A Tougher U.S. Tack on Pakistan

The United States has effectively issued an ultimatum to Islamabad implying greater unilateral action against Pakistan-based extremist groups, but Washington must be prepared to act on it, says CFR’s Daniel Markey.

September 26, 2011

To help readers better understand the nuances of foreign policy, CFR staff writers and Consulting Editor Bernard Gwertzman conduct in-depth interviews with a wide range of international experts, as well as newsmakers.

Chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen testified before Congress (PDF) on September 22 that the Haqqani network, the militant group blamed for the September 13 attack on the U.S. embassy in Kabul, is a "strategic arm" of Pakistan’s top spy agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). U.S. allegations of links between the ISI and extremist groups are hardly new (ForeignPolicy). But the latest remarks constitute a firm ultimatum that the United States will act unilaterally if Pakistan doesn’t crack down on extremist groups and official ties to those groups, says CFR’s South Asia expert Daniel Markey. Mullen’s remarks prompted outrage from Pakistani officials (WSJ) who deny such links. Markey warns that unless the United States can make this latest threat to Pakistan credible, Pakistan will not change the status quo. He recommends Washington be clear with the Pakistanis on the steps the United States is willing to take to destroy the Haqqani network, if Pakistan fails to do so.

Are Admiral Mullen’s remarks a prelude to more unilateral U.S. action inside Pakistan, such as cross-border raids and an increase in drone strikes?

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That’s precisely the argument being made that this is an ultimatum, that the United States is done listening to Pakistan’s excuses about why it will not act in North Waziristan [Pakistan’s tribal areas, where the Haqqani network leadership is suspected to be]. The United States doesn’t accept the Pakistani arguments that they’re not responsible for the Haqqani network’s activities inside of Afghanistan, [and is telling Pakistan] that the U.S. will take action into its own hands if it doesn’t see Pakistan change course. This is a clearer ultimatum than any we have ever heard.

We’ve had some versions of such ultimatums in the past. Is the United States more willing to act against Pakistan now than before?

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This is a more credible threat: It is more public and clear in terms of not just suggesting that Pakistan should go after the Haqqani network, but that Pakistan is partially responsible for the behavior and success of the Haqqani network, and the United States won’t stand for it.

It’s also a more credible threat because it’s been made before Congress. Congress controls the purse and is inclined not to allow military assistance to Pakistan to continue unless Pakistan takes efforts against the Haqqani network.

In its ultimatum, there is an implied threat that if Pakistan doesn’t take steps against the Haqqani network, the United States will.

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The fact that the United States took the action that it did against Osama bin Laden [in the May 2 SEALs attack on his Pakistan compound] also demonstrates a certain credibility to act inside of Pakistan. And the fact that U.S. has continued drone strikes in the aftermath of that attack, in spite of some fairly public Pakistani government criticism, also suggests the United States is serious this time around.

The United States is also more likely to be serious now than at other points because right now the level of U.S. military force in Afghanistan is the highest it’s likely to be. If U.S. is ever going to take such actions, now is the most likely time.

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Some think that the Pakistani security establishment’s links to groups like the Haqqani network are a hedge against an Afghan reconciliation process that may not work in their favor. If the United States gives Pakistan a seat at the negotiating table in the peace talks with insurgent groups--something Islamabad has been asking for--will the Pakistani calculus change?

You’re sketching out a hypothetical where you suggest that Pakistan would have a seat at the table. But what does that in fact mean if Pakistan’s favored political allies--the Haqqani network and the Afghan Taliban leadership that’s based inside of Pakistan--are excluded from the process? What influence, then, would Pakistan have over the peace process? From the Pakistani perspective, having a seat at the table means putting their favorite Afghan proxies into positions of power in a post-NATO Afghanistan.

But is any reconciliation process in Afghanistan even possible without influential groups like the Haqqani network?

From a Pakistani point of view, it’s very clear to them that this doesn’t end with Haqqani, which is part of the reason for their reluctance.

A lot of it depends on what you mean by "reconciliation process." If the question is whether certain elements of the current insurgents can be brought into a bigger tent of the Afghan government, then yes, it’s possible. You’re right, and others are right to be skeptical. It looks like it’s more difficult than anybody might have thought.

