September 27, 2011

Haqqanis, US and Pakistan: Will they cross the Rubicon?

by D. Suba Chandran
AFTER the recent Kabul attack by the Haqqani network, there were two damning testimonies by Admiral Mike Mullen, the outgoing Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Mr Leon Panetta, the American Defence Secretary, openly accusing Pakistan and its ISI for using the Haqqani network as a proxy. While this resulted in multiple responses from the political and military leadership of Pakistan, its Foreign Minister threatened the US that Washington would lose Pakistan as an ally. How far will the US and Pakistan go in converting their threats into reality? Can the US and Pakistan afford to break off the ties at this juncture? More importantly, what will happen if both decide to cross the Rubicon and there is a total rupture in the US-Pakistan relations?

First, a short note on the nature of threats. In the last few months, especially after the Abbottabad raid, the US has been conveying a tough message to Pakistan at multiple forums, putting pressure on the latter to stop aiding the Haqqani network, and asking Islamabad to do more in controlling the terrorist groups operating from within its soil. From Mrs Hillary Clinton to Mr Leon Panetta, there have been numerous statements from the American leadership emphasising that Pakistan must keep away from the Haqqani network.

The brazen attack on the American Embassy in Kabul by the Haqqani network seems to have escalated the US responses - from pressurising Pakistan to threatening with action. The testimonies of Admiral Mullen and Defence Secretary Panetta make this change crystal clear. Admiral Mullen, in his testimony before the Congress Armed Forces Committee have been quoted testifying, "with the ISI support, Haqqani operatives planned and conducted that truck bomb attack, as well as the assault on our embassy," and "the Haqqani network acts as a veritable arm of Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence agency."

In response, while the Prime Minister of Pakistan and his Interior Minister came with the usual rhetoric that Pakistan wants good relationship with everyone and does not allow its soil to be used by terrorists, General Kayani and the Foreign Minister made nuanced statements. The General in his response said, ""Admiral Mullen knows fully well which all countries are in contact with the Haqqanis," and "singling out Pakistan is neither fair nor productive."

Mrs Hina Rabbani Khar, Pakistan's Foreign Minister, issued an explicit threat that if the US continued with such statements against Islamabad, "you will lose an ally."

The second part of General Kayani's response is significant - where he said singling out Pakistan for being in contact with the Haqqanis is neither fair nor productive. What does this mean? Does this mean that, besides Pakistan, there are other countries which are in contact with the Haqqanis? Does this include the US as well? And does Admiral Mullen know this, as General Kayani is hinting?

It appears that both Pakistan and the US have been courting the Haqqanis, perhaps with different objectives and as a part of different strategies. While Pakistan and the ISI may be using the Haqqani network as a "proxy" and a "veritable arm", what has been the American strategy towards the Haqqanis? Were they not a part of the moderate Taliban until they immoderately targeted the US interests in Afghanistan?

In terms of Pakistan's counter-threats, while General Kayani has said that singling out Pakistan for being in touch with the Haqqanis would be counterproductive, Khar has said the US may lose an ally. If one has to analyse the meaning of these two threats, it could be interpreted as Islamabad's readiness to cut the relationship with the US and pursue its own strategic interests in Afghanistan.

The second question: Can the US and Pakistan afford to cross the Rubicon and rupture the ties? The US has done that in the past. After working closely with Pakistan's military and its ISI during the 1980s, against the Soviet troops, Washington did cut the relationship with Islamabad. Can they afford to do so now? The American strategic community is clearly divided on this issue on whether the US would continue its relationship with Pakistan or not. Those who want to break the relationship argue that despite the investment of billions of dollars in Pakistan since 2001, Islamabad has not helped the American cause in Afghanistan, or the war on terrorism. The hiding of Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad close to a military installation is seen as a Pakistani collusion against American interests.

Those who argue against the rupture consider the nuclear assets of Pakistan and the rising radical threat as a major reason demanding a continuous interaction with Islamabad. The Al-Qaeda network and the stability of Afghanistan demand a substantial presence of the US even after 2014. This section also fears that Pakistan will become a failed state with the jihadi upper hand along with nuclear weapons. This is a nightmare scenario for the US.

On the other hand, Pakistan is also divided, though with the majority itching to break the ties with the US. This section considers that Pakistan is fighting the American war at a huge cost, and is afraid that the US would walk away or worse turn against Pakistan after 2014. So, they ask: Why wait until 2014 to break the ties with the US? The other section, though a minority, fears that such a rupture will not augur well for Pakistan's democracy as the military, the ISI and, worse, the radical forces will become supreme and take Pakistan in a suicidal trajectory. This section also fears that in case there is a complete rupture of relations between the US and Pakistan, it would not only affect the country's economy but also lead to Washington siding with New Delhi.

It appears that neither Pakistan nor the US can easily afford to break off their ties that easily. Both will have to pay a heavy price.

Finally, the hypothetical question: What if the US and Pakistan finally cross the Rubicon and break off their relations? The US may cut off its aid to Islamabad which has been in billions of dollars in the last decade, and more importantly, pressurise Pakistan at international forums. The US may also have to live in the perpetual fear of Pakistan's nuclear assets falling into wrong hands. What are the US options in that case? Can the US expand its drone attacks, or place its boots on the ground in Pakistan? Will the American forces risk an open confrontation with Pakistan's military? Unlikely.

What would Islamabad do? While the majority within Pakistan expects that their all-weather friend - China — would come to their rescue, the crucial question would be: What is Beijing's game plan vis-à-vis Pakistan? While China has substantially invested in infrastructure projects within Pakistan, from Gwadar to the Kunjerab Pass, it is unlikely that Beijing will provide substantial aid as Pakistan got from the Americans.

Beijing is also likely to do cost-benefit analysis. Though the Pakistanis may consider their relationship with China as higher than the Himalayas and deeper than the oceans, one is not sure whether the Chinese also feel the same way. Certainly, the Chinese officials in Xinjiang, which shares the border with Gilgit-Baltistan, do not perceive so. While Beijing may not want Pakistan to end up as a failed state, it is unlikely to underwrite Islamabad's existential problems.

So, what would Pakistan do, especially its military, the ISI and the jihadis, once the relationship with the US is ruptured? What will they do in Afghanistan? Will they turn their ire against the US, or against their ever-ready scapegoat - India? More than the US, should New Delhi not be worried about the breakup of the ties between Washington and its "major" non-NATO ally?

The writer is Director, Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies, and Visiting Professor, Pakistan Studies Programme, Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi.

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