U.S.-Pakistan Trust-Deficit Deepens

U.S.-Pakistan Trust-Deficit Deepens

  0 comments   |     by Richard Weitz

The recent U.S. claims that Pakistan's intelligence service have aided attacks against U.S. troops in Afghanistan; the discovery that Osama bin Laden had been living for years in a safe house in central Pakistan; the U.S. special forces operation to attack his Pakistani compound without notifying Pakistani authorities; the disputes over U.S. drone strikes on Pakistani territory: These and other controversies are surface manifestations of a deeper "trust deficit" between the United States and Pakistan. 
On Sept. 22, then-Chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen made explosive comments about the nature of the relationship between Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence and the Haqqani terrorist network, whose members -- thought to number some 10,000 to 15,000 fighters -- operate in Afghanistan from bases in Pakistan. Although Mullen and other U.S. officials had previously denounced the ISI's continuing links to the group, in his testimony before Congress, Mullen explicitly claimed that the ISI had directed and supported Haqqani attacks on U.S. targets in Afghanistan in recent weeks.  The Haqqani network supports some of the most brutally effective insurgents in Afghanistan and has links with al-Qaida. Its main base of operations is located in North Waziristan on the Afghan-Pakistan border, an area that 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. For its part, the ISI acknowledges having supported the Haqqani and other terrorist groups during the 1990s, but claims to have severed all ties with them since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.  

Official Pakistani reaction to Mullen's remarks was swift and universally hostile. Nevertheless, the timing was right to air these differences in public. At the time of his remarks, Mullen was scheduled to retire in a few weeks, so he could afford to make more controversial statements than in the past. In addition, U.S. and NATO troop levels in Afghanistan are now falling from their peak levels. Pakistanis have undoubtedly begun to consider a post-NATO Afghanistan and the potential value of relying on their insurgent proxies to exercise influence there; Mullen's remarks could be considered a shot across the bow to influence those calculations. The dispute takes place in the context of a relationship between the U.S. and Pakistani intelligence agencies that has been tense and complex for years. Though they distrust one another, the services continue to work together to identify and arrest suspected terrorists and to identify targets for U.S. drone strikes on Pakistani territory. But the bin Laden raid demonstrated that CIA agents also conduct independent covert operations in Pakistan on their own.  

The CIA's drone strikes in Pakistan are also deeply unpopular there. Predator unmanned aerial vehicles armed with Hellfire missiles have reportedly killed hundreds of people in northwest Pakistan. These air strikes have both intensified and extended deeper into Pakistani territory since Barack Obama became president, as the Obama administration has sought to complement the increase in U.S. combat troops inside Afghanistan with intensified operations targeting Taliban sanctuaries in neighbouring Pakistan. In public, Pakistani authorities have repeatedly called for an end to these attacks. The U.S. government and other sources insist that they cannot allow Afghan insurgents and international terrorists to enjoy the unimpeded use of safe havens on Pakistani soil to support operations in Afghanistan and elsewhere. There is considerable evidence that, in the past, the Pakistani authorities supported the drone operations, including by allowing the UAVs to operate from bases in Pakistani territory and by suggesting targets for attack.  Pakistani public opinion is clearly hostile to the United States in general and U.S. military operations within their country in particular. Pakistanis widely blame the U.S. war against the Taliban and other Muslim militants for bringing terrorism to Pakistan, which has suffered from suicide bombings and other civil strife in recent years. Pakistanis attribute the rise of suicide terrorism within Pakistan to Islamabad's support for U.S. counterterrorism policies, including the decision to deploy the Pakistani army to fight Islamists in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas. They note that the Pakistani armed forces have suffered more casualties fighting Islamist militants than have U.S. and coalition forces on the other side of the Afghan-Pakistan border. They see the increased U.S. drone and cross-border attacks in recent years as a form of coercive pressure to force the Pakistani government to crack down on the Taliban militants based in the tribal areas, which would further increase Pakistani military casualties and terrorist victims.  

Furthermore, Pakistanis calculate that they have incurred enormous financial losses and other costs in terms of the elevated terrorist violence that Pakistan has experienced since Islamabad's decision to support the U.S.-led Operation Enduring Freedom after Sept. 11. They note that U.S. aid covers only a small percentage of those costs, and that even now the U.S. Congress is cutting back on earlier aid pledges, many of which remain unimplemented. Americans resent the fact that the U.S. remains deeply unpopular in Pakistan, despite the billions of dollars in aid they provide. They ascribe the rising violence in Pakistan to the country's deep socioeconomic problems, but also to the ISI's mistaken belief that they can promote "good" terrorists without suffering "bad" terrorism. Some extremist groups originally sponsored by Pakistan's security services as proxy forces against India -- such as Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammed -- have later acted independently of their ISI handlers, including by conducting operations against Pakistani targets. Furthermore, U.S. officials believe that the Pakistani military could easily crack down on the Afghan Taliban insurgents in the tribal areas if it really made an effort to do so, rather than pursuing a hedging strategy designed to keep its options open, even in the face of Pakistani-linked terrorism. Pakistanis criticize Washington for allegedly favouring New Delhi, noting for example Washington's refusal to negotiate a civil nuclear energy cooperation agreement with Pakistan similar to the one signed between the United States and India in 2008.  

These differences are likely to deepen in coming years as both sides begin considering the end game in Afghanistan: The United States must above all establish a stable environment as it withdraws its troops, while Pakistan will seek to establish a dominant position to replace the departing Americans.  Unfortunately, there is no easy way to reconcile these differing priorities. Rebuilding trust between the two nations will require many years, and possibly multiple generations, to achieve. In the meantime, the current status quo of wary cooperation and mutual mistrust is likely to continue. 

Richard Weitz is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute and a World Politics Review senior editor. His weekly WPR column, Global Insights, appears every Tuesday. 

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