Why Admiral Mullen is talking tough with Pakistan over Haqqani militants

In an uncharacteristically blunt move, US Adm. Mike Mullen said publicly that Pakistan had a 'longstanding relationship' with the Haqqani militant group. The US appears to be both prodding Pakistan to finally root out militants in its border region and attempting to set the parameters for Afghan peace talks.

Inter Services Public Relations/AP
US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen (l.) listens to Pakistan's Chairman Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee General Khalid Shameem Wynne during a meeting in Rawalpindi, Pakistan on Wednesday, April 20. Mullen is visiting Pakistan at a time of tensions over America's role in the region.

With unusual bluntness, America’s top military officer publicly accused Pakistani intelligence as having a “longstanding relationship” with a US enemy, the Haqqani Network. By zeroing in on this faction within the Afghan insurgency, the US appears to be prodding Pakistan to finally root out militants and attempting to set the parameters for Afghan peace talks.

“It’s fairly well known that the ISI has a long-standing relationship with the Haqqani network,” Adm. Mike Mullen told the Pakistan newspaper Dawn before a meeting with Pakistan’s military chief, Gen. Ashfaq Kayani. “Haqqani is supporting, funding, training fighters that are killing Americans and killing coalition partners. And I have a sacred obligation to do all I can to make sure that doesn’t happen.”

Led by Afghan warlord Jalaluddin Haqqani and his son Sirajuddin, the Haqqani Network operates out of Pakistan’s North Waziristan tribal agency. Holed up with them are intertwined global jihadists from groups that include Al Qaeda. The Pakistani military has led military operations to root out militants in other tribal areas but says it will not be able to tackle North Waziristan anytime soon.

For the Americans, time is running out for military progress on the Afghan border, however.

“The US announced certain deadlines, they want to start pullout [of Afghanistan] by July 2011, and give up security of Afghanistan by 2014. To do that, they need changes on the grounds quickly,” says Ijaz Khattak, professor of international relations at Pakistan's Peshawar University. “The Haqqani Network has become a very serious bone of contention” between the US and Pakistan.

The problems with 'frenemies'

The Haqqanis are by no means the only problem between these “frenemies.” The recent case of detained CIA contractor Raymond Davis convinced the Pakistanis that US contractors are running amok on their soil. Americans, meanwhile saw a blatant violation of the basic rules of diplomacy – let alone strategic partnership.

But the Haqqanis represent a more serious problem moving forward. Everyone acknowledges that Pakistan will have a key role to play in any Afghan peace negotiations. That’s because Pakistan has some leverage over the insurgent groups – but particularly the Haqqanis.

“Peace talks for [Pakistan] means talking to the Haqqanis,” says Abdul Basit, a researcher at the Pakistani Institute for Peace Studies in Islamabad, during an interview late this month. “Pakistan’s bidding will be done through Haqqanis.”

The Americans, however, “make it clear, absolutely no talks with the Haqqanis,” says Mr. Basit. The Haqqanis are intertwined with the mix of militants in Waziristan, but a key US goal is to delink the Taliban from global jihad.

“People talk about how [the insurgents] have to renounce Al Qaeda, but I don’t talk about Al Qaeda, I talk about Waziristan,” says Michael Semple, a Harvard University-based expert on the peace process. Militants there “are operating in a totally different space, which is not just about grabbing power in Afghanistan [but] about the global jihad.”

Mullen's frankness

Ties between Pakistan intelligence and Haqqani are not exactly a secret, as Mullen himself said. In an intercepted phone call, General Kayani once described the elder Haqqani as a “strategic asset.” But top US officials rarely put their name to any such public assertion since it contradicts Pakistan’s official line that Haqqani is an adversary.

Mullen’s frankness raises the stakes over Haqqani. “It’s not an ultimatum, but it’s definitely a hardening of relations,” says retired Gen. Talat Masood in Islamabad. “America is being very clear that [Pakistan] cannot have relationships with these groups.”

Other observers worry that the blunt approach will only backfire.

“I would have confined it to private discussions,” says Najmuddin Shaikh, a former Foreign Secretary of Pakistan. “Now if the Pakistanis then take action, they’ve established once again they are puppets of the Americans. This is not really the position you want to be in.”

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