Michael KreponPlain Speaking

Admiral Mike Mullen, the outgoing Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, spoke plainly about Pakistan’s military and intelligence services during his last appearance before the Senate Armed Services Committee on September 22nd. Here is what he said:

The fact remains that the Quetta Shura and the Haqqani Network operate from Pakistan with impunity. Extremist organizations serving as proxies of the government of Pakistan are attacking Afghan troops and civilians as well as U.S. soldiers. For example, we believe the Haqqani Network—which has long enjoyed the support and protection of the Pakistani government and is, in many ways, a strategic arm of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence Agency—is responsible for the September 13th attacks against the U.S. Embassy in Kabul. There is ample evidence confirming that the Haqqanis were behind the June 28th attack against the Inter-Continental Hotel in Kabul and the September 10th truck bomb attack that killed five Afghans and injured another 96 individuals, 77 of whom were U.S. soldiers. History teaches us that it is difficult to defeat an insurgency when fighters enjoy a sanctuary outside national boundaries, and we are seeing this again today. The Quetta Shura and the Haqqani Network are hampering efforts to improve security in Afghanistan, spoiling possibilities for broader reconciliation, and frustrating U.S.-Pakistan relations. The actions by the Pakistani government to support them—actively and passively—represent a growing problem that is undermining U.S. interests and may violate international norms, potentially warranting sanction. In supporting these groups, the government of Pakistan, particularly the Pakistani Army, continues to jeopardize Pakistan’s opportunity to be a respected and prosperous nation with genuine regional and international influence.

When Mullen, the foremost U.S. defender of trying to maintain sound working ties with Pakistan’s military, pretty much throws in the towel, the downward trend in bilateral relations is likely to accelerate. By publicly confirming and not qualifying reality, Mullen has changed the rules of the game, while laying the predicate for actions that will further inflame anti-U.S. sentiment within Pakistan by embarrassing Pakistan’s military hierarchy. The prosecution of the U.S. military campaign in Afghanistan will then become much harder, and whatever residual support Pakistan provides to the United States on other issues will be placed at risk.

Both countries are well past the stage of doing favors for each other; cooperation is limited to common interests. After 9/11, the Bush administration issued an ultimatum for Pakistan’s military establishment to cut ties with the Taliban and help the United States crush al-Qaeda. General Pervez Musharraf did so in qualified ways. Pakistan’s military was paid for its support and its self-interested sacrifices, but each party became disillusioned with this compact. Rawalpindi’s contributions in the “war on terror” remain highly selective, and the benefits provided by Washington have come with insults to Pakistani sovereignty and contention over the Taliban’s role in Afghanistan’s future. Disputes now loom larger than common interests.

In 2009, there was talk of moving beyond this transactional relationship with the passage of the Kerry-Lugar-Berman legislation, but these hopes have been unfulfilled. Not much aid has made it through the pipeline because of bureaucratic obstacles and concerns over corruption and the misdirection of U.S. financial assistance. Differences in U.S. and Pakistani policies have also grown as Washington’s relations with New Delhi have improved. Only Pakistan opposes the start of negotiations to end the production of fissile material for nuclear weapons. Rawalpindi has also pursued policies toward Afghanistan and India that have increased its international isolation. The Obama administration has apparently concluded that its has not been able to influence Rawalpindi’s unfortunate choices.

As usual, Ayaz Amir hit the nail on the head in his September 23rd column in The News:

When the Americans leave, the mental decision to leave having already been taken, Afghanistan will erupt once more into civil war. This is the writing on the wall, the message emblazoned across the skies. All the more reason for Pakistan’s strategic geniuses to avoid the temptation, irresistible as it may be, to take sides in that civil war. Who comes out on top, the Taliban or warriors from Mars, should be none of our business.

The theory of strategic assets for the future thus becomes irrelevant. We paid a heavy penalty for this theory in the past. We can’t be repeating the same mistakes. Our old assets were the likes of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. What good did they do us? Our new assets, even though our denials are vociferous, are the likes of Sirajuddin Haqqani and his so-called network. What are we expecting of them? That they will deliver Afghanistan to the ISI’s safekeeping? Is this grand strategy or the repetition of grand folly?

Alas, the repetition of grand folly in this part of the world is a hard habit to break. Rawalpindi’s share of costly misjudgments exceeds those of Washington and New Delhi. The growth of its nuclear arsenal is accompanied by disinterest in improving ties with India, a prerequisite if Pakistan is to become a normal nation. Rawalpindi’s Afghan policy repeats mistakes of the 1990s, perhaps based on the assumption that the Pentagon and the U.S. intelligence community will continue to prevent another divorce – but both of these stores are now under new management. Alternatively, the boldness of recent strikes in Afghanistan by Rawalpindi’s partners may reflect the calculation that the relationship with Washington has been broken beyond repair, and besides, most U.S. forces will be leaving the region. For whatever reason, Pakistan’s security establishment is acting in a way that suggests that its influence within Afghanistan matters more than its relations with the United States.

