If you read recent statements by senior US officials on the relationship between Pakistan’s ISI and attacks on US and NATO interests, it is impossible to avoid the conclusion that a state of war exists between an agency of the government of Pakistan and the United States of America.As the FT reports this morning,
Adm [Mike] Mullen, the departing chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told a US congressional committee on Thursday that the Haqqani network, regarded as perhaps the deadliest component of the Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan, “planned and conducted” an assault on the US embassy in Kabul this month with support from Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency.
An article in the NYT underlined the significance of Admiral Mullen’s remarks:
The United States has long said that Pakistan’s intelligence agency supports the Haqqani network, based in Pakistan’s tribal areas, as a way to extend Pakistani influence in Afghanistan. But Admiral Mullen made clear that he believed that the support extended to increasingly high-profile attacks in Afghanistan aimed directly at the United States.
One should be clear about this; attacks on embassies and on military personnel and positions are acts of war. They are not college pranks, they are not “signals”, they are not robust statements of policy disagreement and they are not bargaining chips in an extended negotiation. They are acts of force in violation of international law and they can legitimately be met by acts of force and war in return.
I have had the opportunity to meet retired senior officials of the ISI at different times, and they make no bones about their attitudes toward the United States. They are our enemies and they are not ashamed to say so. They believe they have grounds: the US in their view is a treacherous ally which has never fully backed Pakistan in what they believe to be an existential conflict with India, and that today the US is openly in India’s camp, supporting its nuclear program, its global ambitions, and pursuing an Afghan policy which increases Indian influence in direct opposition to Pakistan’s efforts to ensure a friendly government in Kabul when the Americans leave. Moreover they believe that America is a power that is fundamentally hostile to Islam, and that our invasion of Afghanistan was an act of wanton mayhem which threatens the sovereignty and security of Pakistan and which has cost Pakistan untold billions of dollars, far exceeding any US aid.While these views are not universally held in the Pakistani military and government, they are prominent — perhaps central — in ISI strategy, and it is clear that the rest of the Pakistani government either cannot control the ISI or does not wish to. On the other hand, it appears that the ISI prefers to operate under a veil on implausible deniability; the government can claim and perhaps mean that it has no responsibility for what “rogue elements” in the ISI are up to.Pakistan must operate in this clandestine and indirect manner; otherwise its use of terror groups to commit acts of violence well beyond its frontier would land the country in a frightful nest of crises and lead to its total international isolation. The right hand shakes yours; the left hand plants a bomb.The United States has generally also tried to run its Pakistan policy in ways that allow a split consciousness. On the one hand, we know much of what the ISI is up to while US forces seek to kill people that the ISI regards as colleagues and allies. On the other hand, we push the Pakistani military command to limit the space in which the ISI is permitted to operate and to collaborate with us on those areas where collaboration remains possible. There are, after all, some groups we both want to defeat. In a sense we try to exact the highest price possible for our willingness to turn a blind eye to ISI activities of which we disapprove.This is the ugly logic of war. There were many things about Josef Stalin’s conduct that the United States agreed to overlook during World War Two. We were still shipping him lend-lease aid as Soviet forces crushed the independence of the Baltic republics and established a totalitarian puppet regime in “liberated” Poland. There are similar strategic ambiguities in a number of our relationships with countries around the world today. (Did I hear someone say Saudi Arabia?) “Frenemies” are part of the international scene and have been for thousands of years.But US-Pakistan relations seem to be moving past the “Bosom Buddy” stage to something sharper. When the nation’s most senior military official, a man who follows US-Pakistani relations closely and speaks frequently with the head of the Pakistani military, makes the kind of charges in a public forum that Admiral Mullen has done, it is no longer possible for either side to pretend that nothing is happening.The United States is telling Pakistan that something must change. It is not, however, clear just how committed we are to this contest with the ISI. If the bottom line for the United States is that Pakistani cooperation is essential for our Afghan policy to work, the Pakistanis will play this card for all it is worth.It’s hard for Americans to wrap their heads around the calculations and threat estimates that shape the ISI approach. The Pakistan-India rivalry that has consumed the attention of the Pakistani security establishment for more than sixty years is a lopsided affair in which the smaller, poorer Pakistanis feel they have to run great risks against a larger, stronger and (as they see it) implacable foe. Dancing on the brink of the abyss is what they do all the time; they are constantly faced with terrible tradeoffs and dangerous choices. Since the loss of East Pakistan (now India’s ally Bangladesh) in 1974, the gap between Indian and Pakistani strength and population turned into a chasm. The new economic dynamism of India, and especially its emergence as an IT world power, threatens to turn Pakistan from strategic rival into an ankle-biting nuisance.Nationalist Pakistanis, whose ranks extend far beyond the ISI, fear that the next step will be the disintegration of Pakistan into ethnic statelets, with India dominating a handful of miserable and impotent little fiefs. That prospect unites the two main wellsprings of Pakistani nationalist opinion: Islamism and Punjabi pride. (The Punjabis are the strongest and best-placed ethnic group in Pakistan.)
