USA’s Pakistan Strategy Blown: New Round Of Challenges For Region – Analysis


By Bhaskar Roy

Speaking before the US Senate Armed Services Committee on Afghanistan and Iraq on September 22, US Chairman of Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen appeared to have finally declared publicly his failure to cultivate a relationship for the past four years. He admitted this freely, but it must have been painful to have been betrayed. At times his was the lonely voice on the Capitol Hill asking for time and patience while his colleagues in the Pentagon, the CIA and even in the usually soft-on-Pakistan State Department were outraged. Mullen will be retiring in the end of the month. He was so hurt that he declined to make a farewell visit to Pakistan. His last meeting with the Pakistani military was in Savile, Spain, when he met army Chief Gen. Asfaq Parvez Kayani, and informed him to take definitive action against the Haqqani clique fighters/terrorists. Kayani, of course declined saying Pakistan’s action depended on their assessment.


Mullen described the Haqqani Network as “a strategic arm of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI)”, responsible for the September 13 attack on the US Embassy in Kabul, and the June 28 truck bomb attack on the Inter-Continental Hotel in Kabul that killed five Afghans and injured another 96 people 77 of whom were American soldiers. Mullen also was clear in his statement that the Pakistani government supported the Mullah Omar’s (Taliban) Quetta Sura and the Haqqani Network both “actively and passively” hampering possibilities, and frustrating US-Pakistan relations. It is the sentiment of Mullen and the phrases that he used, that hang heavy. Mullen did not mention the assassination of Professor Burhanuddin Rabbani in Kabul’s high security zone in September 20 perhaps, because, clear evidence yet to emerge. The assassination of Rabbani was a huge blow to the Afghan peace process. Rabbani, a Tajik, and President of the Afghan Taliban government from 1992-96, was appointed by President Hamid Karzai at the head of the High Peace Council (HPC) for the Peace and Reconciliation process. His was one right choice, and one of the few prudent decisions made by President Karzai. Rabbani had connection with both the Pushtuns on the one hand and the Northern Alliance Tajik and Uzbek descendents on the other, although the alliance group leader Dr. Abdullah Abdullah and many in Karzai’s remain opposed to sharing power with the Taliban. Rabbani was also opposed to foreign troops and American bases in Afghanistan, but may have agreed to their retention for some time beyond 2014 to train Afghan National Army (ANA) troops. Rabbani and his HCP members were already in touch with the Quetta Shura emissaries. The Afghan government appears to shocked and directionless at the present. If the aim of Rabbani’s assassination was to derail the peace process, it has been successful to a great extent.

Pakistan’s response to Mullen’s charges, to say the least is, historic! Pakistani Prime Minister Yusaf Raza Gilani responded (Sept. 23) “They (the US) can’t live with us. They cannot live without us …. so, I would say to them if they cannot live without us, they should increase contacts with us to remove misunderstandings”. Gilani also advised the US to refrain from making statements unacceptable to the Pakistan people, and Pakistan should not compromise its sovereignty (referring to the Osama bin Laden episode of May 02) .

These words are certainly not that of the civilian government of Pakistan which is solely dependent on American aid and aid received from other international groups over which the US has a decisive say. The strategic calculation to trap the US in a Catch-22 situation is that of the Pakistan army.

Kayani had recently saved the civilian government from an army coup when a large number of corps commanders had proposed removal of the present government due to number of failures, and particularly the Karachi violence which was threatening the national integrity. Unlike Gen. Parvez Musharraf, Kayani is not garrulous, but quiet and calculative and keeps his thoughts to himself. For Kayani, the civilian government is an excellent foil internationally.

The US have little other option but to strategize differently or, as Admn. Mullen said “not to disengage with Pakistan ….. frame a new relationship”. Without using the words Prime Minister Gilani told them you cannot bomb us to the “stone age”, you cannot dictate us unilaterally, and a Vietnam may be awaiting you in Afghanistan.

Of course, Pakistan army finds itself in an advantageous position now. At least, that is its perception. But with the country’s very limited resources how far can it go and for how long? Saudi Arabia is a staunch supporter of Pakistan in more ways than one, but it is also dependent on the USA to protect it from Iran, stabilize the Gulf region, and keep its oil and trade shipping lines open. Saudi assistance will come nevertheless. That leaves China. As early as 1996, Chinese President Jiang Zemin, in his address to the Pakistani parliament, had warned America to keep away from the region, especially from Pakistan. China remains Pakistan’s main weapons supplier, including nuclear weapons technology. It wants to use Pakistan’s army to keep the US away from Pakistan and Afghanistan as this ranks high in Beijing’s security concerns. Yet Beijing does not want to be seen as a supporter of Pakistan and terrorism against Washington. China’s stakes with the US is far higher than its limited stakes with Pakistan. Chinese senior leaders are already rushing to Pakistan to deliberate on the Pak-US crisis. It is also not in Beijing’s interest if the Pak-US stand-off went out of hand. But a Pakistan preventing US influence incursion in the Af-Pak region is a huge strategic bonus to China.

There is a perception from some of Pakistan’s leading press that people are against the machinations of the authorities with terrorists, Islamic extremists and the “strategic depth” policy in Afghanistan. These voices are a small minority among Pakistan’s policy elite. But a study done by the Jinnah Institute of Pakistan sponsored by the US Institute of Peace (USIP), reflecting the views of “Pakistan’s Policy Elite “ as the study claims, demolishes all such liberal thinking.