Admiral Mullen advised his listeners on Capitol Hill not to disengage from Pakistan, but rather to “reframe” the relationship to buttress civil authority and to expect far less from military leaders. This was the sentiment behind Kerry-Lugar-Berman – one well worth pursuing, but which has not yet had much success. Pakistan’s military leaders will not cede or share authority over national security easily, especially with respect to Afghanistan, India and nuclear weapons.

Unless Rawalpindi changes course, Pakistan may find itself reframed from a major non-NATO ally to a state sponsor of terrorism. Then the architects of policies that have diminished Pakistan’s security and international standing will again blame the United States for exiting the relationship after misusing it.


  1. Captain Ned (History)

    How odd is it that the two most intractable disputes both date from 1947. The Islamists running ISI are really turning into another Hezbollah, committed to a war of extinction over Kashmir against a state they stand no chance of defeating in a straight-up conventional-weapons fight.

  2. Sanjay (History)

    Et Tu Michael?

    • krepon (History)

      Ask yourself why.

  3. rahul db (History)

    ‘Normal’, so simple to articulate, so hard to do.

  4. Sharif (History)

    So we’re shocked — shocked! — to discover that Pakistan’s ISI has links to Haqquani network? This was obvious from about 2007. What I read in the latest hullabaloo is the laying of some groundwork for a nice “wag-the-dog” pre-election rating boosting US intervention in N. Waziristan.

    Things not going well in Afghanistan? Let’s bomb Pakistan.

    Oh wait…reminds me;

    Things not going well in Vietnam? Let’s bomb Cambodia.

    Indeed, the Pakistanis should stop supporting these goons, but more importantly we need to stop making any of this our business. (And no, 9/11 was not planned from Afghanistan: it was planned from the internet and from Hamburg).

    The response to 9/11 should have been aggressive policing, not military. We made a mistake. The architects of Pakistan’s doom are equally in Rawalpindi and in Crawford TX. (And Riyadh).

    • John Schilling (History)

      Aggressive policing, where, exactly? Aggressive policing in e.g. the United States and Western Europe, is inadequate. Once a properly trained, equipped, and supported terrorist team has been dispatched, even police-state security measures are unlikely to stop it. Policing is effective against terrorist recruiting, financing, and logistics, not against terrorist operations.

      Aggressive policing in e.g. Pakistan and Afghanistan, yes, that would have been appropriate. It would also have required military action, either to introduce Western police forces into those regions or to compel the local governments to engage in aggressive policing against their national interests.

      Aggressive policing by e.g. the Afghan and Pakistani governments, without at least a strongly implied threat of military force to compel such police action, is quite unrealistic – those nations had and still have compelling reason to turn a blind eye towards (if not actively support) international terrorist groups operating from their territory. And the pre-2001 history of Western militart operations in the Middle East was such that even explicit threats of military force would not have been credible without demonstration.

      We have armies because sometimes it really isn’t possible to just have the police go arrest the bad guys. This is one of those cases.

  5. Mark Lincoln (History)

    When did Ronald Reagan’s Freedom Fighters turn into US enemies? Why has it taken the USA so long to admit what everyone with a brain knew by 1993?

    Tune in tomorrow for the next episode in ‘As the Blowback Blasts’!

    Thank you Ronnie Raygun, thank you Bill Casey, thank you Dubbya.

    We are in a trap of our own making and we cannot escape until we stop paying the ISI to attack us.

  6. Malenki Sasha (History)

    The purpose of this statement is to make clear that the US will no longer tolerate Pakistan using proxies to attack the US in Afghanistan.

    Pakistan will have to either turn on its proxies or face isolation.

    The ISI is not a state within a state, the proxies aren’t assisted and directed by rogue elements; it is government policy.

  7. John Schilling (History)

    “No longer tolerate” is diplomatic weasel-wording. As is “isolation”, which sounds like it implies “blockade” but never really does. The important question is, how shall this intolerance be manifest in the real world?

    Unless I am missing some subtlety in the diplomatic language (which is always a possibility), Mullen’s statement makes nothing clear. That may be the point.

    • Malenki Sasha (History)

      “No longer tolerate” is an appropriate phrase because the US has long tolerated Pakistan’s involvement in supporting elements that is has been at war with. No longer tolerating does not only mean a declaration or war or broadening kinetic involvement that include the Pakistani military or intelligence apparatus (although it could), it can also imply means and actions necessary to persuade the Pakistani government from engaging in its support of these proxies. By means of persuasion would come isolation, the US can withdraw military assistance, diplomatic support, and economic assistance; all of which Pakistan is very dependent on.

