As far as Pakistan Chiefs of Army Staff went, General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani was merely tolerable for the United States. Tolerable, of course, is not the kind of descriptor you’d want to ascribe to a major military partner, especially in the sort of security environment around the fraying Durand Line. Kayani’s erstwhile American counterpart, Admiral Mike Mullen, famously accused the Pakistani Army and Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) of majorly aiding and abetting militant groups in direct opposition to U.S. interests — he specifically named the Haqqani network which is a known associate of both Taliban and al Qaeda.
In a column late last week for The Daily Beast, former-CIA Pakistan expert and current Brookings expert Bruce Riedel levels harsher allegations against Kayani, writing that he “ran the ISI’s covert operation assisting the Taliban directly until his promotion to COAS in 2007, when Musharraf’s regime began to fall apart. As DG/ISI, Kayani would also have been in charge of the early planning for the attack on Mumbai by the Pakistani terror group Lashkar e Tayyiba, which killed 166 people including six Americans in 2008. Kayani as the spymaster of ISI undoubtedly knew his organization had recruited an American, David Headley, to assist in doing the reconnaissance for the attack, which began in 2005.” In the twilight of his days as Chief of Army staff, Kayani commanded the trust of nearly no senior Obama administration officials dealing with Pakistan (a trend that began with Obama’s decision to cut the Pakistani army out of the raid on Osama bin Laden’s Abbottabad hideout).
Now that Kayani has left the building, and his successor, General Raheel Sharif, has stepped in is there any reason for optimism about the trajectory of the U.S.-Pakistan relationship?
Unfortunately, the reasons for skepticism run deeper than personalities and individual preferences. The Pakistani military practices a relatively static form of outward strategic planning, to its immediate east and to its immediate west. Since independence in 1947, Pakistan has been locked in a rivalry with India that takes on a position of existential importance for the Pakistan military establishment. To this end, the army and the ISI have gone to extreme lengths to wrangle with India over the disputed northern province of Kashmir, fighting three all-out conventional wars in the process and numerous skirmishes per year. In the months leading up to Kayani’s retirement, the number of skirmishes between India and Pakistan increased to new heights, all against the backdrop of Nawaz Sharif’s rather meek attempts to foment a bilateral peace dialogue. Ostensibly, the army’s rather direct involvement derailed Sharif’s attempts by transforming the Indian domestic political climate as wholly unreceptive to engagement with Pakistan.
To its west, Pakistan practices a modest version of its own Monroe Doctrine over Afghanistan — it strives to prevent any foreign powers from supplanting Islamabad as the prime interlocutor with Kabul. During Musharraf’s days, Pakistan’s Afghanistan strategy entered the realm of the clandestine as its long-term ally, the United States, began to build a vested interest in state-building and bent over backwards to keep the Karzai government afloat. The next twelve months, however, are transformative and present a rather tempting opportunity for Pakistan to restore its strategic preference in Kabul. As NATO and U.S. troops withdraw and Afghans head to the polls in April, the political situation in Afghanistan will grow increasingly fragile. Of course, any overt attempt by the Pakistan army or the ISI to derail Afghanistan’s political transition may irreparably damage relations with the United States. Still, it is highly likely that whatever elements of the army do allegedly cooperate with Taliban-affiliates will attempt to do so more discreetly.
In short, these long-entrenched institutional and grand strategic preferences have long been burned into the Pakistani military and it is unlikely that Sharif will be able to supplant the primacy of India and Afghanistan on the country’s strategic agenda.
Reasons for optimism are slim.
First, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif knows all too well the perils of picking poorly when it comes to the Chief of Army Staff — Pakistan’s most powerful individual, in many ways. Sharif’s “fool me once” moment came in 1999 after his trust in Pervez Musharraf seemed to have been a poor gambit — Musharraf overthrew Sharif in a bloodless coup, leaving him in political exile, and determined the trajectory of the U.S.-Pakistan relationship in the wake of the American incursion into Afghanistan in 2001. It remains to be seen if Nawaz Sharif can be fooled a second time, but I’d suspect a coup is highly unlikely.
Additionally, as I noted in my profile of Sharif last week, his training and personal doctrinal preferences in terms of military strategy seem to lie in the realm of counter-insurgency operations. I speculated that this may have been a reason for Sharif to favor the general over other candidates who may have been favored by Kayani — Pakistan’s major internal threat is the Taliban-affiliated militant insurgency and having a Chief of Army staff who sees eye-to-eye with the civilian government on the matter might benefit the overall security situation in the country. Sharif’s anti-terror background was strongly emphasized by the mainstream coverage and commentary on his accession.
Predicting the future, especially in South Asia, is a treacherous pastime, but there are good reasons for skepticism and some, albeit fewer, for optimism. Unfortunately, in the final assessment, I’m less than sanguine about the Pakistan military’s propensity to truly abandon its grand strategic raison d’être in favor of swinging in full force against its internal security threat. The current United States administration, thanks to its experiences in 2011 after the bin Laden raid, is beginning to recognize the extent of dysfunction plaguing U.S.-Pakistan cooperation on security matters. Beyond the popular response to American drone strikes, the disposition of the Pakistan military elite has cast new doubts on the future of the partnership.
The United States in the last decade began an important convergence with India, a phenomenon that deepens the more relations sour with Pakistan. Raheel Sharif’s ascension against this backdrop means that any further intransigence or attempts to supplant American interests by the Pakistan military or ISI could be the final straw that breaks the camel’s back. The best-case scenario for Pakistan now would be one where the military under the Sharif pivots away from its obsessions beyond the Durand and Radcliffe lines and keeps its sights set on the security threats within those frontiers.