The South Asia Channel

The elusive alliance

The July 31 U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee nomination hearing for ambassadors-designate Richard Olson (for Pakistan) and James Cunningham (for Afghanistan) exemplified the contradictory nature of U.S. relations with Pakistan. The foreign policies of the two countries are at irreconcilable cross purposes, which may converge in time, but not in the foreseeable future. At the ...

S.S MIRZA/AFP/GettyImages
S.S MIRZA/AFP/GettyImages

The July 31 U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee nomination hearing for ambassadors-designate Richard Olson (for Pakistan) and James Cunningham (for Afghanistan) exemplified the contradictory nature of U.S. relations with Pakistan. The foreign policies of the two countries are at irreconcilable cross purposes, which may converge in time, but not in the foreseeable future.

At the outset of the hearing, John Kerry, the committee’s chairman, acknowledged that Pakistanis have suffered greatly in the fight against terror, and also underlined that "Pakistan remains central to what happens in Afghanistan." Ambassador-designate Richard Olson echoed Kerry’s remarks, saying, "I don’t have to tell you how important Pakistan is to the United States."

Later, Olson responded positively when asked about Pakistan military’s doctrine of "strategic depth" (a concept in which Pakistan uses Afghanistan as an instrument of strategic security in ongoing tensions with India by attempting to control Afghanistan as a pawn for its own political purposes).

"My sense is that the Pakistani military and Pakistani government has moved away from [strategic depth]," the ambassador argued, probably drawing cues from Pakistan’s gradually expanding dialogue with arch-rival India. Most of the Western skepticism of Pakistan’s role in Afghanistan has been embedded in distrust of the so-called doctrine of strategic depth, a dynamic which outside observers have been reluctant to acknowledge is changing for the better.

However, Ambassador Olson also reaffirmed the United States’ concern about the Pakistan-based Haqqani Network, describing it as "one of the toughest challenges that the U.S. faces." Olson’s characterization only reaffirms the long-held view that the Haqqanis must remain a priority of the U.S. security establishment for their part in several deadly suicide bombings in and around Kabul since 2008. The U.S. Senate recently passed a bill requiring Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to report to Congress on whether the Haqqani Network should be designated a foreign terrorist organization, and if not, why.

But according to a recent New York Times report, based on one senior American official’s estimate, Haqqani operations account for one-tenth of the attacks on ISAF troops, and perhaps 15 percent of casualties.

The NYT quoted a senior Obama administration official as saying "I am not convinced there is a command-and-control relationship between the ISI and those attacks." Yet the storm gathering around the Haqqani Network, believed to be holed up in North Waziristan as a protective umbrella for al-Qaeda Central, betrays the American security establishment’s unease with the group. It also points to a future course of action in which Americans may zero in on the Haqqanis as the single largest source of instability in Afghanistan, despite the fact that the Network is credited with just about ten percent of the total attacks on U.S. and ISAF forces.

And herein lies Pakistan’s predicament; its ties with some non-state actors, such as the Afghan Taliban and the Haqqani network, as well as the India-focused Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) and Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM), undermine its foreign relations.

These groups sit at the heart of Pakistan’s rocky relationship with the United States, Afghanistan and India. The former two view the Haqqani Network as the biggest impediment to peace and reconciliation in Afghanistan. The latter considers Lashkar-e-Taiba, the group that staged multiple deadly attacks in Mumbai in November 2008, to be an existential threat.

But as far the Pakistani security establishment is concerned, these militant groups have long served as valuable foreign policy instruments. And since Islamabad’s Afghanistan policy is not contingent upon America’s desired endgame in the war-torn country, declaring a total divorce from these outfits seems improbable under the current circumstances.

This raises the possibility of these groups periodically rocking the Pakistan-U.S. alliance through terror strikes. This begs the question: can the United States — and India in particular — decouple their dialogue with Pakistan from terrorist strikes attributed to the Haqqanis or Lashkar-e-Taiba?

Probably not. And this constitutes the basis for the difficulties ahead; unless both Washington and New Delhi can see visible signs of "change of mind" in Islamabad and Rawalpindi (where the military establishment is headquartered), they will keep prompting Pakistan to safeguard their "security interests" by disassociating with the Haqqanis and Lashkar-e-Taiba, ratcheting up pressure on Pakistan in whatever way possible, thereby disallowing the creation of a true U.S.-Pakistan alliance.

That is why former ambassador Husain Haqqani advises both Pakistan and the United States to focus on being friends rather than "allies" because "deviating national [security] interests" run contrary to the basics of an alliance. The focus, he said, should be more on trade, engagement among civil society groups and politicians. In Amb. Haqqani’s opinion, creating economic and civil society linkages promises greater security than a security partnership that has consistently been characterized by mutual suspicion and distrust.

Pressures stemming from domestic politics — the upcoming Presidential election in the United States this November, and the political turmoil in anticipation of a general election in Pakistan later this year — essentially rule out a quick convergence of two conflicting narratives. A gradual but substantial build-up in mutual trust in the months ahead looks impossible, too; Pakistan is not likely to crack down on the Haqqani Network the way Washington proposes. Nor does Pakistan hold sway over other partners of the Haqqanis, like Mullah Omar and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar.

While foreign expectations that Pakistan might serve as a bridge between this tripodal insurgency and the Kabul regime may not be entirely realistic, it still should not prevent Islamabad from reshaping its national security paradigm in a way so as to earn the trust of the international community.  One of the requirements would of course be to alter the nature of its relations with non-state Pakistani and Afghan actors.

Top-most Pakistani civilian and military officials say the change is underway, but it is not, however, going to happen overnight. We must keep our volatile socio-political context in mind, they insist.

History dictates that the United States, while pursuing its long-term geo-political objectives, should openly acknowledge the policy changes in Pakistan, the way ambassador Olson did before the Senate Committee. This will give Islamabad more confidence to continue the policy-fixing — if not transformation — path, and thus create space for a more productive engagement.

Officials at Pakistan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs insist that this would also mean that unless the United States recognizes the compulsions that geography and the cross-border demography places on Pakistan, and until the country is allowed to fashion relations with countries such as Iran in its own way, the path forward will remain fraught with bickering and disagreements.

Imtiaz Gul is the Executive Director of the independent Centre for Research and Security Studies, and the author of the forthcoming book Pakistan: Before and After Osama, Roli Books, India.

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