The search for a mutually face-saving option in the dramatic turn of events in the relations between the US and Pakistan has continued over the week-end.
The dramatic turn came following the testimonies of Admiral Mike Mullen, the outgoing Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Mr Leon Panetta, the US Defence Secretary, before the Senate Armed Services Committee, on September 22, 2011.
In his testimony, Admiral Mullen not only repeated — in stronger language than in the past— US accusations of links between the Pakistani Army and its Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) on the one side and the Haqqani network on the other, but also blamed the Haqqani network for three of the recent terrorist attacks in Afghanistan—two in Kabul and one in the Wardak province. One of the attacks in Kabul was directed at the US Embassy and the Wardak attack was directed at a NATO base in which US troops are stationed.
The strongly-worded allegations about the ISI-aided (according to the US) Haqqani Network’s involvement in attacks on US personnel and interests in Afghanistan, gave rise to a brief debate in the Senate Armed Services Committee on the options available to the US in the light of the new accusations against the ISI and the Haqqani network.
When asked about it, Mr Panetta replied as follows: “I don’t think it would be helpful to describe what those options would look like and talk about what operational steps we may or may not take.”
Mr Carl Levin, the Chairman of the Committee, then asked Mr Panetta: “Are Pakistani leaders aware of what options are open to us so that they’re not caught by any surprise if in fact we take steps against that network?”
Mr Panetta replied as follows: “I don’t think they would be surprised by the actions that we might or might not take.” In this connection, he referred to recent interactions at high levels with Pakistani officials.
What stood out in the Senate Armed Services Committee was the blunt allegations of Admiral Mullen against Pakistan and the more nuanced remarks of Mr Panetta who indirectly admitted that weaknesses in physical security in Afghanistan had contributed to the successes of the Haqqani network.
According to agency reports of Mr Panetta’s testimony, Mr Panetta said the American military had a difficult job ahead and had to do better in preventing the insurgents from carrying out raids like the one on the Embassy. He added: “While overall violence in Afghanistan is trending down — and down substantially in areas where we concentrated the surge — we must be more effective in stopping these attacks and limiting the ability of insurgents to create perceptions of decreasing security.”
In this connection, it needs to be noted that Pakistan has been repeatedly saying that the successes of the Taliban as a whole and the Haqqani network in Afghanistan were due to weaknesses in the NATO’s counter-insurgency measures and that, instead of admitting this, the US was trying to shift the entire blame on to Pakistan.
A reference to possible US options also figured in the intervention of Senator John McCain, the senior Republican member of the committee, who described the Haqqani network’s attacks in Afghanistan as “the fundamental reality from which we must proceed in re-evaluating our policy towards Pakistan”. At the same time, he urged US lawmakers to recognise that abandoning Pakistan was not the answer. He added: “We tried that once. We cut off US assistance to Pakistan in the past and the problem got worse, not better. I say this with all humility, not recognising just yet what a better alternative approach would be.”
In his opening remarks, Mr Carl Levin, the Chairman of the Committee, also referred to the question of US options. He said: “I was glad to read a few days ago that Pakistan’s leaders have been personally informed that we are in fact going to… act more directly.”
The over-all impression from the discussions in the Senate Armed Services Committee was, firstly, that since there is now evidence of the role of the ISI-supported Haqqani network in direct attacks on US nationals and interests, the US has to act against the network in a robust manner if Pakistan does not act and, secondly, any action that the US takes should not have an enduring negative effect on the over-all relations between the US and Pakistan.
The Senate Armed Services Committee’s discussions have not yet been followed by a discussion by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, headed by the more moderate Senator John Kerry, on the US options.
In the meanwhile, closely following the Senate Armed Services Committee’s debate, US CENTCOM commander General James N. Mattis visited Islamabad on September 24-25 and met, among others, Gen Ashfaq Pervez Kayani, Pakistan’s Chief of the Army Staff (COAS), and General Khalid Shameem Wyne, Chairman of Pakistan’s Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee. It is not yet known whether he met any of the civilian leaders.
His discussions with Gen Kayani and Gen Wyne were followed by an unscheduled meeting of the Corps Commanders on September 25. The fact that after these meetings Gen Kayani left for London as scheduled would indicate that in the assessment of the Pakistan Army no imminent new development is likely.
My sources in Pakistan project the discussions of the CENTCOM Commander as the possible beginning of a de-escalation exercise from both sides and of a search for a mutually face-saving option. The restrained language used by both sides during the visit of the CENTCOM Commander is significant. The Pakistani Army and the US Embassy issued separate statements on his visit and discussions.
