Something has snapped in Washington. Last week’s terrorist attack in Kabul, including against the American embassy, reportedly by members of the Pakistan-based Afghan Haqqani Network, was the last straw for the Obama administration.
In the wake of the attack, Admiral Mike Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told US senators during a hearing of the all-powerful Senate Armed Services Committee that the Haqqani Network was not only a “veritable arm” of Pakistan’s top spy agency, the Directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) but that the ISI had helped the Haqqani insurgents stage the attack against the American embassy.
The Americans have always known that there are links between the ISI and the Haqqani Network, ties that go back to the 1980s when those Afghan fighters fought the Soviets. The ISI has publicly acknowledged these links.
However, what brings this latest statement by Mullen to another and much more sensitive and dangerous level is that it directly and very publicly accuses the Pakistanis of having their fingerprints all over this terrorist operation.
Compounding this accusation by the top military officer was a not-so-veiled threat by Leon Panetta, Secretary of the US Department Defense, who said that unless the Pakistan military hunted down these militants the US may have to take “operational steps” against Pakistan. That’s code word for air strikes.
And just in case the message hadn’t been made clear enough, in a bilateral meeting on Saturday of General Pervez Kayani, Pakistan’s Chief of Army Staff, and General James Mattis, head of US Central Command, the latter reportedly stressed that unless the Pakistanis went after the Haqqani Network terrorists there would be no improvement in bilateral relations.
So what happens now that these deep differences between the US and Pakistan have been made so public?
As a starter, Pakistan has decided to call Washington’s bluff. Following an emergency meeting on Sunday of the Army’s corps commanders, called by General Kayani, Pakistan decided to not go after the Haqqani militants and ignore Washington’s demand.
This should come as no surprise. For the last couple of years Pakistan had been asked repeatedly by Washington to go into North Waziristan and hunt down these militants. And each time the Pakistanis have told them that it would not happen.
So the ball is now in Washington’s court. And given how public they have gone on this issue, they have no option but to do something. To do nothing now would mean a serious loss of credibility, particularly in the eyes of the Afghans – government forces and terrorist alike.
Unless the Pakistanis change their position on this issue - and this is unlikely, probably the first thing the Americans will do is stop all military aid to Pakistan. This would be in line with the 2009 Kerry-Lugar Act which stipulates that such aid would have to be cut off if ties between the Pakistan government and terrorist groups exist. This could well run into the loss of several hundreds of millions of dollars worth of weapons for Pakistan.
However, it is unlikely that the Americans would stop at that. It is almost certain that they would bomb Haqqani bases in North Waziristan in Pakistan’s tribal areas. Such an aggressive act would seriously up the ante in this dispute.
To put it bluntly, this would effectively be a declaration of war.
In such an eventuality the Pakistanis would undoubtedly stop all convoys re-supplying the bulk of NATO’s non-lethal materiel needs in Afghanistan. If this logistic disruption were to last over an extended period, this would seriously affect the Coalition force’s ability to operate in Afghanistan.
If we come to that scenario, the deteriorating bilateral relationship could easily escalate and spiral out of control. No one knows where it would lead to.
So the question that one needs to ask is: what do the Americans hope to achieve by raising the stakes so publicly?
One should remember that the Navy SEAL’s Bin Laden operation was highly humiliating for the Pakistani army. Accordingly, does the US really expect the Pakistan army to roll over, break all ties with the Haqqani network overnight, and jump to Washington’s command?
Doing so would only further weaken in the eyes of Pakistanis the only strong institution in the country. This in turn would embolden the Pakistani Taliban extremists who are spreading their medieval ideology and terrorising the countryside.
Pakistan is today a fragile state. So it wouldn’t take very much to destabilise it. And I doubt that’s what Washington wants to see happen to the world’s 6th most populous country which is nuclear-armed and geo-strategically located in one of the world’s most volatile regions.
So hopefully rational people on both sides will ensure that both countries stand back and avoid what could lead to something very ugly down the road.
The Afghanistan experience has been bad enough; let’s avoid something potentially much worse in Pakistan.