Against this prospect, Pakistan’s national security — its national existence — strategy, rests on five pillars. The first is Islam. Pakistan’s founding ideology is the “two nations” idea that the two leading religions in British India, Hinduism and Islam, were not two religious denominations in one secular entity, but that the adherents of each religion constituted a separate nation. Though they might live side by side, they ate different foods, had different customs of hygiene, observed different rituals and holidays, and governed themselves under different laws.This ideology obscured some differences and highlighted others. Both Hindus and Muslims in British India spoke many different languages and had many different ethnic heritages. Hindus were divided into castes; Muslims were also divided by status with many tracing their roots to Islamic dynasties and conquerors who brought Islam to India in successive waves dating back 1,000 years, while others were converts, often low-status Indians for whom Islam offered an escape from the dead end of caste.Within Pakistan, the two-nations idea offered a way to deal with — or rather to avoid dealing with — the explosive problems of ethnic nationalism. Stressing the Islamic character of the country is perhaps the only way to convince restive Sinds, Pashtuns and members of other groups who feel pushed to one side by Punjabi power, that Pakistan is a state for all its citizens. Many of those who speak of Pakistan’s Islamic identity aren’t doing so out of religious, much less extremist fervor; in Pakistan, nationalism (and Punjabi pride) must speak the language of Islam or else there is nothing to say. Pakistan is home to two quite different forms of what outsiders see as “Islamism”: there are both secular and religious Islamists in this interesting and troubled country. The unintended consequences of secular Islamism are part of Pakistan’s troubles today.The second building block of the Pakistani survival strategy is Kashmir, the Muslim-majority province claimed by India after its traditional ruler (of Hindu faith) opted for India at the time of Partition. A series of wars led to the de facto partition of the contested state, with India getting most of the good parts. Kashmir has, so far as I’ve been able to see, three different roles in Pakistan.
It is first of all a cause — a national and religious wound that, in theory at least, unites all Pakistanis of whatever ethnic background. The loss of Kashmir and the emotions it engenders activate and legitimize the two nations theory: someone for whom Kashmir is an important issue will naturally start thinking in terms of two nations — and accept the belief that the Hindu nation is an aggressor and that the Muslim nation must unite in self defense. Cynics might suppose that this aspect of the Kashmir problem is so important to the perpetual legitimacy problems of the Pakistani state and to the military’s quest for exorbitant budgets that Pakistani authorities would be reluctant to see it resolved. Peace with India over Kashmir does not necessarily serve all Pakistani interest groups well.Kashmir also functions as an excuse. Are we disappointed with Pakistan’s poor economic performance? Do we contrast Pakistan’s instability and poor reputation with India’s high tech drive and its growing global profile. It is not because we are on the wrong road or because there is something wrong with the idea of Pakistan: it is because the jewel in our crown has been stolen. Is Punjabi predominance a problem for some? We only have it because we have been unnaturally truncated by the loss of Kashmir. Give us water-rich, people-rich, resource-rich Kashmir, and our economy will grow, a natural balance will be found among our ethnic groups, the military budget will not be such a burden, and the nation will be secure enough to turn its attention from military issues to civilian development. Then and only then will you see what Pakistan can really be; then and only then will Pakistan be truly born.The cause of Kashmir unites Islam and Pakistani nationalism and deepens the connection between them. Muslims, and not only in Pakistan, object to a Muslim-majority area under the military rule of non-Muslims. The many shortcomings of Indian rule are both national and religious grievances for the Pakistanis who chronicle every example of overreaction by Indian security forces (and such examples are not hard to find).The Kashmir issue gives Pakistan the right to go to the Saudis and others for help in liberating this suffering piece of the Muslim world. Pakistanis want Kashmir to be like Palestine: a global symbol of injustice toward Muslims that mobilizes anger and attracts both diplomatic and financial support.Kashmir explains Pakistan’s shortcomings, mobilizes different strands of public opinion in support of the unity and strength of the state and offers a hope and a goal for the future. Additionally, and this is its third important function in Pakistani policy, it offers an opportunity to hit India where it is weak.India cannot be chased out of Kashmir, but holding onto it is expensive and limits India’s flexibility. For one thing, India does not want to be “Israelized”; it does not want Kashmir to be the kind of diplomatic and political albatross around its neck that the West Bank and Gaza have become for Israel. This limits India’s diplomatic reach and gives Pakistan a certain leverage in international forums. Kashmir is also more expensive for India to hold than for Pakistan to play with. Relatively small commitments of money and personnel can help keep the Kashmiri situation on the boil; India must deploy huge resources to keep the province calm. Obsessed with its relative weakness and poverty compared to India, Pakistan finds a more level playing field in Kashmir than anywhere else.And the Kashmir issue is one India cannot ignore. Apart from the intrinsic value of the region — its water and other resources, its strategic position — unrest in Kashmir challenges India in ways Delhi cannot make light of. In a country of hundreds of language groups and ethnic groups, the fear that a fever of secession could spread is not empty. There are significant regional and cultural tensions within India; if Kashmir is allowed to secede it creates one kind of bad precedent; if it achieves more autonomy than other Indian states it creates another and perhaps more dangerous one.