I’m increasingly inclined to believe that the U.S. government doesn’t see the Haqqani network as welcome in that bigger tent in Afghanistan because they’ve been too aligned with al-Qaeda, they’re too directly blood-stained in their efforts to fight against the United States, and they look too much like international terrorists to be included. So reconciliation at some level looks like some sort of political accommodation at the end of a war, but precisely who’s sitting at the table is not yet clear.

Since 2011, the United States has offered billions of dollars in military aid to Pakistan in return for counterterrorism cooperation. And it is also one of the leverages the United States applies, as reflected by the recent decision to withhold $800 million in military assistance (Reuters). If Pakistan refuses U.S. aid and stops cooperating with the United States, could it ally more closely with Iran and China, undermining U.S. interests in the region?

Pakistan has been pretty clear, and this is certainly true after the bin Laden raid, that they see China as their closest international partner. They reached out to China to fill in whatever gaps, in terms of military or other assistance, might be left should the U.S. relationship break down. My sense, though, is that China is reluctant to fill those gaps. China doesn’t make a practice of providing the scale or type of assistance that the United States has provided; China isn’t in a position to provide some of the higher technology that the United States has provided. It therefore is only a partial means to fill that gap that the United States would leave behind.

Iran is even more inadequate, incapable of helping Pakistan in some very important ways. Of course, this would be a direction that the United States would think is troubling, should Pakistan slide into Iran’s camp, or firm up its relationship with China at our expense. But the current situation is also not good from a U.S. perspective. So the hope is that by placing pressure on Pakistan now, Pakistan will make an about-face rather than find itself in camp with the Irans of the world. Pakistan doesn’t want to be a rogue state.

What should the United States do in the short term when it comes to dealing with Pakistan?

The problem is within the Pakistani security establishment, that they continue to believe that arming and working--actively and passively--with various militant groups serves their purposes.

In the near term, the United States has essentially leveled a threat against Pakistan. In its ultimatum, there is an implied threat that if Pakistan doesn’t take steps against the Haqqani network, the United States will. Unless the United States can make that threat credible no matter what Pakistan does to escalate what could be a looming conflict or crisis, Pakistan is likely to stand its ground. So to make this ultimatum succeed where others have failed, the United States needs to be clear and transparent about the steps it is willing to take.

The clarity has to be there, otherwise the Pakistanis will assume that they can ride this out. For its part, Washington will become increasingly frustrated and the relationship would likely bottom out anyway, because it will be very difficult for the United States to continue to provide assistance to a Pakistan that does not take action against the Haqqani network. So I see a downward trajectory in the relationship. In that context, clarity about the steps the United States is likely to take is important for Pakistan to understand, if only so that that threat will be more credible.

I would like to see the credible threat provoke a shift on Pakistan’s part. If we can see that, then we can begin to really turn the tide in this relationship. It worries me about going too far in shutting down opportunities for assistance to Pakistan. [Aid] suspensions are smart, conditionality--if narrowly targeted--makes sense. But if you turn off assistance and you don’t maintain the prospect that you might turn it back on again--if you begin to put into place a whole array of obstacles to future engagement--then the Pakistanis will have even less reason to believe that some brighter future is possible for them.

Is this U.S. ultimatum confined to the U.S. taking action against the Haqqani network, or does it translate to other Pakistan-based militant groups like Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT)o r Quetta Shura Taliban?

From a Pakistani point of view, it’s very clear to them that this doesn’t end with Haqqani, which is part of the reason for their reluctance. Pakistanis ask me, "Look if we cede ground on one group, you’ll be coming at us again on another." Where does this end? And why does the United States, from their perspective, get to define who the threats are? So it makes them skeptical about what we’re actually up to.

The problem is within the Pakistani security establishment, that they continue to believe that arming and working--actively and passively--with various militant groups serves their purposes. And they continue not to believe that these groups are necessarily dangerous to Pakistan or counterproductive to regional security.

Until that sort of soul searching takes place within the Pakistani military and the ISI, you’re not likely to see an end to these U.S. demands, and a real shift in terms of the relationship. That is the most significant shift that has to take place.


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