The Train Wreck

Complicated and fraught, U.S.-Pakistan relations took a turn for the worse with Adm. Mike Mullen’s Sept. 22 testimony before the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee in which he all but declared Pakistan as sponsoring terrorism in Afghanistan.

Admiral Mullen referred to evidence linking Inter-Services Intelligence to the attacks: “Extremist organizations serving as proxies of the government of Pakistan are attacking Afghan troops and civilians as well as U.S. soldiers. For example, we believe the Haqqani network—which has long enjoyed the support and protection of the Pakistani government and is, in many ways, a strategic arm of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency—is responsible for the Sept. 13 attacks against the U.S. Embassy in Kabul.”

Pakistan protested this accusation, and the Army chief, Gen. Ashfaq Kayani, reportedly was surprised by it since he said he had had a good exchange with Mullen in Spain the week before. Kayani termed Mullen’s testimony as “unfortunate and not based on facts.” Harsh words for his once best friend in the U.S. government. Clearly, the two “partners” against terrorism are talking past each other, yet again. And suspicion continues to dog this benighted “friendship.” If the people of Pakistan are angry and confused, they have good reason.

No one has yet spelled out to the Pakistani people the strategy of the Pakistani state’s efforts against insurgents and homegrown as well as foreign-supported terrorists. Who speaks for the state? Who acts on its behalf? At least two if not more centers of gravity exist as far as decision making is concerned. The most powerful voice being that of the Army chief; the quiet whispers of the ISI may be next, followed by the empty rhetoric of the civilian leadership that has failed to exercise effective control over domestic, defense, and foreign policies.

This most recent contretemps with the United States has been fueled by the speeding-up endgame in Afghanistan, as local and regional players vie for influence. Pakistan still appears to be caught in the Pakhtun puzzle: trying to win some influence over the militant Pakhtun groups whose territory abuts Pakistan’s western border and who use its territory as a base for attacking Afghanistan. In doing so, it has failed to recognize and work with all Afghanistan, a mosaic of different ethnic entities and interest groups. Pakistan’s archrival India has meanwhile consolidated its economic and political ties throughout Afghanistan by its infrastructure investments and other forms of economic aid, adding to Pakistan’s concerns about being sandwiched between the two.

This is a time for bold and creative thinking by Pakistan’s civilian government and military and not for the age-old “staff solutions” that inhibit daring action. Neutralizing the hostility on its eastern flank with India is one good option. Reaching out to the Shia and to the Tajik, Uzbek, and Hazara ethnic groups inside Afghanistan may be another, while maintaining links to all Pakhtuns in Afghanistan.

Favoring the Afghan Taliban groups, be they Haqqani’s or Mullah Omar’s people, may well create a new threat to Pakistan as the likely conflict inside Afghanistan after the allies withdraw may reverse the sanctuary available to Pakistan’s own Taliban terrorists. The Kunar sanctuary that prompts attacks in the northern reaches of the Federally-Administered Tribal Areas and Dir may be a precursor of a wider phenomenon. Recall also that Pakistan has never been able to exercise full control over foreign or domestic militants. If it did, its domestic and external relationships would be in far better shape than they are today.

Back to the “frenemy” odd couple: today Pakistan and the United States remain heavily codependent. The U.S. needs both air and land lines of communication via Pakistan for its final years of active fighting in Afghanistan. President Barack Obama will be under increasing pressure from his electorate to bring the boys and girls home sooner rather than later.

Pakistan’s military could benefit from U.S. equipment and technical expertise and its teetering economy badly needs U.S. support not only directly but also through the international financial institutions. Even Pakistan’s friends in the region are concerned about its state of affairs and the rise of terrorism inside the country. At a recent conference that I attended in Beijing on potential U.S.-China cooperation in Central Asia and the Middle East, our Chinese hosts and other well-informed contacts were anxious about the current growth, and support, of Islamist militancy in the region. They have good reason for that concern. So should Pakistan.

The genie of militancy that the Pakistani state once fostered is running rampant. Pakistan does not need the U.S. or other countries to warn it of the consequences of inaction against terrorism at home and abroad. It must recognize the danger of its wars within and come up with a combined civil-military plan under civilian control. As the head of the ISI, Lt. Gen. Ahmed Shuja Pasha told Der Spiegel on Jan. 6, 2009: “We may be crazy in Pakistan but not completely out of our minds. We know full well that terror is our enemy, not India.” Those ground realities have not changed since.

Let the prime minister speak to the nation and outline this new strategy that abjures support for any militancy inside its borders or in neighboring countries. President Pervez Musharraf once made such a bold pledge in public to open the doors to India but failed to garner support for it or to implement it fully. That opportunity still remains open for Pakistan’s leaders. (President Richard Nixon ordered the Central Intelligence Agency to cease all operations in mainland China before his historic 1972 visit to Beijing and “leaked” the order to the Chinese.) Pakistan is at yet another critical fork in the road. Will it dither or boldly take the right path?

Shuja Nawaz is director of the South Asia Center at the Atlantic Council, and is the author of Crossed Swords: Pakistan, its Army, and the Wars Within. This essay first appeared in Newsweek Pakistan.