints for years. But never in the long, dark history of the Afghan war have serving officials so unequivocally called Pakistan to account for its double game.
Pakistan’s reaction was swift but uninspiring. The country’s new foreign minister warned that the United States ‘cannot afford to alienate Pakistan,’ while Mahmood Shah, a former army brigadier, explained that the US is simply ‘mak(ing) Pakistan the scapegoat for (its) failures in Afghanistan.’ Prime Minister Yousef Raza Gilani added: ‘They can’t live with us. They can’t live without us.’
That sort of response simply isn’t going to cut it anymore. The Obama administration – indeed, the country at large – has lost faith in Pakistan. The turning point for the White House appears to have been the September 13 attack on the US embassy in Afghanistan; a brazen assault by Haqqani network insurgents that resulted in a 20-hour gun battle in a fortified corner of the Afghan capital. Just a few days earlier, the Haqqani network orchestrated a truck bombing outside a US base in Wardak that wounded 77 US soldiers and killed five Afghans.
Indeed, a barrage of crises has been propelling the United States and Pakistan toward a reckoning for months. The year opened with the Raymond Davis saga, when Pakistan refused to grant diplomatic immunity to a US contractor who killed two armed Pakistanis in a mysterious confrontation in January. That was followed by the expulsion of US military trainers and intelligence agents and a diplomatic row over visas to US officials. A series of US drone strikes on al-Qaeda and Taliban targets in Pakistan’s tribal lands strained ties even further, as did the continuing refusal of the Pakistani military to launch an assault on the militant stronghold of North Waziristan. The discovery and killing of Osama bin Laden in May in a wealthy suburb miles from Pakistan’s premier military academy served as the grand finale.
The bin Laden raid raised red flags across Washington, not least on Capitol Hill. Lawmakers were told by then-CIA director Leon Panetta the Pakistanis ‘were (either) involved or incompetent.’ Many congressmen and senators, long in the dark or uninterested in South Asian affairs, were shocked to find the degree to which Pakistan was misusing American aid and harbouring US enemies. Key congressional leaders began demanding a fundamental reassessment of the United States’ Pakistan policy, and in July the US announced it was withholding $800 million in Pakistani aid.
Pakistan has fared little better inside the administration. Under former Defense Secretary Robert Gates, the Pentagon had been a staunch opponent of taking a tougher line with Islamabad. The defence department helped torpedo stiff restrictions on US aid to Pakistan in the $7.5 billion Kerry-Lugar bill. But now Gates is out, and tough talking Leon Panetta is in. As the United States’ top spy from 2009 to 2011, Panetta is intimately familiar with the ISI’s transgressions. He expressed his frustrations recently, explaining, ‘Time and again, we’ve urged the Pakistanis to exercise their influence over (the Haqqanis) and we’ve made very little progress. The message they need to know is: we’re going to do everything we can to defend our forces.’
Panetta will find an ally in his replacement at the CIA. David Petraeus carries his own intimate knowledge of Pakistan’s double game, having served as the top US commander in Afghanistan for the past year. His heroic efforts there were consistently stifled by the safe haven and support Afghan militants receive from Pakistan, and his relationship with Pakistan’s generals is famously estranged. The Agency has its own bone to pick with Pakistan: the CIA blames the Haqqani network for a December 30, 2009 bombing at an agency outpost in Khost, Afghanistan that killed seven CIA officers – the single deadliest attack on US intelligence personnel in the Agency’s history. Moreover, the last two CIA station chiefs were forced to leave Pakistan after they were publicly ‘outed’ in December 2010 and May of this year. Nor will Pakistan find help inside the State Department, which is still reeling from the embassy attack. The new US ambassador to Pakistan, Cameron Munter, told Radio Pakistan on September 17 that the Haqqani network was responsible for the assault and ‘there is evidence linking the Haqqani network to the Pakistan government…This is something that must stop.’
And then there is Mullen, perhaps the most ardent proponent of closer cooperation with Pakistan inside the administration. Mullen, who is retiring at the end of the month, has made over 20 visits to Pakistan as the top US commander, and worked tirelessly to forge a close personal bond with Pakistan’s Chief of Army Staff Gen. Ashfaq Kiyani. It’s both ironic and fitting that he was the one to deliver the unprecedented rebuke to Islamabad.
The question now on everyone’s mind is: what comes next? South Asia analysts have been mulling this prospect for years. It should come as little surprise that there are few good options. Pakistan holds substantial points of leverage over the United States, not least through its control of key supply routes into Afghanistan. The administration has wisely invested in alternative supply lines through Russia and Central Asia, reducing Pakistan’s monopoly from nearly 90 percent a few years ago to just under 50 percent today. Whether or not the United States could sustain the Afghan war effort without Pakistan – by dramatically increasing the workload of the Northern Distribution Network and airlifting more supplies in – is a matter of speculation. Ashton Carter, the Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics, believes it is possible. He told Reuters in May, ‘We’re confident that we’re not dependent on any particular single thread, and we can continue to supply the Afghanistan effort.’ Additionally, the problem will gradually solve itself, with the phased reduction of US troops through 2014.
Pakistan can also withhold intelligence cooperation, evict US military, intelligence, and diplomatic personnel and end whatever support remains for the incredibly successful CIA-operated drone programme. All of this could seriously complicate the United States’ war efforts.
But the cost to Pakistan would be far greater. Pakistan is a country with few friends. Islamabad frequently touts its relationship with China, but Beijing’s hesitant embrace rests on shaky foundations. The friendship grants China leverage over India and holds the possibility of opening up new energy routes to China through Central Asia, but Beijing has never accepted the patron role that Pakistan so clearly desires. After floods ravaged Pakistan in 2010, the United States offered $150 million in emergency aid. China’s contribution: less than $5 million. More telling, when Islamabad invited China to build a military base in Gwadar earlier this year, Beijing’s response was ‘thanks, but no thanks.’
Pakistan has survived bouts of profound economic turmoil and mismanagement on the strength of generous financial aid from the United States and IMF, where the US holds veto power. The United States is capable of bringing tremendous – and potentially fatal – financial pressure to bear. Were Pakistan’s relationship with the US to turn openly hostile, diplomatic isolation would follow, as would the suspension of aid and spare parts for Pakistan’s military. ISI officials with known links to militant groups could be targeted for sanctions by the United States and international community, as could the Pakistani government, whose actions far exceed the criteria to be designated a state sponsor of terrorism.
This isn’t the preferred path. Even as Mullen lifted the veil on Pakistan’s double game, the Joint Chiefs chairman argued that the United States must stay engaged with Pakistan; that we need to be there ‘when the light goes on.’ For many, this is wishful thinking. But it is instructive to remember that there’s one diplomatic mechanism with a track record of success in Pakistan. Immediately after the attacks of 9/11, then deputy secretary of state Richard Armitage warned Pakistan’s leadership that it would be ‘bombed back into the Stone Age’ if it did not support America’s invasion of Afghanistan. That was the first – and last – time the United States received Pakistan’s full cooperation in this war. Washington then deemed it sufficient to sustain Pakistan’s cooperation with carrots, doling out $20 billion in aid over the past decade. Yet with every new cheque, Pakistan’s resentment toward the US grew and support for militants grew.
Perhaps, at the 11th hour, the Obama administration has realized the folly of this approach and found its own Armitage moment. Whether or not it has the same effect on Pakistan has yet to be seen. One thing is clear, however: the gloves are off.
Jeff M. Smith is the Kraemer Strategy Fellow at the American Foreign Policy Council