Relations between Washington and Islamabad deteriorated rapidly during 2011. A series of incidents, including the death of Osama bin Laden in an American raid in Pakistan and the killing of Pakistani soldiers by NATO forces in a skirmish on the Afghan border, created a poisonous atmosphere.
The causes of the deterioration were complex, bound up closely with divergent approaches towards the future of Afghanistan as the departure of Western combat forces approaches and towards the extremist groups which expect to play a part in that future. The situation was further complicated by the gulf between America’s interlocutors in Pakistan : a dysfunctional civilian government barely tolerated by the military, which determines security policy. Cooperation with the military remains essential if Washington is to achieve its security objectives in the region.
Bilateral relations have never been easy. Since the 1950s the relationship has been characterised by on-off collaborations, each of which has involved both sides overlooking the degree to which their strategic objectives actually diverge. During each period of cooperation, the relationship has been able to defy gravity for a time. But sooner or later the laws of physics have re-asserted themselves and the relationship has come crashing to earth.
The first indication that the relationship was set to deteriorate once more was the January arrest in Lahore of Raymond Davis, a CIA contract officer who shot and killed two Pakistanis who he claimed had been trying to rob him. A US consulate rapid-response vehicle sent to assist Davis ran into and killed a pedestrian. Davis, whose claim to diplomatic immunity was not accepted by the Pakistani authorities, remained imprisoned for two months until a deal involving the payment of blood money to the families of those he had killed led to his release.
There are many unanswered questions surrounding the Davis case. But it marked an inflection point in the relationship between the CIA and Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency. Although the two bodies were still cooperating against al-Qaeda, their common enemy, they were increasingly at odds over unilateral CIA operations against other extremist groups such as the Haqqani network and Lashkar-e-Tayiba, with which the ISI maintained links. The resulting tensions were manifested in an aggressive ISI counter-intelligence effort against the CIA, of which the Davis incident may have been a part, with suggestions that Davis’s assailants were in fact ISI surveillants. In what was to become a familiar pattern after each subsequent major incident, strikes by CIA Predator unmanned aircraft against extremists in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas were substantially reduced and for a period halted altogether pending the resolution of the Davis affair.
The assault by US Navy SEALs on bin Laden’s compound in the garrison town of Abbottabad in May 2011 exacerbated an already tense relationship. Pakistan’s armed forces were humiliated as it became clear that the raid had been conducted unilaterally, and that they had been unable either to detect or deter the American helicopters carrying the SEALs. The attack inflamed Pakistani public opinion, forcing the civilian government, which had initially welcomed the al-Qaeda leader’s demise, to perform a volte-face and protest against the breach of sovereignty. Meanwhile, the realisation that bin Laden had been sheltering for years at the heart of the Pakistani state in circumstances that suggested some element of official collusion produced a predictable reaction in the US, with legislators urging an end to economic assistance to a country seen as increasingly untrustworthy.
Events in September 2011 pointed to a further deterioration. The Haqqani network detonated a truck bomb in Afghanistan’s Wardak province, injuring 77 US soldiers, and three days later attacked the US embassy in Kabul. This was followed by the assassination of Burhanuddin Rabbani, veteran mujahadeen leader, former Afghan president and, at the time of his death, chairman of Afghanistan’s Peace Council with responsibility for reconciliation and reintegration. Rabbani’s assassins had posed as Taliban leaders seeking reconciliation with the government of President Hamid Karzai. The assumption by Washington and Kabul was that his death was part of a spoiling operation – possibly involving Pakistan – designed to ensure that the reconciliation programme promoted jointly by the Afghan government and the international community would stall. Pakistan denied allegations that it had colluded with the Quetta Shura, the Pakistan-based leadership of the Afghan Taliban, in Rabbani’s assassination. Pakistani Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar was quoted as saying : ’We are not responsible if Afghan refugees crossed the border and entered Kabul, stayed in a guest house and attacked Professor Rabbani.’
