Mullen’s Parting Warning to Islamabad

09/23/2011 by Richard Weitz

The comments this week by Admiral Mike Mullen, the soon to retire Chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, at perhaps his final congressional testimony, about the continuing links between Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) and the Haqqani terrorist network were a welcome act of shock therapy intended to restore health to a U.S.-Pakistan relationship that has been deteriorating for months if not years.

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta looks on at left as Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Michael Mullen, testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, Sept. 22, 2011, before the Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on U.S. strategy in Afghanistan and Iraq. (AP Photo/Harry Hamburg)

In their public speeches and media appearances, Mullen and other U.S. officials have been telling people for months that elements within Pakistan’s intelligence community retain ties with jihadi groups, including those fighting in Afghanistan as well as against India. The support for the Haqqani network has been known in Washington well before that if not publicized. A leaked State Department cable dated December 5, 2008, records the National Intelligence Officer for South Asia briefing NATO representatives that the ISI “provides intelligence and financial support to insurgent groups – especially the Jalaluddin Haqqani network out of Miram Shah, North Waziristan – to conduct attacks in Afghanistan against Afghan government, ISAF, and Indian targets.”

What was unusual about Mullen’s September 22 testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee was his explicit claim that the ISI had directed and supported Haqqani attacks on U.S. targets in Afghanistan. “With ISI support, Haqqani operatives planned and conducted that truck bomb attack [which wounded 77 coalition troops at Combat Outpost Sayed Abad on September 10] as well as the [September 13] assault on our embassy,” Mullen said. “We also have credible evidence that they were behind the June 28th attack against the Inter-Continental Hotel in Kabul and a host of other smaller but effective operations.”

Following the day-long attack on the U.S. embassy and the NATO military headquarters in Kabul on September 13, the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, Ryan Crocker, publicly blamed the Haqqani network for the assault.

In addition, the U.S. ambassador to Pakistan, Cameron Munter, said the Pakistani authorities supported the group. In his written testimony, Mullen also accused the Pakistani government of supporting the Quetta Shura Taliban “actively and passively.”

After noting the difficulty of winning an insurgency when the guerrillas enjoy sanctuary in a neighboring country, he added that official Pakistani support for the Afghan insurgents “represent[s] a growing problem that is undermining U.S. interests and may violate international norms, potentially warranting sanction.”

The Pakistani military has had excessive influence on Pakistani security policies for more than half a century. Even when Pakistan has a civilian government rather than direct military rule, the Pakistani armed forces have retained control over the country’s defense, foreign, and intelligence policies.

The military establishment’s influence can also extend to other areas, such as the national economy or inter-ethnic relations. Although Pakistani military leaders can justify their indirect and occasional direct control of the government by citing weaknesses in the country’s civilian leadership, the military’s perpetual interference in national politics is an important factor in preventing the development of an effective civilian political system.

The ISI acknowledges supporting the Haqqani and other terrorist groups during the 1990s, but claims to have severed all ties with these networks during the last decade since the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The Haqqani network, which supports some of the most brutally effective insurgents in Afghanistan and has links with al-Qaeda, still has its main base of operations in North Waziristan, near the Afghan-Pakistan border. This area remains outside the control of the Pakistani military.

Observers differ on whether the Pakistani armed forces have the capacity to suppress the network if they wanted to, with many suspecting that Pakistani commanders either support its activities or fear that attempting to suppress the group would lead it to strike back at Pakistani targets.

Thus far, Afghan, U.S., and NATO forces have declined to conduct large cross-border ground operations on Pakistani territory. They have relied primarily on attacks by unmanned drones as well as search-and-destroy operations against the group’s operatives whenever they move into Afghan territory. Despite these attacks, the Haqqani movement is thought to include some 10,000 to 15,000 fighters.

Given this context, Mullen’s words were incredibly blunt: “In choosing to use violent extremism as an instrument of policy, the government of Pakistan, and most especially the Pakistani army and ISI, jeopardizes not only the prospect of our strategic partnership but Pakistan’s opportunity to be a respected nation with legitimate regional influence,” he said. “They may believe that by using these proxies, they are hedging their bets or redressing what they feel is an imbalance in regional power. But in reality, they have already lost that bet. By exporting violence, they’ve eroded their internal security and their position in the region. They have undermined their international credibility and threatened their economic well-being.”

The timing was right for airing these differences in public. Mullen is retiring in a few weeks, so it was a good time to stamp a corrective on a festering situation. In addition, the U.S. and NATO force totals are now falling from their peak levels. Pakistanis have undoubtedly begun considering a post-NATO Afghanistan, and the value of again relying on terrorist proxies to exercise influence there.

Mullen was correct to defend the tremendous amount of time he had devoted to sustaining the military relationship with Pakistan. Without this constant messaging, the ties between the two countries’ armed forces would be even more strained. It is unclear whether his successor can carry the same weight among the military brass in Islamabad, though Gen. David Petraeus, former head of CENTCOM, might fill some of the gap from his position as CIA Director.

