The South Asia Channel

The United States, Pakistan, and the perils of brinkmanship

Last May I asked Major General Niaz Muhammad Khan Khattak, the Deputy Director of the ISI, Pakistan’s premier intelligence agency, about his organization’s links with the Haqqani Network. "If you always focus on the mosaic," he said, pointing to the Afghan rug in his sumptuous office, "that’s all you’ll see." Today it doesn’t matter how ...


Last May I asked Major General Niaz Muhammad Khan Khattak, the Deputy Director of the ISI, Pakistan’s premier intelligence agency, about his organization’s links with the Haqqani Network. "If you always focus on the mosaic," he said, pointing to the Afghan rug in his sumptuous office, "that’s all you’ll see." Today it doesn’t matter how Washington looks at this mosaic – as transnational terrorism or as Pakistan’s anti-India partner in Afghanistan – one thing is certain: elements within the ISI help fighters belonging to the Haqqani Network who kill American soldiers. The U.S.-Pakistan relationship is a tinderbox, one spark – U.S. soldiers on Pakistani territory or the Haqqanis killing dozens of American troops – could ignite war.

That spark may be more plausible than we think. Recent détente is encouraging but only a Band-Aid over a gaping wound. Last week, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton asked the ISI to facilitate talks between Washington and reconcilable Haqqanis, and yet warned of "dire consequences" for Islamabad if the Pakistani military did not take action against the Haqqanis who are unwilling to negotiate. The Pakistani response was "yes" to talks, but "no" to military operations. Today, thousands of American troops are in the Haqqani Network’s crosshairs in eastern Afghanistan during efforts to root out Haqqani militants, such as Operation Steel Rain in Khowst. Unless Pakistani generals act against the Haqqani Network’s sanctuary in North Waziristan, which they have refused to do so far, American casualties will increase. In that case, there will be tremendous pressure on Congress and the White House to act unilaterally, quite possibly by putting boots on the ground.  

What will happen if helicopters carrying American Seals are shot down in North Waziristan? How will America respond to a major attack that kills 100 troops in Afghanistan, like the September attack that wounded 77 soldiers in east Kabul? What if the perpetrators escape to Karachi, beyond the range of drones? What if American boots trigger a mutiny in the Pakistani army, leading to civil war? How will Washington secure Pakistani nuclear weapons?

Unfortunately, many of these dangerous scenarios are increasingly likely. A Pakistani official has told me that American-supplied Pakistani F-16 fighters are on high alert against a probable US raid. In March, Pakistani Air Force had orders to shoot down US predator and reaper drones. Last year, Islamabad shut down NATO’s largest supply line for days, and three years ago, General Ashfaq Kayani, head of the Pakistani military, ordered fire on a US helicopter carrying U.S. Special Forces that had crossed into North Waziristan. The Pakistani parliament, political parties and the media are supportive of the army’s sentiments against the United States, but not against the Haqqanis. Anti-Americanism, always high, has reached unprecedented levels within the military’s ranks, especially amongst junior officers. This is because most young officers are unaware of the past deals their generals have made with the Americans, and some may act independently in the name of national pride against an American incursion into Pakistan to target militants.

The United States is failing to change Pakistani public opinion because many Pakistanis are oblivious to American good will, and ambivalent about American aid as well as reconciliation with the insurgents. They hear about aid cuts and Americans talking to the same insurgents Pakistanis are asked to kill. Pakistani generals and politicians support such public confusion and often blame Washington for Pakistan’s problems in order to cover up their own incompetence and corruption. More than 10 years and $20 billion worth of military and civilian aid has bought Washington the heads of top al-Qaeda leaders, the elimination of critical safe havens (Swat valley and South Waziristan), but not the Quetta Shura in Balochistan or the Haqqanis in North Waziristan.

At the same time, since 9/11 more than 30,000 Pakistanis have been victims of terrorism, of which 6,000 were soldiers and policemen. The city of Karachi, which contributes half of Pakistan’s national income, is home to a brutal ethnic war, and resurgent Balochi militants and Sindhi flood victims are overstretching the military and an incompetent civilian government. Hyperinflation of food and energy prices, water shortages, massive floods, proliferating terrorists groups, and a fast-growing nuclear program are fast making Pakistan a threat to itself and the world.

To make matters worse, the Pakistan-based Haqqanis are killing American soldiers and disrupting the Afghan peace process, with what the United States says is support from the ISI. Clearly, US military aid cuts have done little to alter the ISI’s support for the Haqqanis. Instead, General Kayani is rallying troops and political parties against expected U.S. raids into North Waziristan. He is pressing Washington’s weakest point: threatening to close crucial supply routes to Afghanistan, without which there would be massive NATO fuel and ammunition shortages. It would take months, and improbable negotiations with the Russians, to get a viable alternative to the "Northern Supply Network."

It is not just a matter of Pakistani will, but also Pakistani capabilities. There is great need for American helicopters and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR), and yes, some American boots on the ground in the form of trainers and advisers. Even if Pakistani generals decide to attack the Haqqanis, they no longer have resources to clear and hold North Waziristan, and contain the blowback that could come in the form of a national suicide bombing wave. 

In 2009, suicide attacks increased by 220 percent from the previous year (from ten to 32), targeting major cities: Peshawar, Islamabad, Rawalpindi, Lahore and Karachi. This placed massive strains on poorly equipped national police forces. The same year, riding on an anti-insurgent public opinion wave, Pakistani commandoes, Frontier Scouts and 11th Corps infantry men – many trained and equipped by the United States – broke the insurgents’ back in the Swat Valley and South Waziristan. Today the Pakistani Army has no public support for a military operation against the Haqqanis. Furthermore, the population’s opposition to the Pakistani Taliban – public enemy no. 1 in 2009 – is fading.  

That was not always the case. In the summer of 2010, Pakistan’s Commanding General for counterterrorism and counterinsurgency operations, told me, "like Swat and South Waziristan [in 2009] with the help of the Pakistani public we will clean out North Waziristan this winter [2010]." However, Pakistani intransigence regarding the Haqqanis, devastating floods, the U.S. raid that killed Osama bin Laden, and the killing of two Pakistanis in Lahore by an American spy made the operation in North Waziristan impossible.

To renew ties we must start by replicating the 2009 conditions. American development dollars, weapons and trainers were flying in and al-Qaeda members were flying out or shot dead. U.S. Admiral Mike Mullen, who rightly chides Pakistan today, said referring to the Pakistani surge against Pakistani Taliban that he "couldn’t give the Pakistani Army anything but an ‘A’." But absent a national narrative against the Haqqanis that unites Pakistanis, carved out of a transparent partnership with the United States, both countries may slip into war. Time is running out.

Haider Ali Hussein Mullick is the author of Pakistan’s Security Paradox: Countering & Fomenting Insurgencies. Mullick advised General (r) David H. Petraeus on Pakistan in 2009 and 2010. He is currently pursuing graduate studies at Georgetown University’s Security Studies Program.(

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