Two days after the assassination, Admiral Mike Mullen, outgoing Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, dropped a political bombshell. Though he had made strenuous efforts to cultivate good relations with Pakistan’s military chiefs, as part of his final testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee, he said : ’The Haqqani network acts as a veritable arm of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency…With ISI support, Haqqani operatives planned and conducted the truck bomb attack as well as the assault on our embassy.’ In fact, US intelligence sources indicate that there was no real evidence to substantiate the level of collusion alleged by Mullen. But his departure was seen as a useful opportunity to vent long-standing US frustrations about the ability of the Haqqani network to use Pakistan as a sanctuary from which to launch attacks into Afghanistan. Although the White House distanced itself from Mullen’s remarks, they elicited a predictable furore in Pakistan, where Khar admonished Washington that it ’risked losing an ally’. US Senator Dianne Feinstein epitomised a growing mood of frustration in US political circles by advocating that the Haqqani network be proscribed as a terrorist organisation – a move that would leave Pakistan open to the accusation of being a state sponsor of terrorism.
The final act in the 2011 downward spiral in relations took place in the early hours of 26 November when a Pakistani border post at Salala in the Mohmand tribal agency was attacked by NATO helicopters called in by a joint US–Afghan military patrol which believed it had come under attack from insurgents. The attack, which resulted in 24 Pakistani deaths and left 13 injured, was widely seen by Pakistan’s intelligentsia as a deliberate act by the US designed to ’show Pakistan who is the boss’.Having reached the limit of its ability to influence Pakistan through persuasion and negotiation, the argument went, the US now sought to impose its will by force.
The official Pakistani response was to close the two border crossings through which 80% of the materiel and 40% of the fuel for the NATO/ISAF mission in Afghanistan was routed and to demand that the CIA vacate Shamsi airbase in Baluchistan, used to support Predator operations, within 15 days. Air defences along the Afghan border were reportedly strengthened and Pakistani forces authorised to open fire immediately if they came under attack. Pakistan boycotted a 5 December international conference on Afghanistan in Bonn, Germany – though senior Pakistani officials did attend an annual gathering of South Asian security officials and policymakers organised by the IISS and the US government’s Near East South Asia Center for Strategic Studies in Muscat, Oman, the following week.
The US government’s refusal to issue an unqualified apology for the incident further inflamed Pakistani opinion, and a subsequent Pentagon report which concluded that both sides shared some responsibility for the incident was roundly rejected by Pakistan. The government of President Asif Ali Zardari stated that Pakistan was reviewing all aspects of its security relationship with the US and would seek to base future cooperation on written undertakings. In the new relationship, Pakistan would aim to limit the number and scope of drone attacks, reduce the US intelligence and military presence, and demand a significant increase in payments for resuming the supply of materiel into Afghanistan.
Meanwhile longstanding tensions between Zardari’s civilian government and Pakistan’s military leadership came to the surface through the so-called ’Memogate’ affair which led to the recall of Pakistan’s ambassador to Washington, Hussain Haqqani, who now faces a possible charge of high treason.
The origin of Memogate – seen by many as an ISI information operation designed to undermine Zardari – was an article in the 10 October 2011 edition of the Financial Times by US-Pakistani businessman Mansoor Ijaz. He claimed to have been asked by Haqqani to deliver to senior US officials a message from Zardari seeking US assistance to prevent a possible coup d’état by the army, supposedly because it was anxious to prevent an independent inquiry into the circumstances which led to bin Laden’s presence in Abbottabad. In return for this assistance, Zardari apparently offered to dismiss the current generation of military leaders, close down ISI’s S Wing – the cadre of ’retired’ officers responsible for retaining links with extremist groups – and give the US a free hand to conduct counterterrorism operations inside Pakistan. The memorandum was reportedly delivered to Admiral Mullen, who subsequently confirmed that he had received it but said he had not regarded it as credible.
The degree of tension generated by Memogate was evident when Zardari sought refuge in Dubai on 6 December, supposedly to seek medical treatment for a heart condition. (He returned on 18 December.) Later, a sharp exchange between Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani and Chief of Army Staff General Ashfaq Kayani reflected the continued civil–military tension. In a speech to mark the birth of Pakistan’s founder Muhammad Ali Jinnah, Gilani said : ’There can be no state within a state … People will have to decide whether they want elected people or a dictatorship in the country.’ Kayani responded that the army ’is fully cognizant of its constitutional obligations and responsibilities’.
