May issue 2011
If relations between Pakistan and the US were not frosty enough, they certainly are now. Operation Geronimo, the bizarre name given by the US to its successful night-time raid on Osama bin Laden, has effectively isolated Pakistan in the world of international public opinion more than ever before. By killing the most wanted man on the planet on Pakistani soil in his conspicuous hideout located a stone’s throw away from the Kakul military training facility, the US has the entire world wondering whether the infamous Al Qaeda leader was being protected by sympathetic forces within Pakistan’s military and intelligence agencies, and perhaps even within the elected government. Commentators around the world see the fatal capture of bin Laden on Pakistani sole as confirmation of Islamabad’s double game, its ties with militant Islam and its resolve to harbour terrorists, including Al Qaeda.
Moreover, with its official story that the Zardari government was kept in the dark about the covert operation until after its completion, Washington has declared to Islamabad, and the entire global community, that Pakistan cannot be trusted. Post the biggest manhunt of the last decade, even CIA Director Leon Panetta has said that there was concern that if notified ahead of time, officials within the Pakistani establishment could have alerted bin Laden. Besides that insult, right-wing analysts in Pakistan immediately screamed about another violation of national sovereignty. General Pervez Musharraf echoed this. And after quietly accepting the operation the first day, Pakistan’s foreign office eventually expressed concern over the legitimacy of the US unilateral action saying that the event “cannot be taken as a rule.” An official statement released on May 3 said, “Such an event shall not serve as a future precedent for any state, including the US. Such actions undermine cooperation and may also sometimes constitute a threat to international peace and security.”
But the White House refused to apologise and said that their approach was correct and could be repeated if necessary. With other Al Qaeda leaders such as Ayman al-Zawahiri at large, and the Pakistani Taliban and other local militant groups deemed to be a threat to the US, it seems more aggressive action by the CIA could take place, especially given the success of the bin Laden episode.
So despite President Barack Obama’s public praise of Pakistan’s helpful role in tracking bin Laden, the stealthy Abbottabad raid was a not-so subtle and publicly tough message from Washington to Islamabad: we don’t fully trust you, and so we will do what we need to. The fact is, though, tough messages had already been delivered recently.
The US is obsessed with the Haqqani Network, arguably the most powerful group among the Afghan Taliban, and in North Waziristan, the Pakistani tribal region bordering Afghanistan where the Haqqanis are supposed to be based.
The Americans want Pakistan’s military to launch a big operation in North Waziristan and dismantle the Haqqani Network. It is an old US demand, but it is now being made frequently and forcefully. There have been two limited and inconclusive military actions against the militants in North Waziristan in recent years, but the US would like a bigger operation like the ones undertaken by Pakistan’s security forces in Swat, Buner, Lower Dir and South Waziristan, sometimes referred to as steam-rollers for sweeping and demolishing everything that came in the way. More importantly, the US wants a military operation focused on the Haqqani Network and its affiliated groups including the remnants of Al Qaeda.
Admiral Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, made this issue the focus of his attention during his latest two-day visit to Pakistan. Mullen visited Pakistan 20 times in recent years and the April 20-21 visit was the 21st. But never before had he been so focused and persistent in demanding that Pakistan act against the Haqqani Network. As part of an unusual media offensive, during which he gave interviews to two newspapers and a TV channel, Mullen accused the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) of having long-standing ties to the Haqqani Network. He also stressed that this relationship was at the core of the current problems between the US and Pakistan.
If the highest-ranking US soldier was in Pakistan on a fence-mending mission, his outbursts ensured that the relationship between the two uneasy allies would remain tense and uncertain. It certainly wasn’t an effort at shoring up troubled US-Pakistan ties. Instead, Mullen was in Pakistan to deliver a tough message and to do it bluntly and repeatedly. In fact, he made his strong-worded statements before his meetings with his Pakistani counterparts, including the army chief General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani. This left no doubt that the purpose was to bring General Kayani under pressure. Further proof that their meeting wasn’t friendly, as one analyst opined, was the absence of any “smiling photo op” after they had met. In fact, one media report claimed Mullen told Kayani that the US drones strikes would continue until the Pakistani military targeted the Haqqani Network in North Waziristan.
Another indication that the Mullen-Kayani meeting failed to repair the damage to military ties between Pakistan and the US was Kayani’s statement rejecting Mullen’s comments and utterances by other US officials as “negative propaganda.” The Mullen visit was, therefore, a failure if the idea was to put US relations with Pakistan back on track, or browbeat Islamabad into initiating quick military action in North Waziristan to take out the Haqqani Network and like-minded groups.
That the two countries differed fundamentally on the roadmap for fighting militancy and extremism was in full public view earlier, when the US criticised Pakistan for lacking a clear strategy to tackle the challenge. Islamabad’s reply was to highlight its successes in clearing Swat and the rest of Malakand division of the militants, capturing their strongholds in South Waziristan and elsewhere in the tribal areas, and isolating the Pakistani Taliban and jihadis by winning public support for the military campaign in northwestern Pakistan.