The Pakistan Army statement on Gen Wynne’s meeting with Gen Mattis quoted the former as having spoken about “achieving enduring peace in the region… through mutual trust and cooperation”. It added that Gen Wynne expressed concern over the “negative statements emanating from (the) US” and “ stressed upon addressing the irritants in relationship which are a result of an extremely complex situation.”.
The US Embassy statement said: “The Generals had candid discussions about the current challenges in the US-Pakistan relationship. However, General Mattis also emphasised the vital role the Pakistan military plays in international security efforts to protect the Pakistani and Afghan people and the need for persistent engagement among the militaries of the US, Pakistan and other states in the region.”
It is interesting to note that the leaders of the civilian government —barring President Asif Ali Zardari— have reacted much more strongly to Admiral Mullen’s allegations than the Pakistani military leadership. Gen Kayani has restricted himself to describing Admiral Mullen’s allegations as “unfortunate and disturbing” and “not based on facts.” In an editorial, “Dawn” of Karachi has described the statements emanating from the Generals as “controlled reaction”.
As against this, statements emanating from the civilian leaders have been unbridled, indicating a nervousness on their part that absence of strong reactions could be misinterpreted by the Army as softness towards the US.
What action the Pakistan Army ultimately takes in response to the US pressure would depend not on the views of the civilian leaders, but on the assessment of the Corps Commanders. While details of the Corps Commanders’ meeting are not available, my sources say that the consensus was against unwise escalation of rhetoric.
The Dawn itself ( September 26) has reported as follows on the Corps Commanders’ meeting:
“A source privy to discussions at the conference revealed that de-escalation efforts were afoot. “Escalation is harmful. In the cost-benefit analysis there appears to be no benefit of a confrontation.” His claim was corroborated by another senior official. But there was nothing to suggest that the army had agreed to act against the Haqqani network under US pressure. The army is rather asking for developing strategic coherence and clarity about US goals in Afghanistan and thinks that operational differences would be addressed.”
There have been similar suspicions and distrust between the Armies and the intelligence agencies of the two countries in the past. The first was in 1993 when the Clinton Administration placed Pakistan on a list of suspected state-sponsors of international terrorism following suspicions that Gen Javed Nasir, the then head of the ISI, had instigated the Afghan Mujahideen not to sell back to the CIA the unused Stinger missiles supplied by the CIA for use against the Soviet troops. The US removed Pakistan from this list after the Nawaz Sharif government, then in power, removed Nasir and other officers named by the US from the ISI.
The second was after the 9/11 terrorist strikes in the US and before the launch of US military operations against the Taliban in October,2001. The US alleged that Lt Gen Mahmood Ahmed, the then head of the ISI, and Lt.Gen Mohammad Aziz, the then Chief of the General Staff, were instigating the Taliban not to succumb to US pressure for action against Osama bin Laden. In response to US pressure, Gen Musharraf shifted both of them from their key posts.
There is so far no indication that the US has been demanding action against Lt.Gen Ahmed Shuja Pasha, the head of the ISI, who is on extension after superannuation, and other ISI officers suspected by the US of colluding with the Haqqani network. Such a demand should not be ruled out.
The Obama Administration may not like to get involved in a messy ground operation in North Waziristan in the months before next year’s Presidential elections. It would prefer that Pakistan acts more robustly against the Haqqani network. This would involve a Swat Valley like ground operation in North Waziristan supported possibly by US air strikes from its bases in Afghanistan. Would Gen Kayani be able to sell such an option to his Corps Commanders?
A concern in the minds of the Corps Commanders would be that any impression of a joint operation by Pakistan and the US could lead to desertions from the Pakistan Army, a phenomenon that has been absent till now. Past desertions were mainly from the Frontier Corps and other para-military forces. Desertions from the Army would be a serious development.
What the Corps Commanders would want in return for ground operations in North Waziristan is the US strengthening the air strike capability of the Pakistani military through the supply of Drones and related technology and more F-16 aircraft. If the US agrees to strengthen Pakistan’s offensive air strike capability, that would have implications for India.
It may be recalled that in 1999 when there was mounting pressure on the Nawaz Sharif government for action against Arab members of Al Qaeda operating from sanctuaries near the Afghan border in the Pakistani territory, Gen Musharraf, then COAS, suggested shifting them to new sanctuaries in the Gilgit-Baltistan area. If Gen Kayani toys with a similar idea in respect of the Haqqani network, it could have implications for the internal security situation in Jammu & Kashmir.
How Pakistan reacts to the US pressure is a matter that should be closely monitored by India. It would be foolhardy to lull ourselves into complacency thinking that Pakistan is about to implode or unravel. It is unlikely to.
B. Raman is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, New Delhi, and, presently, Director, institute For Topical Studies, Chennai, and Associate of the Chennai Centre For China Studies