The strong words of former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Admiral Mike Mullen that the Haqqani network remains a “veritable arm of the ISI,” Pakistan’s main intelligence agency, have plunged U.S.-Pakistan relations to their lowest point since before 9/11. Taken literally, Mullen’s words would almost require designation of Pakistan as a state sponsor of terrorism—and transnational terrorism that targets American citizens at that. The Haqqanis are one of our main problems today in Afghanistan and carried out recent attacks in Kabul, including the September assault on the U.S. embassy. Calling them a “veritable arm of the ISI” strongly suggests that top Pakistani intelligence operatives have controlled the group and used it for their own purposes.
Mullen’s words went too far, as best we can tell. While ISI operatives undoubtedly have had contacts with the Haqqani network, and while Pakistan’s army has let the Haqqani clan operate within its North Waziristan region for too long with impunity, that is not the same thing as Pakistan deliberately using the group to kill Americans and key Afghans like former President Rabbani. Nuances are important because Mullen’s diagnosis, taken literally, would seem inconsistent with any pretense that the United States and Pakistan share common goals in Afghanistan or can work together in pursuit of common objectives. If this is indeed the situation, it is hard to see the U.S. Congress approving future aid packages for Pakistan. It is also hard to believe that Pakistan would continue to allow American forces to use its territory for logistics support of the Afghanistan mission or keep tolerating our drone attacks against the Haqqanis and al Qaeda.
So in addition to avoiding such sweeping language—as others in the U.S. government have wisely done in refusing to repeat Mullen’s contentions—we need to look for ways to repair U.S.-Pakistan cooperation in regard to Afghanistan as well. In fact, while Afghanistan is unlikely to go down as a shining success for American foreign policy, we can still achieve the minimal goals set out by both the Bush and Obama administrations of preventing major terrorist sanctuaries from reestablishing themselves on Afghan soil in the future. The NATO-led military campaign is gradually weakening the overall strength of the insurgency. In addition, and equally importantly, it is providing the outlines of an exit strategy by training and equipping an Afghan army that increasingly displays a toughness on the battlefield as well as a political commitment to the Afghan state.
We can aspire, over the coming three years, to a successful transition from a NATO-led operation to an Afghan-led and NATO-supported effort. This is, in fact, the current military plan and under the able leadership of Ambassador Ryan Crocker, General John Allen and key international figures like U.N. official Steffan di Mistura. It seems feasible. The end state will not be victory per se, but perhaps something like Colombia in 2000 or for that matter Pakistan today – a country with a big violence problem and some uncontrolled spaces, yet a strong enough state to contain the violence and gradually curtail it.
But there are two big “ifs” in this prediction. The first is achieving a political transition in Afghanistan in 2014 when President Karzai must step down from power according to the country’s constitution to go along with the military transition that same year. Each of these changes is hard; achieving them both at once will be truly challenging. Among other things, this effort requires that outside actors help Afghans strengthen their own political parties and their system of checks and balances so that Karzai does not remain, as he largely is today, the only political figure in the country with real nationwide power and some degree of national stature ( however limited Karzai’s national standing may be). The United States has been too reluctant to help in this until Crocker’s appointment, and, in fact, was part of the reason that Karzai was able to consume virtually all of the political oxygen in Afghanistan over this last decade. We need to change course.
The second big challenge is, naturally, Pakistan. As long as Islamabad views itself as the ultimate power broker in Afghanistan and keeps alive insurgent groups like the Haqqanis either as a hedge against NATO failing to achieve its task or (more ominously) as a way of using proxies to dominate Afghanistan in the future itself, it will be very hard to ensure that the insurgency weakens with time. Figuring out a way to give Islamabad adequate incentives to rethink its tolerance for these groups, which remains excessive, even if Mullen overstated the problem somewhat , is a central challenge of American policy. Of course any such effort must be coordinated with Afghanistan, but Kabul need not be given veto rights, as we have our own legitimate national interests in scaling back the violence and achieving greater stability. Put differently, Afghan leaders too need to know that they cannot feud with Pakistan unnecessarily and indefinitely if the price of that feud is to be paid partly in American blood.
So the following kinds of ideas should be put on the table in negotiations involving the three countries:
- Afghanistan and Pakistan should pursue an accord to accept the Durand line, the de facto border between their two countries, indefinitely. Ironically, it is Kabul that refuses to do so now. If no permanent agreement on a permanent border is yet within reach, a 50-year or 100-year postponement of the issue might be wise.
- Afghanistan should be willing to ask India to shut down its consulates in Jalalabad and Kandahar. Pakistan sees these as likely outposts for Indian intelligence operatives. Its fears are probably unwarranted, but the consulates are not worth the resulting strain on the relationship and can be closed as part of a deal.
- Kabul should at least listen to Islamabad’s interests and advice in choosing governors for its eastern provinces and districts in the future. Indeed, if a peace deal with elements of the Taliban or Haqqani network ever becomes feasible, some reconciled insurgent leaders might even share in such positions, under certain conditions about disarmament and about accepting the Afghan constitution as well as the continued presence of foreign troops on Afghan soil for the foreseeable future.
- For its part, Islamabad needs to reign in the insurgent groups on its territory and constrain their use of sanctuaries on its soil. The demand here should not be the occasional symbolic arrest or two. The effort needs to be systematic enough that overall violence levels in the east of Afghanistan diminish substantially in 2012 – that is the ultimate barometer of Pakistan’s seriousness, and Islamabad should be held to it.
If this sort of deal can be struck, American economic and budgetary help for Pakistan might not only be sustained, but eventually increased. It might, for example, include aid for Pakistan’s beleaguered energy sector and extend as well to a future free-trade accord. Alas, that is the positive vision for the relationship and there is another and currently more likely outcome as well. That negative result would be mutually tragic for all involved—greater instability in Afghanistan, a likely end to Pakistani help with NATO logistics and intelligence operations, greater sanctuaries for extremists along both sides of the Afghan-Pakistan border and a full break in U.S.-Pakistan cooperation. All of us should be aware of these stakes and should focus intently on avoiding such a terrible possible outcome before it is too late. To paraphrase Churchill, the U.S.-Pakistan partnership today is the worst possible relationship we could have with that country, except for half the other possibilities, and we cannot simply throw up our hands in frustration.