US-Pakistan relations since the start of this year have seen a familiar pattern: the emergence of a major issue of conflict, followed by deepening row manifested in hostile public posturing by top officials of the two countries, and then the resumption of diplomatic attempts through enhanced official interaction to rescue their strained relationship. The arrest in Pakistan of US security operative Raymond Davis, who had shot two civilians in Lahore, in February and the killing of Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad unilaterally by US Special Forces in May were two instances that led to a major conflict in relationship and subsequent bids by the two sides to resume their partnership against terrorism.
Thus, despite the fact that US and Pakistani strategic priorities diverge on the issue of combating terrorism in the region, there is always room for reconciliatory efforts aimed at making them compatible. This time, however, the level of confrontation between the two countries seems to be higher than ever. In the past couple of weeks, their relationship has experienced the triggering issue and its subsequent conflicting ripples. Will the climate of confrontation continue to conflagrate; or will top US and Pakistani civilian and security officials once again, through renewed enhanced interaction, be able to defuse growing tension in ties?
What has caused the latest row in relations is the US assertion that Pakistan harbours the so-called Haqqani network in North Waziristan, whom the US accuses of orchestrating devastating attacks on the US Embassy in Kabul on September 13 and against a nearby US/NATO base on September 10. Pakistan has reacted by refuting the US stance and warned that Washington risked losing an ally if it continued hostile public posturing against Islamabad. However, as happened eventually following two earlier instances of serious deterioration in US-Pakistan ties this year, at least some indicators in the past week suggest willingness on the part of both sides to overcome the latest round of hostility and resume normal relations.
On September 22, Admiral Mike Mullen, the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, had told the Senate Armed Services Committee that Haqqani network “acts as a veritable arm of Pakistan's internal services intelligence agency…With ISI support, Haqqani operatives planned and conducted that truck bomb attack, as well as the assault on our embassy." The car bomb attack wounded 77 US soldiers – one of the highest casualty tolls against western forces in the 10-year conflict. The terror network is said to be based in Pakistan’s tribal agency of North Waziristan bordering Afghanistan.
It was the US ambassador to Pakistan, Cameron Munter who, in a statement issued in Washington on September 17, had first blamed the Haqqani network for the attacks in Kabul, and claimed there was evidence linking Pakistan government to it. The issue dominated the discussion during over three-hour long meeting between Pakistani Foreign Minister Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar, who was in New York to attend the annual UN General Assembly session, and US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
Pakistan’s response was prompt. In a rare public outburst, the Chief of Army Staff, General Ashfaq Kayani, who has had regular meetings with Admiral Mullen in the last few years, rebuffed his allegation that Pakistan was waging a "proxy war" in Afghanistan through the Haqqani network. “Admiral Mullen knows fully well which countries are in contact with the Haqqanis. Singling out Pakistan is neither fair nor productive,” he said.
The Army Chief called an emergency meeting of the Corps Commanders, Pakistan’s highest-level military decision-making body, which took place at the Army General Headquarters in Rawalpindi on September 25. The six-hour long meeting reportedly decided to consider any course of action in “Pakistan’s interest” and not to tolerate any future “attacks from Afghanistan on the Pak-Afghan border.”
In several interviews with national and international media, the Army spokesman, General Athar Abbas consistently argued that the ISI was not the only spy agency having contacts with the Haqqani network. For his part, General Kayani also cancelled a visit to the UK, where he was due to meet British Defence Secretary Liam Fox.
While in New York, Foreign Minister Khar also went on the offensive in condemning the US allegation. While terming the Haqqani network of once being a “blue-eyed boy” of the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), she said in a media interview on September 25: “This is not in the spirit of partnership…We have seriously conveyed to them [US] that you could lose an ally. You can’t afford to alienate Pakistani people.” She was reportedly asked by Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani to “return immediately” to the country after attending the UN session.
Subsequently, while a resolution was tabled in the US House of Representatives to suspend all US assistance to Pakistan, Pakistani Prime Minister called a national conference of all political parties in government or opposition to coalesce the nation together against any hostile US action violating Pakistani sovereignty beyond the scope of its already intensified drone campaign in the country’s tribal areas, particularly North Waziristan. This call came amid speculations in US media about the US security establishment working on military options in addition to drone attacks to strike the Haqqani network.
However, against this rather pessimistic backdrop, the beginning of this week saw each side muzzling its aggressive diplomatic posture. On September 26, State Department Spokesman Mark Toner said that there were "very clear challenges" for the United States and Pakistan. Still, he added, U.S. officials believe they can work constructively with Pakistani authorities to address concerns about the Haqqani network.
The same day, US ambassador to Pakistan Cameron Munter, who had just returned from Washington, met Pakistani Foreign Secretary Salman Bashir in Islamabad. Pakistan’s Foreign Office spokesperson reportedly said the two top diplomatic officials “agreed on dialogue and deeper engagement at all levels.”
Perhaps the most important development that could potentially defuse renewed tension in US-Pakistan relations is the highest level military contact between the two countries immediately following Admiral Mullen’s allegation. On September 23, the Chief of the US Central Command, General James Mattis arrived in Pakistan to meet General Kayani and General Khalid Shameem Wyne, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee, in Rawalpindi. During his meeting with the top US military commander, General Wyne reportedly “expressed his concern about the negative statements emanating from the US”, besides stressing the need to address “the irritants in the relationship which are a result of an extremely complex situation."