      These terms are deliberately vague because it is unclear (although the above mentioned means of persuasion are likely) what the US’s next move is which is dependent on how Pakistan reacts to the statement. Speaking of which, is nothing more than an official statement. The diplomatic language will follow as necessary but it is pretty obvious to see where this is going considering that the US has made it official that Pakistan is indirectly at fighting them.

    • John Schilling (History)

      American economic assistance to Pakistan adds up to maybe half a percent of the Pakistani economy; I doubt they are all that dependant on it. Military assistance is another matter, but per Mullen:

      “now is not the time to disengage from Pakistan; we must, instead, reframe our relationship”. That and subsequent comments suggest that military isolation is not in the cards. It’s not clear that such isolation would be effective in any event, though I think it might be worth a try. Mullen doesn’t even think it’s worth trying, and he presumably knows the situation better than I do.

      But, again, he has nothing of substance to say about what should be tried. Yes, the US has long tolerated Pakistan’s outright support for a certain type and degree of international terrorism. I suspect that we will continue to tolerate this for many years to come, with the only change being an increase in the number of angry speeches from Washington and hollow promises from Islamabad. And perhaps a token reduction in the level of military assistance.

  8. kme (History)

    It is worth pointing out that Pakistan’s influence within Afghanistan does matter more than its relations with the United States. Pakistan is a small country with little strategic depth, and so maintaining Afghanistan as a vassal can be regarded as of existential importance; in comparison, relations with the US are simply a “nice-to-have”.

    • Malenki Sasha (History)

      Perhaps Pakistan is trying to get away with it as much as it can.

      The US gives Pakistan well over 1 billion each year which is nearly 20% of their military budget, not to mention access to some of the best weapons available. Although they could and would switch over to China, the cost of maintaining multiple instead of fewer weapons systems along with time and cost of adapting to new weapons systems would be expensive.

      While Pakistan’s loss of Afghanistan would be a significant strategic loss it is questionable whether it is worth the loss of a significant amount of their budget (perhaps the generals will stop pilfering the budget when they get desperate) along with weapons and training they get from the US.

  9. Neel (History)

    As far as the rest of the world is concerned, the Americans knew it all along that Pakistani Army and the ISI are playing a double game while pocketing tens of billions of dollars in the name of fight against terror. This amounts to American enabling of Pakistan deceit and dis-function, which is now being questioned within the US itself.

    The time has come for the US to correct its policies towards Pakistan. Failure to take concrete actions against Pakistan by the US will only lower its credibility in the eyes of the international community.

    India will surely be watching closely …….. !

    • krepon (History)

      And if Washington’s policies toward Pakistan were precisely to New Delhi’s liking, how, pray tell, would Indian policies change to be more to Washington’s liking?

  10. Neel (History)

    @ MK,
    To answer your question, which is perhaps at the core of the negotiations on the budding US-India partnership, India will never lower its guard and be hoodwinked by a well choreographed US-Pakistani dance. Rejection of the American jet fighters by India provides a clear indication.

    • krepon (History)

      Actually, you haven’t answered my question. You’ve told me what the United States cannot expect from India.

  11. ST (History)

    Hi Mike, Just wanna flag one observation (that you have briefly mentioned in your piece, as well). Policy-makers in the US need to be cognizant of the fact that this whole talk of surgical strikes may end up legitimizing (in the eyes of Pakistani public) the very institution they intend to expose and embarrass. Long held and widely spread views regarding the U.S. unacceptability of Pakistan’s so called ‘Islamic Bomb’as well as its ‘evil intentions’ towards the muslim world would get credence.
    Besides, in any such eventuality, Pakistanis might suffer but the military would gain more credibility – its narrative would come true. And this as a result would cause the death of liberal movements in Pakistan!

    • krepon (History)


      I hope you are well. Thanks for posting your comment. I hope that you and your colleagues will do more of this.

      You raise a very important point which, as you say, is not well appreciated by hawkish US commentators. If the US military retaliates within Pakistan at the perpetrators of mass-casualty attacks — attacks in Kabul, New York, Washington, Mumbai, or wherever — the result will be to strengthen the role of the military within Pakistan.

      This poses a dilemma. If the Pentagon does not retaliate against the perpetrators of mass casualty attacks against US nationals when it has persuasive evidence of who the attackers are and where they are located, then the attackers and their supporters within Pakistan will feel free to continue to go about their business of mass-casualty attacks. If, on the other hand, the US carries out drone strikes within Pakistan when it has persuasive evidence of who the attackers are and where they are located, Pakistanis will be outraged and rally behind the military/intelligence services.

