Terra Incognita: The Pakistan two-step
By TERRA INCOGNITA
It is time for the US to downgrade ties with this dangerous "ally."
‘Never before has a US official so publicly linked Pakistan to attacks on Americans. It is a sickening accusation given the fact that the US has been giving Pakistan nearly $2 billion a year, money to fight terrorism, not support it.”
Those were the words Martha Raddatz, senior foreign affairs correspondent at ABC news, on September 22. The man whose name has headlined these revelations is Admiral Mike Mullen, the chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee, he declared: “In continuing to use violent extremism, as an instrument of policy, the government of Pakistan, army and ISI jeopardizes our strategic partnership.”
Sitting beside the four-star admiral was US Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, who explained that “a very clear message [must be sent] to them and to others that they must take steps to prevent the safe havens that [terrorists] are using [in Pakistan].”
That Mullen made his blunt statement just days before he is due to retire suggests that he was asked to provide the stronger testimony before Congress whereas Panetta, who will remain secretary of defense, would set a softer tone.
The events at the heart of the recent allegations were an attack on the Intercontinental Hotel in Kabul and a September 13 attack on the US embassy there. The story that Pakistan’s intelligence service, the ISI, was behind the attacks, through the use of Islamist proxies, was headline news in many newspapers in the West.
The Pakistani press has also reported about Mullen’s comments. This has triggered a series of stories detailing meetings among Pakistani army officers aimed at “meeting amid tensions” with the US. The latest talking point being put forward by Pakistani commentators, such as Interior Minister Rehman Malik, is that the CIA was behind the creation of the Haqqani network.
The Haqqani network is actually a sort of family business that originated in the mountainous southern Afghan region of Paktia, which borders Pakistan’s North Waziristan province. It was founded by Jalaludin Haqqani (born about 1950) and is now run in cooperation with his son. During the 1980s Haqqani initially allied himself with the hardcore Islamist Afghani Gulbeddin Hekmatyar. Later, he found his way not only to Pakistan’s ISI but also to the CIA and US Congressman Charlie Wilson. He received arms and tens of thousands of dollars in US and Saudi aid to fight the Soviets, with much of the money and weapons being channeled through the ISI. This ISI-CIA campaign to throw the Soviets out of Afghanistan was the subject of the famous 2003 book Charlie Wilson’s War, which was later made into a movie.
THE “REVELATIONS” about the role of the ISI in Pakistan and the double game it plays have been common knowledge to anyone reporting about the conflict in the region for more than a decade. The story of the ISA-Taliban relationship has been told in several books and numerous articles by Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid. In an interview with Harpers, Rashid said, “This lack of US interest [after 2001] coincided with the interests of the Pakistani army: to go after al Qaida, but to allow the Taliban to resettle in Pakistan. Quite soon the Taliban was once again patronized by the ISI.”
Indian intelligence experts have long warned the US and the world that the ISI has been funding terrorist networks in Kashmir and Central Asia since the 1980s. Most recently, however, the US has come face to face with Pakistani complicity to an extent that is hard to ignore. The fact that Osama Bin Laden was found living in a town dominated by the Pakistani military clearly illustrated either the incompetence of Pakistan or it complicity in hiding him.
Some commentators have painted a picture of an ISI that is so autonomous that the Pakistani government cannot be held responsible for its actions. David Rohde at Reuters argues that “instead of blaming all Pakistanis for the action of the ISI, the United States must help moderate Pakistanis reform an out-of-step, out-of-control agency.”
This is a convenient story for those that like to imagine that intelligence organizations such as the CIA are engaged in so many “black” operations that they are a law unto themselves. But to judge from their statements, at least some of Pakistan’s politicians don’t subscribe to this notion, and make no distinction between the ISI and the government.
Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar responded to Mullen’s allegations by threatening the US: “You cannot afford to alienate Pakistan, you cannot afford to alienate the Pakistani people. If you are choosing to do so and if they are choosing to do so it will be at their own cost.”
This is the Pakistani quagmire; politicians either blaming the CIA, claiming they are helpless against the power of the ISI, or daring the US to severe ties with them. They accuse the US of “losing an ally” in Pakistan or “alienating” the Pakistani people.
The US government must respond to the reality. The Pakistani people cannot be “alienated,” and the US cannot “lose an ally” it doesn’t have. The US faced the same duplicity when it worked with the South Vietnamese government in the 1960s.
Some argue that the ISI and Pakistan do, from time to time, turn in Taliban commanders.
But the reality is that this should be viewed much like a mafia family that turns in other mafiosi just so that it can get stronger. Pakistan’s government has perfected the two-step, a dance routine where you step in one direction and then end up going the other way. Pakistan hands over the Taliban it doesn’t like, to weaken those factions it can’t control, while holding close to those like Haqqani who have been allies with the ISI since the 1980s. Pakistan paints a picture of a Mexican stand-off with the US, where the US can’t ditch its useless “ally,” but Mike Mullen’s statements may finally point the way to a realistic severing or downgrading of ties with this dangerous, unstable country.
The writer has a PhD from Hebrew University, and is a fellow at the Jerusalem Institute for Market Studies.