With Friends Like These…
It’s time to wake up, Washington. Pakistan’s military is running the show in Islamabad, and the WikiLeaks revelations have only confirmed that supporting jihadi terrorist groups aren’t the actions of a few, rogue generals -- it’s government strategy.
Until recently, the relationship between Islamabad and New Delhi seemed to be going relatively well. Tempers had calmed in the wake of the November 2008 Mumbai terror attacks, substantive discussions at the bureaucratic level were well under way, and the highest levels of government had given their blessing to joint diplomatic talks held on July 16. But things have turned sour — as they often do on the subcontinent — with a remarkable quickness.
Two seemingly unrelated events of the past two weeks have illustrated a fundamental problem with the nature of the Indo-Pakistani relationship. The first was the breakdown of the talks in Islamabad. At their press conference following the closed-door meeting, Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi excoriated the Indian home secretary for publicly announcing that David Coleman Headley, a Pakistani-American charged with involvement in the Mumbai attacks, had worked closely with Pakistani intelligence. The outburst brought an acrimonious end to the carefully planned talks.
The second was the decision of three news organizations to simultaneously publish significant excerpts from a trove of classified documents made available by WikiLeaks, the self-described global whistleblower website. The documents alleged that over the past several years, despite public professions of close cooperation with the United States on the antiterrorism front, Pakistan’s powerful Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) directorate had actually abetted and aided the Afghan Taliban, the Pakistani jihadist group Lashkar-e-Taiba, and the Afghan insurgent leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. Beyond these startling revelations, the documents also charged that the ISI had provided information to insurgents about U.S. troop movements, their likely operations, and military capabilities.
Both developments highlight the disturbing dominance of Pakistan’s permanent military establishment and their ongoing ties to jihadi groups. Even though a civilian regime assumed office in Pakistan in September 2008, the country’s military has experienced little or no change. Gen. Pervez Musharraf’s hand-picked successor, Gen. Ashfaq Kiyani, though nominally subservient to the civilian regime, remains primus inter pares. And the security establishment that he presides over has not lost sight of its two cardinal and related principles: unremitting hostility toward India and the need for a pliable regime in Afghanistan.
Pakistan’s military has long cultivated ties with a host of religious militants, but the notion that it might be convinced to abandon its use of asymmetric war strategies in Afghanistan and Indian-controlled Kashmir seems increasingly unlikely. Contrary to popular belief, the security establishment’s links with these groups is not of recent vintage. Pakistan has used jihadi proxies to varying effect against India since the first war following partition in 1947. They were also the basis for another assault against India in 1965.
Of course, the use of jihadis reached its peak under the leadership of Gen. Zia-ul-Haq, during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. After the Soviets departed, the ISI played a decisive role in the Afghan civil war that brought the Taliban to power. By installing that regime in Kabul, Pakistan’s security establishment realized its long-sought goal of "strategic depth" against India.
Meanwhile, thanks to India’s ineptitude in the handling of political demands in its Muslim-majority state of Kashmir, an insurgency there erupted in 1989. Almost immediately, the Pakistani security establishment sent in its militant surrogates, transforming a domestic rebellion into a well-funded, externally supported, and religiously oriented extortion racket.
In the aftermath of September 11, 2001, General Musharraf was coerced by the United States to cut his ties to the Taliban and a plethora of other jihadi organizations. Musharraf, however, didn’t want to lose Pakistan’s strategic assets in Afghanistan and Kashmir. So even as he delivered a handful of key al Qaeda leaders including Abu Farraj al-Libi, reputedly the group’s third in command, he did little or nothing to curb the activities of other jihadi organizations, most notably Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammed, two of the largest and most active Islamist terrorist organizations in South Asia. Instead, they were allowed to operate with considerable impunity from a number of encampments within Pakistan.
Even in the wake of the Lashkar-organized Mumbai attacks, the Pakistani security establishment chose to coddle its leader, Hafiz Mohammed Saeed. Under substantial American and Indian pressure, he was briefly placed under house arrest. Shortly thereafter, though, two Pakistani courts declared that there was insufficient evidence linking him to the Mumbai attacks and he was allowed free to resume peddling venomous anti-Indian and anti-Jewish propaganda.
Just weeks before the WikiLeaks episode, stories had started to surface in the American press about Lashkar attacks on coalition forces in Afghanistan. Fearful that growing evidence of the group’s involvement in Afghanistan could hurt relations with Pakistan, the Pentagon chose to play down the significance of the attacks. But in the aftermath of the WikiLeaks allegations, it is hard to see how these concerns can now be swept under a rug.
The American and the Pakistani political establishments are now scrambling to contain the diplomatic damage from this week’s revelations — stressing that the evidence is dated and that U.S. policy and Pakistani behavior have changed significantly since the Obama administration entered office.
Don’t bet on it. In its quest to establish a firm political foothold in Afghanistan after the American military drawdown in July 2011, Pakistan’s security establishment will soon insist that Hamid Karzai’s government in Kabul make peace with two of its most reliable proxies, the forces loyal to Afghan warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and the Taliban network of Sirajuddin Haqqani. Not only will Pakistan have managed to reinstall a pliant regime in Afghanistan, but will also have dramatically limited what Islamabad sees as a dagger pointed at its heart — India’s growing influence to the northwest.
Simply put, the military establishment simply does not want peace with India. Meaningful progress on contentious bilateral issues would inevitably call into question its extraordinary privileges and its lavish existence. Likewise, it has little or no interest in full-fledged counterterrorism cooperation with the United States. A swift and decisive end to the swarm of jihadis operating within Pakistan and along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border would mean an end to the seemingly unending flow of American largesse. The time has now arrived for the Obama administration to undertake a policy review that explores alternative logistics supply routes into Afghanistan and one that will lower the boom on Pakistan — unless it shows tangible and immediate progress on the counterterrorism cooperation front. A policy that falls short on these two counts is an invitation for the continued loss of blood and treasure to no viable end.