There could be repercussions if the stalemate continues and US frustration with Pakistan increases further. The recent reshuffling of the national security team by President Barack Obama – that proposes making the CIA chief Leon Panetta the new Defence Secretary in place of Robert Gates and replacing him with General David Petraeus – could herald changes in the way the war is being fought in the Af-Pak region and as a consequence impact US relations with Pakistan. Petraeus isn’t known to be a friend of Pakistan and as the new head of the CIA he will be leading the drone attacks in Pakistan’s tribal areas and inevitably making even more enemies in both Islamabad, the seat of the government, and Rawalpindi, the army’s general headquarters. Petraeus’s successor Lt Gen John R. Allen as the US and NATO military commander in Afghanistan will also be under pressure to deliver in the faltering war against the Taliban and this won’t be possible unless he is able to persuade Pakistan to put its weight behind his effort.
Mullen was supposedly a friend of Pakistan and often a defender of its interests in the power hierarchy in the US. But it seems this image was contrived in a bid to bring him closer to Kayani. It was often claimed in the US media that he had developed an understanding with Kayani. This was the reason for him to become a kind of trouble-shooter whenever US relations with Pakistan hit snags. However, his latest trouble-shooting journey to Pakistan didn’t work.
Mullen’s job was to protect the interests of the US even if he pretended to be a friend of Pakistan. On January 13, 2011, he told reporters in categorical terms his views about Pakistan, the primary US ally in the fight against terrorism: “I have said it before and I will say it again. It (Pakistan) is the epicentre of terrorism in the world right now. It is absolutely critical that the safe havens in Pakistan get shut down. We cannot succeed in Afghanistan without that. It’s not just the Haqqani Network anymore, or Al Qaeda or TTP (Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan), the Afghan Taliban, or LeT (Lashkar-i-Tayyaba), it’s all of them working together.” That was what he said three-and-a half months ago, but now he is identifying the Haqqani Network as being at the core of existing problems between the US and Pakistan.
That the US military, politicians and diplomats shared almost similar views about Pakistan could be judged from the American diplomatic cables revealed by WikiLeaks, in which the previous US ambassador to Pakistan, Anne Patterson, wrote in a secret review in 2009 that “Pakistan’s Army and ISI are covertly sponsoring four militant groups – Haqqani’s Haqqani Network, Mulla Omar’s Quetta Shura of Taliban, Al Qaeda and Lashkar-i-Tayyaba – and will not abandon them for any amount of US money.” This is a serious charge as the ISI has been accused of many things but not of sponsoring Al Qaeda, the Osama bin Laden-led organisation that has time and again unsuccessfully appealed to the Pakistani people to stage an uprising against their government and take part in the ‘jihad’ against the US. As if this wasn’t enough, WikiLeaks also disclosed recently that US authorities at the Guantanamo Bay detention cell, while listing terrorist groups in 2007, treated the ISI at par with organisations such as Al Qaeda and the Taliban.
Such an inimical view of the ISI in the US explains the huge distrust characterising relations between the two countries. It is now part of history that the ISI and the CIA worked closely together in the 1980s and 1990s to defeat the Soviet Red Army and Communism in Afghanistan by arming and training the Afghan mujahideen. However, the ISI was then in the driving seat and the CIA listened to its advice and followed its lead in dealings with the mujahideen. Now the CIA has greater assets on the ground, both in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and is no longer dependent on the ISI. In fact, the CIA managed to infiltrate its agents such as Raymond Davis, the ‘diplomat’ who shot dead two young Pakistanis giving him a chase in Lahore and later bought his way to safety through a blood-money deal facilitated by the ISI, in Pakistan without taking its Pakistani counterparts into confidence. The issue of these CIA operatives disguised as diplomats and the US drone strikes in Pakistan’s tribal areas are now the major irritants in the US-Pakistan relationship.
There are indications that the Pakistani military may undertake a targeted operation in North Waziristan to tackle the TTP and other foreign and local militants fighting the state of Pakistan, and sending suicide bombers to hit targets in the cities. But such an action could still fall short of US expectations. Pakistan’s plea is that the Haqqani Network isn’t based in North Waziristan and that its fighters and head, Commander Sirajuddin Haqqani, are all fighting across the border in Afghanistan. In case of a military action by Pakistan’s security forces in North Waziristan, the Haqqani Network is unlikely to suffer any major losses. In fact, its men who may be hiding in North Waziristan would relocate to other places and stay safe. This would mean that the US won’t be satisfied with the military operation and would continue to demand targeted action against the Haqqani Network and the Mulla Omar-led Taliban.
For the US to achieve or claim victory in Afghanistan, weakening of the Taliban is essential and it believes this cannot happen unless their safe havens in Pakistan are dismantled. Pakistan, on the other hand, is promoting peace talks and political reconciliation with the Taliban for ending the conflict in Afghanistan. There is not much likelihood that the US and Pakistan will be able to narrow down their differences regarding the endgame of the Afghan conflict. One should, therefore, expect more of the same with the CIA and the ISI playing games to outwit each other. And the raid on Osama’s compound in Abbottabad has made it clear that the US is not afraid to play bigger games on Pakistani soil, no matter the embarrassment to their coalition partner at home or abroad.
Related articles from the May 2011 cover story:
The Day After: The Death of Osama, his legacy and the big question for Pakistan: “With Osama gone, is Pakistan now Public Enemy Number One?”
Related articles from our Blog Row:
Video: Husain Haqqani on CNN after the OBL raid
This article was originally published as part of the cover story in the print edition of Newsline for May 2011.
Rahimullah Yusufzai is a Peshawar-based senior journalist who covers events in the NWFP, FATA, Balochistan and Afghanistan. His work appears in the Pakistani and international media. He has also contributed chapters to books on the region.