international analysis and commentary

The US and the Pakistani conundrum: stuck in an uncomfortable place


The already strained US-Pakistan relationship has hit new lows in recent weeks, caught in a crossfire of accusations and denials about Islamabad’s alleged links to terrorists in Afghanistan. And while Kabul turns to Pakistan’s archrival (India) for help, Washington’s policy towards the region appears to be increasingly indecisive. The White House is evidently torn between frustration with Islamabad’s posturing and the knowledge that it has very limited tools to turn the relationship around. Republican presidential candidates have so far failed to add much to the debate, signaling that the US is, overall, at a dead end when it comes to Pakistan, and that no major policy change is on the horizon.

The latest round of diplomatic bickering was triggered when Admiral Mike Mullen, in his last testimony to Congress in his role as the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (Mullen stepped down at the end of September to be succeeded by Army General Martin Dempsey), aired concerns that have been bubbling under the surface for some time but which White House officials have so far kept under wraps. Specifically, Mullen accused the Haqqani network of being the “veritable arm” of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI).

“[W]e believe the Haqqani network – which has long enjoyed the support and protection of the Pakistani government and is, in many ways, a strategic arm of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence Agency – is responsible for the September 13th attacks against the US Embassy in Kabul,” said Mullen. According to the Admiral, ample evidence also points to a Pakistani hand in the attacks against the Inter-Continental Hotel in Kabul on June 28th and the truck bomb that, on September 10th, killed five Afghans and injured 77 US soldiers in the eastern part of the country.

Even though Pakistani officials categorically denied the accusations, Mullen stood by his words. “I phrased it the way I wanted it to be phrased,” he said in a follow up interview with NPR. The administration, instead, was quick to take a step back. Jay Carney, the White House spokesman, said: “It’s not language I would use.”

Such inconsistencies signal either a conflict within the White House on how to address the Pakistan question or a concerted effort to adopt a “good cop, bad cop” script, using certain channels to dispense ‘tough love’ to Islamabad while officially reaffirming the current strategy of engagement.

In either case, it is a fact that the US-Pakistan relationship, which has been rocky for years, began to turn bitter with the Raymond Davis incident (a CIA contractor who shot and killed two Pakistani civilians in Lahore in the spring) and, then, with the US raid that killed Osama bin Laden in May, which was launched from Afghanistan without any advance warning to the Pakistani government.

These episodes reminded everyone that what is seen from Washington as Pakistan’s double play, is for Islamabad simply a matter of pursuing its own foreign policy priorities.

Specifically, Islamabad’s number one goal in Afghanistan is to prevent neighboring India from acquiring too much sway, which, it fears, Delhi could use against Pakistan once the US withdraws. Analysts say that Pakistani authorities consider militant groups such as the Haqqani network as strategic assets, a counterweight to India.

Pakistan’s fear of encirclement by an Afghan-Indian alliance is turning out to be a self-fulfilling prophecy, prompting precisely what it does not want, a closer relationship between Kabul and Delhi.

After years of keeping India at a distance out of the need to assuage Pakistan’s suspicions, President Karzai just concluded a trip to Delhi (which is said to have been in the making for some time), where he signed a strategic partnership in the areas of economics, education, security and politics. The agreement is believed to include increased commitment by India to train Afghan security forces. “The agreement will heighten Pakistan’s insecurities,” Pakistani political analyst and former General Talat Masood told ABC News.

Against this intractable backdrop, the United States appears to have little room to maneuver. Mired in a seemingly never-ending economic crisis, its armed forces overstretched after ten continuous years of military engagement in Afghanistan and Iraq, and preparing for what is gearing up to be a long and highly competitive presidential campaign, the country appears disinterested in foreign affairs, with many people wishing the US would start to disentangle from this difficult region. This is particularly true of President Obama’s own political base and of liberal Democrats in Congress, who are weary of the administration’s progressive shift of political, economic and military resources from Afghanistan to Pakistan.

The US State Department is now considering whether to include the Haqqani network in its list of designated terrorist organizations (as of now only its top leaders are listed). Congress is ever-tweaking its military and economic aid to Pakistan so as to link it more closely to Islamabad’s ability to reign in homegrown terrorism. This, however, is an approach that the US has been pursuing for years and it is unlikely to yield sudden new outcomes. American forces have already been scaling up unmanned drone attacks on Pakistani territory, and could continue to do so, but this is a step that no doubt will only strengthen the anti-American feelings of the Pakistani people. The same is true for CIA-led covert operations. Pakistan has said that it will allow no US boots on the ground.   

Officially, the administration plans to stick to the status quo for the time being, while stepping up the rhetoric against Pakistan at the same time. Speaking to reporters in Washington, President Obama said that the White House would “constantly evaluate” the relationship with Pakistan and warned that Islamabad should be “mindful of our interests as well.”

The one issue that many still consider central to the resolution of the Pakistani question, the dispute with India over the fate of Kashmir, has been deadlocked for decades. “I think unlocking Kashmir, which is a very difficult issue on the Pak-Indian border, is one that opens it all up,” said Admiral Mullen in his interview with NPR. But India has no intention of relenting and the US wasted the opportunity it had to sway Delhi in the direction it wants when it signed the US-India Civil Nuclear Cooperation agreement without asking for anything in exchange. As for Pakistan, whichever lever the US might pull will be at least in part countered by Islamabad’s increased reliance on its relationship with China.

For the Obama administration, it looks like whatever successes it scored against al Qaeda, namely the raids that killed Osama bin Laden first and Anwar al Awlaki more recently, are somewhat tempered by the continuously worsening situation in Pakistan, which leaves the White House in a bind. If it wants to leave Afghanistan as planned by 2014, Washington needs to reach a peace agreement with the Taliban. And for that, it needs Pakistan’s help. 

Despite all incentives to do so in order to gain control of the foreign policy narrative in anticipation of next year’s elections, the crop of GOP presidential hopefuls has yet to put any new idea on the table in terms of the US-Pakistan relationship. So far the two front-runners, Mitt Romney and Rick Perry, have either pledged a tougher stance on Pakistan without going into any detail (the former), or grossly stumbled when asked about it in one of the recent televised debates of the campaign (the latter).

As things stand, it looks as if there is no political figure of consequence in the US who has anything to gain from raising the Pakistan (or Af-Pak) issue: the stakes are indeed very high for American interests, but policy – and politics – are lagging behind.