IS it any wonder why Pakistan produces excellent fiction writers? Fiction has to be exceptional to top newspaper accounts. The latest saga begins with chairman of the US joint chiefs, Mike Mullen, now retired, who speaks the unvarnished truth that Pakistan’s intelligence services are working hand-in-glove with the Haqqani network on both sides of the Afghan border.
Mullen rings alarm bells in Pakistan because it is so unusual and offensive for a US government official or senior military offer to say so in public.
National political leaders gather in Islamabad — with the exception of the president, who is hosting a star Pakistani cricket player and his lovely wife, an Indian tennis pro — in an all-party conclave to defend the country’s sovereignty from the Americans, even though the Government of Pakistan’s writ does not extend to the region in question.
Politicians of all stripes close ranks with those in uniform who respond to embarrassment by fanning anti-US sentiment. The president refrains from dousing these flames but does place an op-ed in the Washington Post.
Rawalpindi’s Afghan policy is thereby reaffirmed, even though it would continue to cede sovereignty in this region to the Taliban, who offer no prospect of economic or strategic benefit, as was evident in the 1990s when Pakistan first discovered that its partners would not repay their debts by following orders or listening to reason.
Tragic history, when repeated, becomes farce. Afghanistan is a bottomless pit for the hubris of great powers as well as a ceaseless drain on Pakistan’s national security, economic well-being and international standing. When last viewed in the rearview mirror, Pakistan and the United States suffered a divorce after the Soviet Union left Afghanistan. Unless common sense prevails, Pakistan and the United States are headed for another divorce.
The Soviet expulsion meant that there was insufficient cause to continue to paper over divisive bilateral issues — foremost among them being the Pakistani nuclear programme which was accelerated during a crisis in 1990 with India, triggering US sanctions. The withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan or the end of their resupply through Pakistan could also result in insufficient cause to continue to paper over divisive issues.
The last divorce was in effect for 10 years and caused great damage to Pakistan. Freed from heavy-handed US attention or pressure, Rawalpindi sought presumed gains from backing the Taliban in Afghanistan and the Mujahideen in Kashmir. These plans backfired, resulting in the loss of domestic cohesion and declining economic prospects.
Washington also paid dearly for walking away from Pakistan and Afghanistan after the Soviet departure, and then overcompensated after 9/11, when it weighed in deeply but not wisely on both sides of the Durand Line. Rawalpindi’s choices have been no wiser this time around. Another divorce looms, which will cause even greater damage to Pakistan and further difficulties for the United States.
Given these prospects, diplomats and senior military officers in both countries are again trying to make room for cooperation by parsing the truth. Pakistani parliamentarians are reportedly advised that the ISI only retains contacts with the political arm of the Haqqani network, not its militant wing — the same is said for the Lashkar-e-Taiba — and that only retirees, freelancers and low-level operatives are involved.
Washington’s onion peelers add that it’s hard to determine how high up the chain of command information is shared and collusion occurs for spectacular mass-casualty attacks carried out by the Haqqani network and the LeT.
These carefully crafted statements are unlikely to be convincing after the next embarrassing US strike or spectacular mass-casualty assault that can be tracked back to those with whom the ISI keeps contact. It is hard to repeatedly and persuasively profess surprise over these events.
If contact with those who enjoy safe havens does not prevent bloodshed, or at least provide early warning to those in harm’s way, then others may be excused for concluding that contact is either ineffectual or complicit. If partners cannot be controlled, how exactly do they constitute assets?
Pakistan and its neighbours have already suffered dearly for the use of militancy as an instrument of Afghan and Indian policy. Suffering will be compounded — as well as directed more intensely against Pakistan’s security forces — if ‘contact’ groups and their erstwhile partners within Pakistan turn against each other. If Rawalpindi’s partners can neither be pacified nor co-opted, how is Pakistan’s security advanced?
Pakistan and the United States are now situated on the sharp horns of brutal dilemmas. Those of us who support improved Pakistan-US ties in both countries are losing ground. Somehow, against long odds, we are obliged to figure out ways where the US withdrawal from Afghanistan can be turned into a new start instead of an impending divorce.
The writer is co-founder of the Stimson Centre in Washington, D.C.