By Patricia Lee Sharpe
Dealing with Pakistan, diplomatically and militarily, presents a very special challenge. All governments lie sometimes, but the truth in Pakistan co-habits promiscuously with its more frequently expressed opposite. Presented with offical statements from Islamabad, the question that should arise is: what do they really mean this time? Right now Prime Minister Gilani appears to be angry. But who knows?
A Question of I.S.I. Complicity in Embassy Assault
Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, appearing before a Senate Armed Services Committee on the eve of his retirement, fired a wow of a parting salvo which clearly hit home in Islamabad, too. This is what he said:
“With ISI support, Haqqani operatives planned and conducted that truck bomb attack [on the Intercontinental hotel in Islamabad], as well as the assault [last week]on our embassy.” All in all, he emphasized, “the Haqqani network acts as a veritable arm of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency.”
U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Ryan Crocker has corroborated the assertion that the Haqqanis were behind the embassy attack. He has not been reported to have made the explicit I.S.I. connection.
Many times in the past American officials have insinuated that the ties between violent extremists and the military in Pakistan are too cozy for comfort, a legacy of the first Afghan war and Pakistan’s proxy war against India in Kashmir, but this is the first time, to my knowledge, that such a bald accusation of complicity in anti-American attacks has been made by a high level American official for public consumption. Unlike General David Petraeus, who was something of a political general before he shed his uniform and became head of the Central Intelligence Agency, Adm. Mullen has not specialized in splashy statements and does not seem to have a reputation as a loose cannon, which gives considerable credibility to his accusations. It also suggests that he has been chosen by the Obama administration as the vehicle for letting Pakistan know that the game is up. The time for creative ambiguity is over An attack on an American embassy isn’t just a reflection of some mild divergence in national interests. It’s an attack of the U.S. itself.
Interpreting Pakistan's Denial
The Pakistani government’s official responses to Admiral Mullen’s charges have been predictably full of fury, but it’s difficult to know what this means because the Pakistani establishment regularly says one thing to the Pakistani public and another in private to the U.S. Case in point: drone attacks on targets in the F.A.T.A. areas bordering Afghanistan, which serve as safe havens for Taliban fighters and their allies. The Pakistani public wants them stopped. Government officials, quoted in the Pakistani press, denounce drone attacks as unacceptable violations of national sovereignty. Meanwhile, the Pakistani military is helping to guide U.S. drones to mutually agreed upon targets.
Back to Gilani. In the case of the attack on the U.S. embassy in Kabul, is the Pakistani government (1) innocent of the charges and justifiably outraged by the accusation of complicity, (2) guilty as charged of using the Haqqani network to achieve goals directly antithetical to those of the U.S. while vigorously denying complicity or (3) guilty, but only of using the Haqqanis to punish the U.S. for cutting back on military aid for reasons I won’t go into here and now.
It’s easy to believe that the long-standing relationship between the very useful Haqqani clan and I.S.I. was never fully severed. What's more, Pakistan is very clever about not denying the existence of contacts. Just keeping tabs, as good intelligence operatives should, the I.S.I. says. Right! However, I have to wrestle with the idea that the highest Pakistani officials were party to a decision to attack the U.S. embassy, even as it seems to me that an act as serious as an embassy assault could only happen with approval from the top. Assuming any complicity, of course. And, indeed, why not? The U.S. could be a very nasty thorn in Pakistan’s side when it comes to determining the political future of Afghanistan, which Pakistan would dearly love to control, to the total exclusion of India, whether or not that means a reTalibanization of the country. Perhaps there are those who think that the U.S. will skedaddle more quickly and more completely if the costs are escalated.
No Time to be a Haqqani
If so, what a mistake! The wrong target was chosen. No one attacks an American embassy with impunity. Bin Laden was a dead man as soon as he was associated with the bombing of the U.S. embassies in Nairobi and Dar-es-Salaam. The 9/11 debacle simply provided extra motivation for hunting him down. It took ten years, but he was found, in Pakistan, and not in a mountain hideout, which raised a number of very interesting questions as well as Pakistani hackles. Was the the government of Pakistan providing him with the far from palacial safehouse? The official Pakistani respons, naturally, is negative. That said, I wonder if the leading members of the Haqqani network are pondering Bin Laden’s fate. They should be. They are going to be hunted down, whether or not the I.S.I. loves them, whether or not the Pakistanis complain about territorial violations.
Which gives rise to another thought: is it possible that the Paskistanis want the U.S. to do exactly this? Get rid of the Haqqanis for them. Have the Haqqanis got too big even for their baggy Pathan britches, now that Pakistan itself is being ravaged by religion-inspired violence? Not just to help the U.S., but also on their own account, the Pakistani army has mobilized against militants in the frontier area. They have even collaborated in the capture of figures sought by the U.S. But taking on the Hakkanis alone would be daunting, even if Pakistan were willing to withdraw more troops from the Indian border. Do they possibly want the U.S. to do their dirty work for them?
Meanwhile, of course, Pakistan’s civilian politicians are loudly warning the U.S. not to violate Pakistani territory in search of the embassy attackers: no boots on the ground they say. No sane American could disagree with this demand. Do the warnings apply to drones, too? Proabably. At least for public consumption. The politicians must insulate themselves from public outrange when drones hit the wrong target.
A Sober but Short-Sighted Military Reaction
The military response has been more nuanced. At an "unprecedented" Sunday meeting, the High Command decided that the war of words needs to be “de-escalated” considerably. Karachi’s daily Dawn reports a source as saying that “escalation is harmful. In the cost benefit analysis there appears to be no benefit of a confrontation” with the U.S. Cost-benefit analysis indeed! The Pakistani army certainly doesn’t want to slaughter the goose that lays hundreds of millions of dollars of golden eggs. The source also reported that the meeting ended with “nothing to suggest that the army had agreed to act against the Haqqani network under U.S. pressure.”
Shrugging off U.S. complaints in the confident belief that the status quo will quickly reassert itself might have been the sensible way to go in the past. Over and over again the U.S. has granted the Pakistani government immunity for outrageous double-dealing. This time, however, complacency may be the wrong reaction.