Amidst intensifying violence in Afghanistan, the United States has suddenly ramped up pressure on Pakistan to do something that could help weaken the Taliban.
The blunt message that terrorist and militant attacks emanating from Pakistani soil were “absolutely unacceptable” and that action against Haqqani Network was “imperative for Pakistan’s relations with Kabul and with Washington” was delivered by US National Security Adviser Amb Susan Rice during her meetings with political and military leaders in Islamabad and Rawalpindi last Sunday.
Pakistan’s policy towards the Haqqani Network is an old issue in Islamabad-Washington relations, but the latest emphasis on action against the terrorist group is particularly important because of its context – increase in violence in Afghanistan and the continuing impasse in the reconciliation dialogue with the Taliban. Also important is the timing, as the demand comes ahead of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s visit to the White House on October 22. It is also a reminder that despite a calm in mutual relations following stepped up Pakistani counter-terrorism operations, the perceptions in Washington about a nexus between the Pakistani military/intelligence and the Haqqani Network have not changed.
The real issue is the diminishing American interest in its ally
“The US is increasingly concerned about the ramped-up violence in Afghanistan, which many in Washington believe has been spearheaded to an extent by Haqqani Network operatives enjoying sanctuaries in Pakistan,” says Michael Kugelman, senior program associate for South Asia at the Woodrow Wilson International Center. “Washington believes that Pakistan’s claims of rooting out any and all terrorist havens in its North Waziristan offensive are false, and that the Haqqani Network was allowed to relocate and recalibrate – thereby facilitating its ability to help carry out the rising levels of violence in Afghanistan today.”
The Americans, after remaining relatively quiet on the issue since the start of Operation Zarb-e-Azb last year (notwithstanding the sporadic murmuring), started flagging the issue again in their conversations with Pakistani officials at the start of this month – in other words, after the breakdown of the peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban following the disclosure that Mullah Omar was dead.
Noticing that the message was not being taken seriously in Islamabad, the Obama administration took the next step and conveyed its inability to certify to the Congress that Pakistani military operation in North Waziristan had significantly downgraded the Haqqani threat – a move that would deprive Pakistan of at least $300 million in Coalition Support Funds (CSF) this year. Even before something could have come out of the negotiations on the certification, the White House, which seems to be in a hurry, went a step further and took up the matter with Pakistani authorities at the highest level.
“We are not going to do more”
The Americans did not just raise the issue during Ambassador Rice’s meetings with Pakistani leaders, but followed it up immediately with another meeting between Dr Peter Lavoy, President Obama’s special assistant on South Asia, with Army Chief Gen Raheel Sharif. According to an insider, Dr Lavoy’s second visit to the GHQ in two days was to get a response from the military leadership on the “steps that Amb Rice had asked Pakistan to take for cessation of hostilities”. One must not forget that days earlier, the Commander of US Central Command General Lloyd J Austin too had visited Gen Sharif with a similar agenda.
Though questions remain about what Pakistan would do to assuage the Americans, the speed with which the pressure was ratcheted up has, nevertheless, moved Islamabad to ponder over the messages that it has received. A meeting between Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and Army Chief Gen Sharif on Tuesday was convened specifically for this purpose, which according to a PMO Spokesman was for a discussion on “Afghan peace process”.
Background interviews with senior officials revealed that in response to the pressure from US, a proposal was being prepared to explore the prospects of restoration of the reconciliation process with the Afghan government. Kabul had previously conveyed that it did not require Pakistani facilitation on this count any further, but Advisor on National Security and Foreign Affairs Mr Sartaj Aziz, who will be visiting Kabul on Friday for a regional conference, will try to find out in his meeting with President Ashraf Ghani on the sidelines whether the Afghans were willing to return to the talks. A final decision on hosting another round will be taken after Mr Aziz’s return.
Beyond that, Pakistani leaders are not ready to commit to anything other than what has already been done in North Waziristan, where Operation Zarb-e-Azb is in its final phase.
“We are moving to end the conflict and cannot afford to start another one,” a senior military official said while responding to a question about the possibility of a crackdown on the Haqqani Network.
A senior foreign ministry official said the same in a background briefing for journalists on Amb Rice’s visit. “We are not going to do more. What has already been done should be acknowledged.”
A day after Amb Rice’s visit, Sartaj Aziz denied Pakistan was a save haven for the Haqqani Network. “The infrastructure of the Haqqani Network in North Waziristan, including [improvised explosive device] factories and a number of other capacities, including communications, has been disrupted. So what is left there may be very limited compared with the capacity they still have in Afghanistan,” he said. “Our assessment is that their capacity in Afghanistan is much, much bigger – probably 80/90 percent compared to what it is here. And what is here is also being cleaned out as a part of our operations.”
But the US may now buy that. “The only thing Pakistan can do that would satisfy the Americans is to launch an all-out assault on the Haqqani Network – arresting its leaders, going after its foot soldiers, and publicly renouncing all ties to the group,” Mr Kugelman says. “And yet there is absolutely no way that Pakistan will do any of this. So in effect, US concerns will not be assuaged.”
He says there has been a “very clear pattern” in ties between Islamabad and Washington recently. “The US complains, Pakistan says it will address US concerns, and then nothing really happens. And then the two countries move on. Rice’s comments to Pakistan mark just the latest chapter in a very repetitive book. There is never a shortage of deja vu in the US-Pakistan relationship.”
How is this row going to affect the relationship? The US attitude towards Pakistan is definitely going to get stiffer in the coming days. Reluctance on extending the CSF beyond 2016 and inviting Prime Minister Sharif only for a working visit are just indicators of things to come.
The Haqqani Network controversy may be used to reset the level of engagement, but the real issue is the diminishing American interest in its ally.
“With US troops no longer fighting in Afghanistan, it’s all but inevitable that Washington will seek to downsize its relationship with Pakistan – less aid, less cooperation, and also less US patience for Pakistani behavior it doesn’t like. But overall, the relationship should endure,” Kugelman maintains. “These latest tensions over the Haqqani Network won’t harm the relationship in a big way, if at all. The Haqqani Network has long been a bone of contention in bilateral relations, and yet it hasn’t succeeded in driving a wedge between the two countries.”
One must not in any case lose sight of the fact that Amb Rice had clearly cautioned Pakistani leaders against another big attack in Kabul. What the Americans would do in that case can be anyone’s guess.
The writer is a freelance journalist based in Islamabad