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Why Pakistan and the United States Are on a Collision Course

Pakistan and the United States have been engaged in a virtual war over the past several weeks. In a barrage of television and radio interviews in both the Pakistani and American media, top politicians of these “allies” in the fight against terrorism have hurled accusations at each other, issued warnings, sought out new alliances to replace the bilateral partnership, and even threatened military action. Television advertisements aired by a private channel in Pakistan show images of the Pakistan Army preparing for combat, and warn the United States not to challenge a God-fearing nation. This latest rhetorical clash points to a rocky future for the U.S.-Pakistan relationship because it highlights a strategic divergence that has long marred bilateral cooperation.

As the withdrawal deadline for U.S. troops from Afghanistan approaches, Pakistan is again demonstrating the India-centricity of its foreign policy. While the U.S. seeks an end to the conflict in Afghanistan, Pakistan is more concerned about ensuring that a post-withdrawal Afghanistan is not dominated by India. Pakistan believes that this traditional concern is best addressed through recourse to militant groups—such as the headline-grabbing Haqqani network—that could serve as Pakistan’s proxies in Kabul, and counter Indian influence. Pakistan’s continued dependence on these ‘strategic assets’ is testing the limits of its diplomatic relationship with the U.S., which perceives Pakistan-based militant groups as a major obstacle to military gains in Afghanistan. More importantly, Pakistan’s continued reliance on militant groups as a tool of foreign policy could prove dangerous for its own security, and that of the region, in the long run.

THE RECENT TROUBLE started when Admiral Michael Mullen, the outgoing chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, described the militant Haqqani network, an ally of the Afghan Taliban, as a “veritable arm” of the Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). In an unprecedented indictment, Mullen told the Senate Armed Services Committee that there was “credible evidence” to show that the Haqqani network, with ISI support, carried out the September 10 truck bombing of an American military base in Afghanistan and the September 13 attack on the American embassy in Kabul. He also implied that the U.S. would send forces into Pakistan to retaliate against the Haqqani network, which maintains safe havens in Pakistan’s tribal areas.

The United States has previously had access to evidence of ISI-Haqqani links. In 2008, The New York Times reported that the U.S. government had intercepted communications between Pakistani intelligence officers and Haqqani network militants who carried out the bombing at the Indian embassy in Kabul, which killed 54 people in July of that year. Although the U.S. confronted Pakistan with the intercepts, the matter was sidelined because Washington needed Islamabad’s cooperation to fight Al Qaeda terrorists as well as provide access to land routes across Pakistan to supply troops in Afghanistan. The decision to take up the issue more directly now represents a final investment in the military strategy in Afghanistan—which has little hope of succeeding without a crackdown on militant sanctuaries in Pakistan—before the 2014 withdrawal date. 

Not surprisingly, Admiral Mullen’s statements, particularly the threat of military action on Pakistani territory, provoked strong reactions within Pakistan. Rather than bow to heightened pressure, Pakistan has denied its support for the Haqqani network, accused the United States of nurturing terrorist groups in the past, and critiqued American military strategy in Afghanistan. An All Parties Conference, which brought together 60 senior politicians, many from rival parties, unanimously rejected the allegations and warned against American “adventurism.” The vehemence of Pakistan’s reaction even led the White House to qualify Mullen’s statements in the hope of defusing tensions: During a radio interview on September 30, President Obama conceded that the intelligence linking the ISI to the Haqqani network is “not as clear as we might like.”

Islamabad’s antagonistic reaction has led many commentators to ask why Pakistan would risk a break in the bilateral relationship, and perhaps even clashes with American forces in the tribal belt, in order to preserve ties with the Haqqani network. The question takes on added impetus given that the nature of the relationship between the ISI and the Haqqani network is unclear: In an audio message to the BBC on October 3, Jalaluddin Haqqani stated that his organization had no links with the ISI. The Haqqani network’s increasing linkages with the anti-Pakistan Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) also casts doubt on the amount of leverage the ISI has over the militant group. But the answer is simple: Pakistan sees its national and security interests better served by a short-term resolution to the Afghanistan war, rather than a stable, bilateral relationship with the US in the long-term.

On one level, the Pakistani reluctance to go after the Haqqani network is a capacity problem. The Pakistan Army has already deployed 140,000 troops in the northwestern tribal belt, and 15,000 of these are based outside Miranshah, the capital of North Waziristan. But this is not enough: By some estimates, the Haqqani network comprises 12,000 trained fighters. Moreover, since the siege in 2007 of the Red Mosque in Islamabad, which had been taken over by radical clerics, the Pakistan Army has been wary of retaliatory attacks provoked by major operations against militant groups (56 suicide attacks followed the siege in 2007 alone). An operation against the Haqqani network would almost certainly lead to a wave of suicide bombings against civilian and security targets across Pakistan. The Pakistan Army cannot risk being held culpable by the public for taking an action that worsens the near-term national security situation, especially one taken at Washington’s behest.

This tactical consideration is further bolstered by a strategic calculation. Pakistan fears that Afghanistan will slide back into civil war after American troop withdraws, unless the Afghan Taliban are accommodated through a political reconciliation process. The ethnic composition of the Afghan National Security Force increases this likelihood—with few Pashtuns at the officer level, the ANSF is seen as an anti-Pashtun force, which could feature on the opposite side of a civil war against the Pashtun Taliban.

Another civil war in Afghanistan presents a nightmare scenario for Pakistan because it would result in a new wave of Afghan refugees, which Islamabad can ill-afford given the country’s economic instability and internal humanitarian crisis caused by successive summer floods. Turmoil in Afghanistan will also destabilize Pakistan further: In a reversal of the current situation, Pakistani militant groups may establish safe havens in Afghanistan from which to launch attacks against the Pakistani state. 

Given these concerns, Pakistan is eager not to open new battlefronts (for example, with the Haqqani network) and instead is seeking to facilitate a political reconciliation process that ushers in an inclusive government in Kabul with adequate Pashtun representation—in other words, a central government that includes members of the Afghan Taliban and its various factions. Pakistan’s interests in such a politically negotiated configuration are twofold: First, Pakistan believes that only a truly inclusive government can bring about a stable Afghanistan, which is in both national and regional interests. Islamabad increasingly recognizes that its interference in Afghan politics over the past three decades has been counterproductive, and believes that an inclusive and genuinely representative government would also minimize the need for political manipulations in the national interest. Second, and more importantly, Pakistan believes that Pashtun representation in Kabul will reduce the chances of Afghanistan pursuing policies that are hostile to Pakistan. As it stands, Pakistan is banking on the Haqqanis to defend Pakistani interests in Kabul against pro-India members of the Northern Alliance.

This, ultimately, is the crux of the strategic divergence between Pakistan and America. Washington is seeking to justify its decade-long presence in Afghanistan by securing some military gains before 2014. Pakistan, on the other hand, is trying to ensure that a post-withdrawal scenario does not consolidate Indian political influence in Afghanistan. Pakistan fears encirclement by India: It is concerned that India’s recent development and infrastructure projects are merely fronts to cover up intelligence gathering on Pakistan’s western border and support for Baloch separatists. In this context, the Haqqanis and other Taliban factions are Pakistan’s insurance policy against a pro-India dispensation in Kabul. Given that America and Pakistan have different enemies in the region, it is unlikely that they will agree on any course of action regarding the end game in Afghanistan. Least of all, the fate of the Haqqanis.

Huma Yusuf is a columnist for Pakistan’s Dawn Newspaper, and was the 2010-11 Pakistan Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C.