The policy elite projects the following three positions in Afghanistan (i) Kabul government that is not hostile to Pakistan (ii) an inclusive government in Afghanistan with adequate Pushtun representation, and the main Afghan Taliban factions-particularly Mullah Omar’s group and the Haqqani Network, and (iii) Limited Indian presence for development activities only which cannot manipulate the Afghan government.

Each of these points are flawed. To have a friendly government in Kabul, Islamabad must pursue a positive policy. Basically, there is a lack of trust, some deep and some not so deep, about Pakistan among the Afghans.

Pakistan army’s “strategic depth” policy actually aims to make Afghanistan a vassal state of Pakistan. Even if Taliban returns to rule the country or gets a major say in the Kabul government, they would resist on issues. They did so when they were in power between 1992-2001. The erstwhile Northern Alliance fought the Pakistan army supporting the Taliban during this period. One of their leaders, Dr. Abdullah Abdullah has made his opposition to and distrust of both the Taliban and Pakistan abundantly clear.

In formulating the “inclusive government” system in Kabul, Pakistan’s policy elite failed to get out of the old rut. There is absolutely no new thinking. About 40 percent of the Afghan population does not find a representation, leading to a suspicion if they are making a disguised proposal to divide Afghanistan. The aim is for a Pakistan selected Afghan government which would not be acceptable either in Afghanistan or internationally.

Limiting Indian presence in Afghanistan may not be the best of options. The people of India and Afghanistan have enjoyed historical, cultural and trade relations. India enjoys the highest acceptance among foreigners in Afghanistan, maintains strong political links. India has concentrated on development work like infrastructure, hospitals and education. It wisely kept away from the war and also maintains warm relations with Central Asian countries bordering Afghanistan, also maintains good relations with Iran where also New Delhi is involved infrastructural work. Pakistan cannot dictate the foreign policy of a neighbour. The concept of the Pakistani policy elite is just not workable because it lacks vision and fails to offer a solution worthy even consideration among the stake holders in Afghanistan.

Washington has to put together a new Pakistan policy that has a singular purpose to eradicating terrorism as a whole in the region. It is no secret that the US has multiple interest in Pakistan and Afghanistan, but it must realise that if it cannot resolve the issue of terrorism positively, its other pursuits will remain beyond reach.

Washington’s Pakistan policy tradition is remarkable in its ability to arm Pakistan with nuclear weapons and missiles and rear terrorism. Even in this period, as US Embassy cables brought out by Wikileaks reveal, the US was very much aware of China’s clandestine nuclear weapons components and technology transfer to Pakistan. This concealment and non-action has further helped sophistication of Pakistani nuclear arsenal. The dangerous region was made more dangerous yet. This, eventually, as happened always, will counter American interests. And the Chinese, who anyway treat international treaties and agreements with disdain, are sitting happily. Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal must be taken into account in considering the overall security of the region as the stand-off between Pakistan has never been so sharp, acrimonious and on the knife-edge.

President Barack Obama’s Af-Pak policy lacked determination. His time table to withdraw troops from Afghanistan was against the advice of his military commanders. The shaky approach did more harm than good for the morale of the troops. Wars cannot be fought and won in a time table, and certainly not with an eye to elections. America’s hurry to get out of Afghanistan spread like influenza virus to the other NATO partners.

Pakistan’s astute army Chief Gen. Kayani seized the moment. He first tested the ground by disrupting NATO military supplies through Pakistan to Afghanistan. The alternate route tried by the NATO through Russia is not efficient enough and Pentagon certainly does not want to become totally dependent on Russia for other political reasons. Sensing this opportunity the Pakistan backed Taliban stepped up its attacks inside Afghanistan, supplemented by the Haqqani Network. Targeted killing of senior Afghan leaders perceived to be uncomfortable to Pakistan’s goal began to be assassinated. At least six of them have been killed this year.

It is clear now that the ISI is not a rogue organization, nor are there rogue elements in the ISI involved in terrorism. It is a solid organization of the state responsible to the army chief only. The ISI has acted more as terrorist sponsoring organization, and an organization involved in assassination within the country. The various administrations in Washington are fully aware of this, but opted to appease its far narrow interests. The Americans cannot declare the ISI a terrorist entity because they have to deal with it. Basically, Pakistan ISI terrorism has been legitimised.

Pakistan and the USA are trying to stare down each other. Pakistan has created a national consensus against the US. Ground attack inside Pakistan’s territory is no longer a viable option for the US army. Things will have to start from scratch and, to Pakistan’s perception, the US will start with a handicap. If there are military scuffles, Pakistan is likely open a front against India to complicate the entire situation.

The only option left for Obama is to pull out all stops, forget about elections, and show to his people he completed with honour what America had started in the interest of the world. Winston Churchill is remembered more for bringing Britain victorious in World War-II than losing the post-war election. Tempers are being cooled by both sides. But this is only temporary.


SAAG is the South Asia Analysis Group, a non-profit, non-commercial think tank. The objective of SAAG is to advance strategic analysis and contribute to the expansion of knowledge of Indian and International security and promote public understanding.

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