The past fortnight has seen a sharp increase in tension between the US and Pakistan. Relations were already at a low during a year in which a CIA operative shot dead two men in Lahore and US special forces flew into Pakistan to kill Osama bin Laden, without asking permission from Islamabad. Then, two weeks ago, Afghan gunmen launched an audacious assault on the American embassy and Nato headquarters in Kabul (some fascinating details here) – an attack which the US blames on the Haqqani network, an insurgent group with safe havens in Pakistan.
The result was a fresh range of finger-pointing and a co-ordinated effort by senior US officials – including the Secretary of State, Defence Secretary and CIA chief – to increase the pressure on Pakistan to clear the Haqqani network’s safe havens. By far the strongest comments came from Admiral Mike Mullen, the US’s most senior military man, when he linked the network to the Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency…
“In choosing to use violent extremism as an instrument of policy, the government of Pakistan – and most especially the Pakistani Army and ISI – jeopardises not only the prospect of our strategic partnership, but also Pakistan’s opportunity to be a respected nation with legitimate regional influence,” he told US senators. “By exporting violence, they have eroded their internal security and their position in the region.”
Strong words particularly when you remember that the US needs Pakistan every bit as much as Pakistan needs the US. No-one seriously believes that Washington is about to abandon Islamabad when the corridor from Karachi to the Khyber Pass remains the most important supply line to Nato forces in Afghanistan.
But so far, apart from trying to shame Pakistan into action, have any threats been made to Islamabad? What are the consequences of inaction?
The issue came up again in a State Department briefing last night, when an official was asked why they haven’t yet been declared a Foreign Terrorist Organisation (FTO).
So certainly FTO designation is something under review, but the idea that we haven’t gone after the Haqqani Network at all, I think, is a mischaracterization. Like I said, we’ve effectively targeted many of the kingpins in the organization.
So the policy is to target individuals not the group. But why, when the Haqqanis have launched numerous attacks on civilians, are they not considered a terrorist group?
“I’m surprised they aren’t already,” said a US official in Islamabad when I asked him about designating the Haqqanis as a terror group last week. One is that it would make negotiations all but impossible. The other is pretty obvious when you consider Admiral Mike Mullen’s comments last week. If the Haqqanis are a “veritable arm” of Pakistan’s ISI intelligence agency, as he said, then that would make Pakistan a state-sponsor of terrorism.
And at that point, the stormy relationship – forged in the fires of 9/11 when Pakistan and the US were thrown together in the war on terror – would be over. That would be a massive step and one that will not come soon. But it is telling that the US is prepared to say the issue is “under review” leaving the repercussions dangling in the air.
Is the US now working on its Pakistan endgame as it begins bringing home its troops from Afgahanistan?