Last week, Pakistan’s chief military spokesman said something extraordinary — something that could signal a sea change in the country’s security policy. Which makes it all the more perplexing that the international media has given scant coverage to what the spokesman had to say.
“There is no discrimination among different Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan groups or the Haqqani network,” Gen. Asim Bajwa told journalists at military headquarters in a briefing about Pakistan’s military offensive in North Waziristan. “[The] Army will crush them all.”
If this is in fact true, then it is great news.
The Haqqani network, formally designated by the U.S. as a terrorist organization, is a formidable Taliban-linked entity. It regularly launches high-profile attacks in Afghanistan, including assaults on the U.S. embassy. Some believe the Haqqani network introduced suicide bombing to Afghanistan. It also has extensive links to al-Qaeda; a West Point study has concluded that it operates with al-Qaeda “as an interdependent system.”
Pakistan’s security establishment has long refused to act against the Haqqani network. It has regarded the group — as it does other militant organizations that don’t launch attacks in Pakistan — as a strategic asset, in that it helps limit the activities of archenemy India in Afghanistan (Haqqani fighters have frequently targeted Indians in Afghanistan). In 2011, Mike Mullen, the then-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff — and hence the top U.S. military official — famously stated that the Haqqani network “acts as a veritable arm” of Pakistan’s main intelligence agency, the ISI.
By declaring war on the Haqqani network, Pakistan could seriously degrade one of the most destabilizing forces in Afghanistan. It could also be a tremendous boost to India-Pakistan relations (New Delhi has long criticized Pakistan for not cracking down on the various Pakistan-based organizations — from Lashkar-e-Taiba to the Haqqani network — that mount attacks on Indians). And, of course, it could also greatly improve U.S.-Pakistan ties (it bears mentioning that just days before Bajwa’s announcement, high-level Pakistani military officials held meetings at the Pentagon).
Still, let’s not get too excited.
First, U.S. officials allege that Haqqani network commanders were tipped off by Pakistan about the North Waziristan offensive, and have fled the area. If true, this suggests the military’s announcement could be mere spin, and that its policy toward the group hasn’t changed. It’s easy to talk tough about targeting your strategic asset if you’ve already ensured it won’t be harmed.
Second, Bajwa’s language was telling. “Whoever challenges the writ of the state will be taken to task,” he said. In fact, the Haqqani network doesn’t do this because it doesn’t target the Pakistani state. This language is reminiscent of Pakistani threats earlier this year to launch operations in North Waziristan against “anti-state groups” — clearly a reference to the likes of the Pakistani Taliban, not the Haqqani network.
Third, from a strategic perspective, it’s a strange time for Pakistan to turn on the Haqqani network. With much uncertainty (and more instability) likely to set in amid the NATO troop drawdown in Afghanistan, wouldn’t Pakistan want to tighten its ties with its old reliables? And particularly those long-time assets used to project influence and promote Pakistani interests in Afghanistan?
Bajwa’s statement was encouraging. Whether it was genuine, however, remains to be seen.
Michael Kugelman is the senior associate for South Asia at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, DC. He can be reached by email here or on Twitter @michaelkugelman.