      This is not a good set of choices. The way to avoid these choices is if Pakistan’s military leaders decide to take steps that clarify that they are not complicit in mass-casualty attacks against foreign nationals.

      Pakistani military and intelligence officers deny that they are complicit with the actions of the Haqqani network and the LeT. They say that they keep tabs on these organizations, but do not collude with them. It makes sense, in my view, to keep tabs on groups that operate from Pakistani soil and that reflect very badly on Pakistan and that carry out mass casualty attacks.

      Maintaining contact with these organizations does not constitute a defense when they carry out their attacks. Maintaining contact does not constitute a defense unless Pakistani authorities take active steps to prevent such attacks or to warn the intended victims.

  12. krepon (History)

    Mahmud Durrani has served as Pakistan’s former Ambassador to the US and a former national security adviser to two Pakistani governments. He has sent me this message via e-mail, and has consented to this posting:

    Pakistan US relations have come almost to a breaking point, especially after the broad side salvo fired by the US Defence officials, accusing Pakistan of supporting the Haqqani Group against the US and its allies in Afghanistan.

    Actually the seeds for a strategic drift were sown from the day Pakistan and the US agreed to cooperate in the war on terror, post 9/11. The underlying cause for this drift was the existing mistrust and friction in the strategic objectives and operational policy of both the countries.

    The US continued to believe throughout this period of cooperation that Pakistan was not doing enough in cooperating with the US to defeat terrorism in Afghanistan. They felt Pakistan was hunting with the hound and at the same time running with the hare. On the other hand Pakistan remains suspicious of some strategic objectives of the US and its strategy in Afghanistan. I also believe the material support provided by the US to Pakistan to fight terrorism has been inadequate, painfully slow and with strings based on mistrust.

    One issue is indisputable. The US has failed to achieve its objectives in Afghanistan of peace, prosperity, democracy and defeating terrorism; and this is not because of Pakistan. Even if the Durand Line were to be hermetically sealed, the mess in Afghanistan will remain. Overwhelmingly Pakistanis believe that the US is making Pakistan a fall guy for its failure in Afghanistan.

    It is a pity that for once Pakistan and the US face a common threat, terrorism, and in spite of being allies we have not been able to talk frankly and resolve perceptional problems. I am confident that, even now, a frank and open discourse can resolve the differences between us and reduce the mistrust. Today the mistrust between us is not only at the level of the Governments but also at the level of the people.

    Mahmud Durrani

  13. John Schilling (History)

    I would dispute Durrani’s indisputable penultimate paragraph, but other than that he’s got it pretty much pegged. Particularly the lack of trust issue. Unfortunately, I don’t see any way to reestablish that trust. “Frank and open discourse” sounds nice, but may in practice simply expose utterly irreconcilable differences.

    Note that India necessarily needs a seat at the table for this discussion. And I see no plausible strategy that effectively provides for Pakistan’s internal and external security, without posing an intolerable threat to American or Indian interests. Any two of these nations might come to a stable arrangement, not all three.

  14. b (History)

    Jojn Schilling says “Note that India necessarily needs a seat at the table for this discussion.”

    We here that over and over again but where is the proof?

    What has to do with Afghanistan and Haqqani? India does not even share a border with that country.

    Of course there is the issue of India sitting on the fount of Pakistan’s sole source of water, the Indus springs in Kashmir. The strategic problems arising from that fact certainly could need some mediation.

  15. MJ (History)

    US can use what ever language or make threats it wants to, nothing will Change Pakistani Stand as long as US is not stopping terrorist which are killing Pakistanis

    Zardari conveys Pak anger against US

    The president wrote, “The Pakistani street is thick with questions. My people ask, Is our blood so cheap? Are the lives of our children worthless?

    K-word out but big B-word in: Balochistan


    “This is an indirect acknowledgement by New Delhi that India has a hand in what is going on in Balochistan,” said Brajesh Mishra, the National Security Advisor and Principal Secretary to the Prime Minister in the NDA government.

    India supporting Baluchistan violence: Pak

    “India is supporting the miscreants in Balochistan,” Interior Minister Aftab Ahmed Sherpao told a press conference on Thursday.

    “The reaction of the neighbouring country over the action of Pakistan’s law-enforcement agencies against the miscreants is clear evidence that they are being backed by India,” he was quoted as saying by the local daily Dawn on Thursday.

    Pak accuses India’s RAW for Balochistan’s troubles


    “The Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) pumped huge money, into the province, transferred arms and ammunition via Kishan Garh into Dera Bugti, from various routes, all of which have now been sealed,” it was disclosed at the meeting, The News International said.