U.S.-Pakistan relations: Is this the end of the affair?

U.S.-Pakistan relations: Is this the end of the affair?

A senior U.S. official — Admiral Mike Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff — has publicly fingered the Haqqani network as a tool of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency. What’s surprising is that this is particularly newsworthy: ISI’s relationship with the Haqqanis has been an open secret for years. What’s different, of course, is that the latest Haqqani attack was not on American forces deployed in Afghanistan but on the U.S. embassy in Kabul — and that the U.S. government possesses unambiguous evidence of official Pakistani complicity in last week’s assault.

In addition to killing American and allied soldiers fighting in Afghanistan and targeting American diplomats in Kabul, Haqqani forces have for years targeted Indian assets in Afghanistan, including several deadly assaults on the Indian embassy in Kabul. Skeptics of Pakistani denials of official complicity have long noted that the Haqqani network, based in North Waziristan, has never attacked an official target in Pakistan – further evidence of its collusive relationship with that country’s security services.

The Haqqanis offer Pakistan’s armed forces a high-impact, low-cost tool with which to advance the Pakistani military’s foreign policy goals: hastening the Western drawdown in Afghanistan, putting Pakistan in pole position to shape an Afghan political settlement that marginalizes (and subjugates) the government in Kabul, and bleeding India while ensuring that its popularity among Afghans – and historic interests in Afghanistan — does not translate into a bigger Indian strategic footprint on Pakistan’s doorstep.

From the Haqqanis’ perspective, the benefits are mutual: the elevation of their position as a core component of the Afghan Taliban (within which they are distinct from the Quetta Shura and other groups); generous and dependable Pakistani sponsorship (including military supply and intelligence support); a political writ from Islamabad that supports the Haqqanis’ mafia-like (and richly rewarding) economic penetration of eastern Afghanistan; and a secure sanctuary in the Pakistani borderlands — where they are safe (so far) from U.S. drone strikes on account of Washington’s reluctance to anger Pakistan’s general staff by blowing up a valuable strategic asset.

So has the U.S. calculus changed? A star-spangled array of American military, intelligence, and diplomatic leaders has warned Pakistan that this time is different. Senator Lindsey Graham, a leader in the Senate on national security issues, has suggested that America should "put all options on the table" in defense of American troops fighting and dying against Pakistani-sponsored insurgents in Afghanistan.

In response, the Pakistani military’s high command has rallied the country’s civilian leadership to reject the U.S. ultimatum to end Islamabad’s relationship with the Haqqanis. Pakistan’s foreign minister warns that America risks "losing an ally"; Pakistani officials warn of an outpouring of Pakistani hostility and Islamic radicalization should America take its drone war to the Haqqani headquarters in Miram Shah. Apparently the Haqqani network really is that valuable — and that intimate with — Pakistan’s security services, to the point where the entire apparatus of the Pakistani state is rallying to its defense.

It seems clear that the deal the United States made with Pakistan after 9/11 — we provide oodles of military assistance in return for Pakistani support for our goals in Afghanistan — is not sustainable. The tweak to this policy, enacted late in the Bush administration and intensified by President Obama with strong Congressional support, of matching military with civilian assistance to more directly benefit the Pakistan people — and transform the civil-military balance within the state — was always going to be a generational undertaking unlikely to produce results within only a few years.

Nor is billions of dollars per year in civil and military assistance sustainable, in the current U.S. fiscal environment, to a country that is no ally when it comes to the endgame in Afghanistan — and that plays the role of spoiler in America’s relationship with the most potentially important rising power of the 21st: century: India.

These developments raise the ugly but necessary question of what a completely different – and adversarial — U.S. approach to Pakistan would look like, one that dispenses of the underlying logic that the countries are allies at all.

Such an approach would require the United States not to leave Afghanistan to Pakistan’s designs but to keep a significant deployment of U.S. troops in place to deter and defeat Islamabad’s efforts to renew the sphere of influence it enjoyed there when its Taliban allies were in power. (Naturally, this would be harder to do if Pakistan refused us access to its territory to resupply our forces in Afghanistan). It would call for the CIA to cease cooperating with ISI, which it continues to rely on for access to the region, on the grounds that our fundamental goals are incompatible. It would suggest doubling down on our relationship with India, including supporting a greater Indian strategic, political, and economic presence in Afghanistan (which would be welcomed by most Afghans) as a stabilizing force in a troubled country. It would require us to convince Beijing not to fill the vacuum left by the withdrawal of American patronage towards Pakistan; China would need to pursue approaches that complement ours rather than continuing to provide unqualified support to its revisionist, increasingly radicalized ally.

This approach would also require American leaders to take a hard look at our own history in the region. The United States walked away from Afghanistan following the Soviet withdrawal in 1989 and spent the 1990s sanctioning Pakistan, helping to spawn the anti-Americanism that pervades the officer corps and broader public today. Are we prepared to walk away and sanction Pakistan again, and if we do, are we prepared to deal with the consequences? Or have the current terms of the relationship so manifestly failed that we have no choice?