Islamabad also saw a flurry of additional diplomatic activity in the meantime. Saudi intelligence officials reportedly held talks with their Pakistani counterparts aimed at defusing US-Pakistan tension. Meng Jianzhu, China’s top security official, also landed in Pakistan, receiving an unusually warm response from its top civilian and security leadership. On September 27, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said: “We believe the independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity of Pakistan should be fully respected. China understands and supports Pakistan in working out and implementing its counter-terrorism policies based on its national conditions and appreciates its active participation in international counter-terrorism cooperation.
Pakistan has reached out to China for help after recurrently experiencing deterioration in its relations with the United States in recent months. China may be more concerned about terrorism in the region, as the threat from it grips its own Xinjiang province. However, unlike the US, it does not pressure Pakistan by taking terrorism-related irritants in relationship to the public domain. Even otherwise, and again unlike the US, relations between the two countries have seen sustained strategic orientation, making them what is commonly termed as “all-weather friends.”
It is not that the US and Pakistan have not recently attempted to re-orient their traditionally chequered relationship to the strategic level. In March, July and October 2010, the two countries held three consecutive rounds of Strategic Dialogue, agreeing to over dozen areas of civilian cooperation to be financed by multi-billion dollar US assistance under the Kerry-Lugar-Berman Act. The US also agreed to substantively increase its military assistance to Pakistan, which was suspended as US-Pakistan relations deteriorated second time during the current year after the killing of Osama bin Laden.
Even after this spectacular episode which played a major role in creating mutual distrust in US-Pakistan relations, the two countries’ security agencies did jointly undertake a successful counter-terrorism mission: that of capturing Sheikh Younis al-Mauritani, a senior al Qaeda leader known as the group's global operations chief in Quetta earlier this month.
The Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR)—Pakistan Army’s press department—stated afterwards: “This operation was planned and conducted with technical assistance of United States intelligence agencies with whom Inter-Services Intelligence has a strong, historic intelligence relationship. Both Pakistan and United States intelligence agencies continue to work closely together to enhance security of their respective nations.”
Given that, as argued at the start, the US and Pakistan undoubtedly have divergent priorities for tacking terrorism in the region. However, this does not mean that the path to overcoming such divergence should be abandoned. It is the terrorists, including al-Qaeda and its hardcore allies, which will reap the maximum benefit of any aggravation in the most premier counter-terrorism relationship in the post-9/11 period.
As a recent editorial in the Gulf News argues, “both countries have to realize mutual distrust is a zero sum game. Washington and Islamabad need to and go back to the drawing board in order to identify their core mission: destroying the nerve cells of terrorism and fundamentalism in the region…One cannot do without the other and the public attacks are only playing into the hands of the Taliban, Al Qaida and their numerous ‘sleeper cells' who have wrought havoc among innocent civilians…Pakistan is an important link to Afghanistan. That said it has its sovereign rights. The US sees Islamabad as an important partner but must respect all that Pakistan has offered so far and even lost in this unbalanced partnership.”
The much-talked about trust deficit in their relationship, that has valid historical roots and justifications for each, seems to be the key source of current conflict. This relationship needs to be conducted on a more transparent basis, with each side abiding by the rules of engagement after codifying them properly on the basis of mutually compatible self-interest. The United States needs to acknowledge and respect Pakistani sovereignty, and must not cross any “red line” in pursuing terrorists across the Durand Line. Likewise, Pakistan needs to assure US of all possible cooperation in future not to let its tribal areas, including North Waziristan, act as safe havens for terrorist insurgency in Afghanistan against US, NATO and Afghan forces.
However, if peace in Afghanistan will be possible only by reconciling current Afghan insurgents—a stance the Obama Administration has taken even though linking the issue with certain pre-conditions—then the Quetta Shura of the Afghan Taliban and the Haqqani network are two of the strongest Afghan insurgent groups to lead the reconciliation process from the insurgents side. Thus, the choice for Pakistan, Afghanistan and the United States—each of which has made a respective bid for Afghan reconciliation in recent years—is quite limited. Military action against such groups would dissuade them from reconciling, and no military action means continuity or aggravation in their insurgent campaign.
However, just to reiterate the previous argument, if history of US-Pakistan counter-terrorism relationship, which predates the terrorist events of 9/11, is any guide, instances of closer cooperation have often intersected with situations of potential conflict. There are compelling reasons to believe that the United States and Pakistan, through enhanced interaction between their respective top civilian leaders and security officials will eventually be able to move beyond the current tension in their ties—and, perhaps, jointly find a way out of their conflicting positions on the Haqqani network issue.
When it comes to seeking political resolution of the Afghan war, the respective interests of Pakistan and the United States seem to only coincide. Without Pakistan’s help, Afghan reconciliation is next to impossible. Even while the war in Afghanistan is going on, the US and NATO have no choice but to rely on Pakistan for the bulk of supplies for their over 1,40,000 troops in Afghanistan. For Pakistan as well, direct and indirect US assistance is and will be crucial for overcoming the terrorism-infested security quagmire.
Thus, in the final analysis, whether Afghanistan remains at war or makes a move towards peace, the mutual dependance of the United States and Pakistan in either case is quite clear. This creates a realistic framework for cooperation, a logical rationale against conflict, in their bilateral partnership in the region.
The commentary was published in weekly Pulse Magazine, September 30-October 6, 2011. It can be accessed at weeklypulse.org