There is in fact little evidence to suggest that Kayani and his subordinates have any appetite for a military takeover which would replicate all the problems of the previous administration of General Pervez Musharraf. Though they are undoubtedly keen to see the back of Zardari, they appear to see their best hope of achieving this through an election, possibly in 2012, in which former cricketer Imran Khan, whose political profile seems to be gathering popular momentum after years of failing to gain traction, might form a new civilian administration which would take account of military interests.
At the root of US–Pakistani tensions is the question of Afghanistan’s future after 2014, when US and other Western combat operations in Afghanistan are scheduled to end – a timetable dictated by domestic political and budgetary factors. For Pakistan’s military this timetable is a vindication of its long-held conviction that sooner or later the US and its allies would abandon Afghanistan, leaving Pakistan to confront a situation inimical to its strategic interests. It would either leave India in a strategically dominant position or result in a lapse back into the chaos that had prevailed between the fall of the Najibullah regime in 1992 and the assumption of power by the Taliban in 1996, which would have a major destabilising effect on Pakistan. With 2014 looming, the interests of Washington and Islamabad are different.
From the US perspective, the priority is to leave behind as stable a situation as possible. To this end, NATO-led forces are training Afghanistan’s security forces – army and police – so that they can take responsibility for security. This has progressed to the point where the security of an increasing number of cities and districts is now formally under Afghan control.
At the same time, the US is trying to hold negotiations with the Quetta Shura to seek a political outcome to the insurgency and thus reduce future challenges to the still-developing Afghan security forces.
In November 2011 the White House acknowledged that the US government had been in negotiations with representatives of the Quetta Shura led by Tayyib Agha, an aide to Taliban leader Mullah Omar. In six meetings tentative agreement had been reached on the transfer of five Afghan prisoners from Guantanamo Bay to house arrest in Qatar and for the Taliban publicly to renounce links with international terrorism. Karzai balked at these arrangements, probably under pressure from political allies from the Northern Alliance who oppose any negotiation with the Taliban. The Afghan government also objected to a proposal that the Taliban establish an office in Qatar to facilitate further negotiations, though it later withdrew its objection provided that no foreign power engaged in dealings with the Taliban without its consent, and that no negotiations took place until the Taliban ceased violence against civilian targets, cut ties to al-Qaeda and accepted the existing Afghan constitution.
Although views differ on the extent to which the Taliban leadership is serious about entering into negotiations, some experts believe it is ready to do so but its hands are tied by a Pakistani military reluctant to see talks progress – though it is unlikely that the talks referred to above could have happened if Pakistan had not at least tacitly acquiesced.
From Pakistan’s perspective, the military does not believe that there will be an end to hostilities by 2014 – nor in any case would it favour the emergence of a stable Afghanistan if this were seen as privileging the interests of India and rendering Pakistan vulnerable to strategic encirclement. On the assumption of continued hostilities, Pakistan’s military will want to ensure that extremist groups – which it regards as strategic assets in confronting an uncertain security situation in Afghanistan after 2014 – are protected from the process of attrition that the US has inflicted on al-Qaeda.
With the clock ticking, recent tensions between the US and Pakistan can be seen as the drawing of lines in the sand – a process of defining the limits to which Pakistani and US interests do and do not intersect in relation to Afghanistan. Both sides have many reasons to avoid a complete rupture in relations. For the US, Pakistan is a key factor in the struggle against extremist terrorism and nuclear proliferation. For Pakistan, the US remains both an important source of international legitimation and funding, as well as being the only major power able to exercise strategic leverage on India in the event that Indo-Pakistani relations undergo another major deterioration.
There are signs that, having looked into the abyss, the two countries are working to ensure that essential collaboration continues. But a further serious incident could prove terminal for a relationship that neither party has ever found satisfactory.