Speaking at the same September 22 Senate Armed Services hearing, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta concurred that the Pakistani authorities “must take steps to prevent the safe haven that the Haqqanis are using,” adding that, “We simply cannot allow these kinds of terrorists to be able to go into Afghanistan, attack our forces and then return to Pakistan for safe haven.”

Yet, Panetta was coy about how the United States would respond to the continuing attacks on its troops. The expectation is that the drone strikes against the Haqqani network could escalate, despite Pakistani objections. U.S. commanders rightly insist that they cannot allow Afghan insurgents and international terrorists’ unimpeded use of safe havens on Pakistani soil to support attacks on American soldiers.

It is possible the United States would launch airborne forces like the helicopter-enabled commando attack against bin Laden’s headquarters in central Pakistan. But these Special Forces operations would rouse strong Pakistani feelings and might prove counterproductive. Pakistani Interior Minister, Rehman Malik, said his government would “not allow” U.S. forces to attack the claimed Haqqani strongholds in North Waziristan. “The Pakistan nation will not allow the boots on our ground, never,” Malik told the Reuters news agency. “Our government is already cooperating with the U.S. — but they also must respect our sovereignty.”

The Congress is likely to place more restrictions on U.S. economic and military assistance to Afghanistan. Some aid will be cut, will others will require executive branch certification for its release. There is also support for having the State Department add the Haqqani network to its list of foreign terrorist organizations, which would restrict the movement of its members and perhaps disrupt their foreign financing.

When Senator Susan Collins asked Panetta about making such aid conditional on administration certification that Pakistan was cooperating with the United States in the war on terror, the Defense Secretary agreed that, “Anything that makes clear to them that we cannot tolerate their providing this kind of safe haven to the Haqqanis, and that they have to take action — any signal that we can send to them — I think would be important to do.”

The Congress applied the same kinds of restrictions during the 1990s, after the joint U.S.-Pakistani campaign against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan had ended and concerns about Pakistan’s nuclear proliferation activities increased, culminating with the 1998 detonation of several nuclear weapons by India and Pakistan.

Despite all these differences, the United States and Pakistan are fated to collaborate. Pakistan needs financial and diplomatic support from Washington to complement that provided by China. Beijing is a generous supporter of Pakistan, but it has placed firm limits on its annual aid levels. The United States gives Pakistan billions of dollars in direct assistance to Islamabad as well as considerable revenue to Pakistanis involved in the shipping of U.S. military supplies to Afghanistan. American diplomats have also helped dampen Indian desires to retaliate militarily against Pakistan for earlier terrorist attacks.

The United States needs Pakistani support to transit military supplied to its troops in Afghanistan. Efforts to develop an alternative supply route through Russia and other former Soviet bloc states have made considerable progress, but these shipments are more expensive and make the NATO war effort excessively dependent on Moscow.

Washington also needs Pakistani support to achieve a favorable regional environment for an eventual peace settlement in Afghanistan. The United States also must collaborate with the Pakistani military to secure the country’s growing nuclear weapons arsenal. As Panetta rightly noted, the high-profile attacks by the Haqqanis generate a lot of publicity, but not that much real damage. If the terrorists ever got hold of a Pakistani nuclear weapon, well, things would be different.

At the regional level, the Obama administration needs to do more to reduce tensions between Pakistan and India. One reason why the Pakistani military tolerates the ISI sponsorship of terrorists is because terrorism is seen as an essential asymmetric tool for negating India’s superior conventional military capabilities. Former ISI Director-General Lt. Gen. Hamid Gul said that inciting domestic unrest in India was equivalent to Pakistan’s having two extra divisions.

Using terrorist proxies is a dangerous game. Pakistan’s sponsorship of anti-Indian terrorists presents tremendous risks for Islamabad. Not only might the Indians one day employ their increasingly superior military capabilities to retaliate, risking a nuclear war, but the terrorists sometimes act independently of their ISI handlers, including by conducting operations against Pakistani targets, despite the mistaken Pakistani belief that they can promote “good” terrorism without risking the growth of “bad” terrorism.

The same phenomenon occurs in Afghanistan itself. Many Pakistanis see the Afghan Taliban, the Haqqani network, and other extremists as useful instruments for exercising influence in Afghanistan against India. But this sponsorship has helped give birth to the so-called Pakistani Taliban, which seeks to impose its radical views within Pakistan itself.

The Obama administration should step up its efforts to promote Indian-Pakistani reconciliation, which have lagged since the untimely death last year of Special Envoy Richard Holbrooke. The Administration also needs to press the Afghan government to cease using the Indian presence in Afghanistan as a means to limit Islamabad’s influence in their country, which only exacerbates Pakistani concerns.

Admiral Mullen was correct to cite the ISI as a problem since its ties with terrorist groups harm foreign as well as Pakistani security interests. Asking the Pakistani security services to end their ties with jihadi organizations is in the interest of United States, but also in the interests of Pakistan’s neighbors as well as Pakistan itself.

Credit for the Photo:

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—General George Patton Jr.

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