By Saad Hafiz
Based on public pronouncements from both sides in the last few weeks it seems that Pak-U.S. relations are in free fall.
It started with tough words from the most senior United States military officer, Admiral Mullen in the aftermath of the recent attack on the US embassy in Kabul blamed on the Haqqani network that “in choosing to use violent extremism as an instrument of policy, the government of Pakistan — and most especially the Pakistani Army and ISI — jeopardizes not only the prospect of our strategic partnership, but also Pakistan’s opportunity to be a respected nation with legitimate regional influence,”. Pakistan responding tersely that “U.S. could lose Pakistan as an ally” and that “any unilateral US operation or hot pursuit inside Pakistan would result in severe consequences”.
But is the recent discord after the Kabul embassy attack simple posturing or a genuine breach in relations between two erstwhile allies? After all, U.S. officials have long been frustrated at Pakistan being used as a safe haven by the Haqqani led Afghan Taliban, described as the “veritable arm” of the ISI by Mullen and what the U.S. perceives to be Pakistani inaction against militancy in general. We also know that ties between the troubled allies have deteriorated sharply after the killing of al-Qaeda chief Osama Bin Laden on Pakistani soil by US commandos in May. Relations were already strained with public anger in Pakistan against the U.S. was stoked over the release of Raymond Davis, the CIA contractor who killed two Pakistanis in Lahore.
On the surface nothing should have changed as the Pakistanis continue to aid the United States in its war against al Qaeda. The war against the Taliban is another matter as Islamabad rightly or wrongly sees its intimate relationships, ideological and personal, developed between the ISI and the Taliban, as crucial to Pakistan’s strategic interests in a post US Afghanistan. The Americans, of course, have always been completely aware of the Pakistani limits and have not objected until now to an arrangement which is duplicitous by design.
We know that Afghanistan is central to Pakistan’s national security strategy, although Pakistan’s national security gatekeepers do not share the American concern for Afghan democracy. It would not be surprising, therefore, that the ISI, the State within a State has decided that now is the time to support the war against the United States and NATO forces in Afghanistan. The ISI, as if often the case, may have decided to go it alone, since in its estimation there is no chance that Pakistan’s political and military leadership would ever have the gumption to take on the U.S.
The Pakistani security establishment is probably betting that due to the country’s strategic importance and nuclear weapons capability they will not need to blink first in the standoff with the Americans on dealing with the Haqqani led Taliban. As usual, the security establishment has roped in pliant politicians and media to join the chorus accusing the United States of nefarious designs of depriving Pakistan of its nuclear bomb by causing internal chaos and weakening the only nuclear power of the Islamic world. Commentators speak emotionally about Pakistan freeing itself from U.S. subjugation to have the chance to become a vibrant nation.
With a closely contested Presidential election looming, the United States is looking for an exit from Afghanistan. Pakistan’s tacit support if not active involvement is required to make any U.S. and NATO withdrawal strategy viable. The U.S. needs Pakistan to contain, at least to some extent, Taliban sanctuaries in Pakistan. For the U.S. opening a new front in Pakistan, a country of 180 million people, is well beyond the capabilities of either its forces in Afghanistan or forces in the U.S. reserves. Therefore, a U.S. break with Pakistan threatens the logistical foundation of the war in Afghanistan and poses strategic challenges U.S. forces cannot cope with.
The United States could use its considerable bilateral and multilateral economic leverage and/or threaten a permanent tilt towards its regional rival India to compel Pakistan to cooperate. However, any major pressure on Pakistan could result in its collapse or in the creation of an overtly anti U.S. government in Pakistan. Either outcome could well prove disastrous for Washington.
The relationship between the United States and Pakistan ultimately is far more important than just dealing with terrorist safe havens, but both sides have created a tense atmosphere that they will find difficult to contain. The attitudes of the governments profoundly affected the views of politicians and the public, attitudes that will be difficult to erase. It is imperative, therefore, that political representatives from both countries re-establish primacy over bilateral negotiations conducted away from the public eye and on the formulation and implementation of national security policies. Consider the outcome.