Behind the recent verbal confrontation between U.S. and Pakistani officials about the Haqqani network lies a delicate political-military effort to split the Haqqanis as part of an end-game strategy for the war in Afghanistan.
Admiral Mike Mullen, the departing chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, rebuked the Pakistani spy service, the Inter-Services Intelligence directorate, for using the Haqqani network as its “veritable arm” in Afghanistan. But U.S. officials know the ISI also facilitated a secret meeting during the last several months between the U.S. and a representative of the Haqqani clan. This is the double game that’s always operating in U.S.-Pakistani relations.
Some U.S. officials believe that the recent wave of attacks by the Haqqanis on U.S. targets in Afghanistan may, in fact, reflect the determination of hard-line members of the clan to derail any move toward negotiation. The U.S. wants the Pakistani military’s help in isolating and destroying these “unreconcilable” elements of the network.
The sparring with Pakistan illustrates the wider dilemma of the Afghan war. How does the U.S. bring pressure on the Haqqanis and other Taliban factions, even as it withdraws troops with a 2014 deadline for completing its mission? As Husain Haqqani, Pakistan’s ambassador to the U.S., has said: “The more the U.S. says it wants to leave Afghanistan, the harder it will be to leave.”
What angered Mullen and other U.S. officials was Pakistan’s failure to act on intelligence reports about planned Haqqani attacks. A time line helps disentangle the threads of the dispute:
On Sept. 8, General John Allen, the NATO commander in Afghanistan, is said to have warned General Ashfaq Kayani, the Pakistani army chief, that two truck bombs had been assembled in Miran Shah, the Haqqanis’ base in North Waziristan, and were headed for Afghanistan. Kayani is said to have pledged he would take action.
On Sept. 10, one of those truck bombs struck a NATO base in Wardak, just east of Kabul, wounding 77 U.S. soldiers. That was the real trigger for Mullen’s anger: Some senior officials concede that Pakistan may not have had enough time, or precise “actionable” intelligence, to stop the bomb-laden truck.
On Sept. 13, insurgents from the Haqqani network attacked the U.S. Embassy compound in Kabul. Though Mullen mentioned this attack in his denunciation of ISI-Haqqani links, U.S. officials don’t see any evidence of a Pakistani role in planning or executing the operation, a message the CIA privately communicated to Islamabad. However, in the days after the bombing, U.S. officials presented Pakistan with a series of “what ifs,” to convey the danger of the situation: What if the 77 soldiers at Wardak had been killed? What if the U.S. ambassador in Kabul had died? What then?
On Sept. 18, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met with the Pakistani foreign minister and delivered the first of a series of U.S. rebukes, asking how Pakistan could promote the Haqqanis as a prospective negotiating partner and yet sit by idly while they attacked Americans. On Sept. 22, Mullen delivered his blunt testimony. On Sept. 25 and 26, two longtime congressional supporters of Pakistan, senators Lindsey Graham and Mark Kirk, warned of a halt in military aid.
But military liaison continues, with General James Mattis, the commander of U.S. Central Command, visiting Islamabad last weekend and warning that Pakistan had to choose sides.
The message seems to have gotten through to Pakistani military leaders, who reportedly concluded at a secret commanders’ conference on Sept. 26 that they don’t want a confrontation with the U.S. But surely, this is a sick relationship when the partners have to go to the brink of open confrontation to get the other side to listen. If they were a married couple, you would send them to a counselor, or, failing that, a divorce lawyer.
With all the noise about the Haqqanis, it’s important to remember that the real issue here is the larger war in Afghanistan. President Barack Obama’s goal remains a political settlement with “reconcilable” elements of the Taliban, and secret contacts have been continuing around the world. The message to the Haqqanis is that they can best protect political power in their ancestral homeland in Paktika, Paktia and Khost provinces by coming to the table now.
But does the Taliban – or the Pakistani government, for that matter – take the U.S. strategy seriously? How can the U.S. gain enough leverage to tip the process toward negotiation? That’s what this war of words was really about.
(The writer is a columnist for The Daily Star in Lebanon, where this article was first published on Oct. 1, 2011.)