A few weeks ago, former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen rightly blasted Pakistan for exporting violence to Afghanistan. And similar accusations keep surfacing – specifically that Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency has supported Haqqani network militants attacking US and coalition forces along the border.
Pakistan’s behavior further weakens the decaying US-Pakistan relationship. It also lessens chances for a successful outcome in Afghanistan and erodes the internal security of both the United States and Pakistan. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton’s recent trip to Islamabad aimed to smooth relations, but also emphasize Washington’s demand that Pakistan better combat terrorists and insurgent groups. Fortunately, in the face of Pakistan’s misguided strategy, the US does have a few options.
To be fair, Washington has been trying to push Pakistan. In Kabul earlier this month, Secretary Clinton called on Pakistan to “take the lead” in fighting insurgent groups operating in Pakistan and help rehabilitate fighters in Afghanistan as well. But enlisting Pakistani cooperation will be quite a challenge. Some suspect that the ISI even supported the recent assault on the US embassy in Kabul, as payback for the attack on Osama bin Laden. This is not so far-fetched. While Americans took satisfaction in a mission accomplished, many Pakistanis viewed the attack as an abuse of sovereignty.
In a recent Pew Global Attitudes Survey, a majority of Pakistanis thought that killing bin Laden was a bad thing. It’s fair to speculate that, consequently, many Pakistanis took satisfaction in seeing the US embassy attacked.
Then there is the Pakistanis’ dislike of Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who has already drawn himself closer to Pakistan’s archrival, India. Just that perception alone is damning to the Karzai government, because fear of India is a big hot button. Pakistan and India have gone to war three times in just 60 years. Fear of India also helps bind Pakistan to insurgent groups like the Haqqani network.
So what should the US do?
Pressure Army to rein in ISI
First, Washington must demand that Chief of Army Staff Asfaq Pervez Kayani – the key power player in Pakistan – crack down on ISI aid to the Haqqani network, Taliban, and other insurgent groups attacking US and coalition forces in Afghanistan. The Army holds great influence over the ISI. As a former director general of the ISI, Mr. Kayani knows the agency very well. And the ISI’s current director general, Lt. Gen. Shuja Pasha, is a trusted ally. It’s fair to say that Kayani is strong enough to rein in ISI operatives.
Then what leverage might the US apply?
America doesn’t need another front in the war in Afghanistan, so sending in troops to Pakistan is unrealistic and unwanted – both by Pakistan’s government and Americans back home. Doing so would probably only cause the kind of political instability that would benefit the militant Islamists. Formally labeling the country a state-sponsor of terrorism could have the same effect.
Another option, cutting off aid, would be unlikely to change the military’s policies. Though Pakistan’s President Asif Ali Zardari sides with the US in his hostility to the Taliban, the elected government lacks the power to impose its will on the military.
Urge India-Pakistan talks over Afghanistan
The challenge for US-Pakistani relations is Pakistan’s relationship with India and Islamabad's concerns about Mr. Karzai moving to solidify his relations with India. Yet India and Pakistan have recently made surprising progress in talks centered on strengthening economic ties.
The US could play off that positive momentum and encourage New Delhi and Islamabad to open a dialogue on Afghanistan as well. It won’t be easy, but dispelling Islamabad’s fears about India’s intentions in Afghanistan could go a long way toward correcting the Pakistani military’s strategic calculus. (Many assess that Pakistan maintains some alliance with insurgents as insurance against Indian influence in Afghanistan.)
If the ISI ignored that signal for better cooperation with India, it should understand that such a refusal might force the US to take its own steps and consider a stronger strategic alliance with India aimed at containing Pakistan militarily. That has to be Pakistan’s nightmare. The threat, which Washington must be willing to act on, may well motivate the military to rethink whether supporting the Taliban and Haqqani network serves their interests.
Pakistan needs a communication campaign at home
The US must also persuade the Pakistani government to mount a strong communication campaign at home to demonize the Taliban, Islamist terrorists, and other insurgent groups, especially the Haqqani network. Pakistan has mostly lacked the will to do that. Partly that’s because public opinion is hostile to the US, which many blame more than terrorists and insurgent groups for bombings at home. Many Pakistanis feel that their country is fighting America’s war and paying the price.
Still, opinions about the US are one thing. Recognizing that the terrorist and insurgent groups pose an existential threat to Pakistan is something else. The campaign should focus on what terrorist and militant group ambitions for power mean for Pakistanis.
The consequences of these insurgent ambitions have become increasingly obvious. Taliban aggressiveness in the Swat and Bruner areas of Pakistan was a wake-up call. Despite Pakistan Army chief Kayani’s possibly mixed views about the US, he won’t countenance the Taliban and other militant insurgent groups gaining enough influence to undermine the military establishment. His government is in a unique position to initiate a campaign that defines the threat and links the Taliban, which attacks Afghans, to the criminals that murder fellow Muslims at home in Pakistan.
Many Pakistanis refuse to believe that Muslims would murder fellow Muslims. The Taliban encourages this mistaken belief by blaming the US, India, or Israel for bombings. Pakistan must counter these fabrications.
There is precedent for military and media campaign against terrorists. When Kayani and President Zardari mounted an offensive in South Waziristan against the Taliban and Islamist militants operating in the region in 2009, they got the media, civilian officials, and the Army behind it. The Taliban was blocked from the media, while the messaging campaign framed the conflict as “us vs. them.” It was able to discredit violent Islamists, as influenced by foreigners opposed to Islam and the “motherland.”
Effort in Afghanistan needs Pashtuns
Finally, the US must recognize that any positive outcome in Afghanistan doesn’t just require Pakistani cooperation; it must also assure a central role for Pashtuns, the key ethnic group dominant in the Taliban and in parts of Afghanistan and northwestern Pakistan. While the Afghans must decide their future for themselves, American values mandate that Washington stand for assuring all ethnic groups a democratic voice in the future. Mediation makes sense on this issue, but the Afghans must decide who conducts that process.
In the ever-changing world of Pakistan politics, negotiations with the US, India, insurgents, or the Afghan government are always a moving target. These steps offer a realistic way forward.
James Farwell is the author of the recently released book "The Pakistan Cauldron: Conspiracy, Assassination, and Instability."