Trouble in Kashmir tends to support the two-nation theory of Pakistan, that Hindus and Muslims cannot live together, and undermines the one-nation theory under which India operates — that they can, and that despite language, religious and cultural differences, all the peoples of the subcontinent can share a single nationality. Trouble in Kashmir has the potential to embitter Hindu-Muslim relations in other parts of India, perhaps inflaming Hindu radicalism in turn, but in any case making India a more volatile, less governable country.Kashmir gives Pakistan the ability to trouble India deeply at a relatively low cost, and that fact forces India to accord Pakistan more attention and consideration than it otherwise would. (In my view the American efforts to square the circle of our South Asia policies by getting India and Pakistan to agree on some formula for the Kashmir problem are doomed. A solution on Kashmir is not the key to unlock the door of India-Pakistani peace; a solution in Kashmir will follow rather than cause an Indo-Pak rapprochement, should any such thing ever occur.)The third pillar of Pakistan’s strategy, which is where the US comes in, is to attract the foreign funding that can help bridge the gap between what Pakistan needs to pose a credible military challenge to India and what it can buy on its own. Getting American money and weapons to bulk up Pakistan’s armed forces and if possible getting active American backing against India has been a major strategic goal of Pakistan for many decades. It led Pakistan to be among America’s staunchest Cold War allies. Pakistan’s need for American money to make up its military accounts (and to a lesser extent for civilian aid to buy off domestic discontent) is, from the Pakistani point of view, pretty much the only reason they bother with us at all. Pakistan is on the prowl for a partner that could take America’s place as its military underwriter of choice, but so far China is playing coy and there are not many other states with the economic and weaponry prowess to play that role.The fourth pillar of Pakistani security strategy is effective control of substantial chunks of Afghanistan. Pakistanis talk about “strategic depth”: the need for Pakistan (a relatively small and narrow country riding one of India’s shoulders) to have some room to maneuver in case of war. That is only part of the issue. Afghanistan, like Sudan or the Congo, is one of those artificial states whose boundaries were drawn by Europeans habitually indifferent to the wishes of anyone on the ground. It splits the territory of the Pashtuns into two; if the Pashtun majority districts of northwestern Pakistan were united with Afghanistan, the Pashtuns would be even more preponderant in Afghanistan than they currently are, and Pakistan would be smaller, poorer and more threatened than it is now.One of Pakistan’s many strategic nightmares is that India would help Pashtuns achieve unification and the domination of Afghanistan at Pakistan’s expense. Even short of that, Pakistanis feel that good relations with Afghan political movements that have strong Pashtun roots are vital. To some degree they see the war in Afghanistan as a war that divides the country into pro- and anti-Pakistan factions; the anti-Pakistan forces now are aligned with NATO and the US, but Pakistanis are convinced that India is already planning to fill the void left by US withdrawals, and it fears the logic that might lead the US to look to Delhi as we draw down our force levels.The fifth pillar of Pakistan’s national strategy is the use of unconventional and asymmetrical war. Hopelessly outclassed and doomed to defeat in a conventional military conflict with India, Pakistan is ready to go above or below conventional military action. On the one hand it develops nuclear weapons and delivery systems; on the other it has made the use of guerrilla and terror campaigns a core instrument of national strategy in Afghanistan, India and Kashmir.
The nuclear arsenal is its ace in the hole against India, intended to neutralize that country’s overwhelming and growing advantages in conventional warfare. (There are persistent stories that the Pakistani arsenal was paid for in part by the Saudis and that it serves as a “Sunni bomb” and as insurance that the Saudis can quickly go nuclear if the Iranians move too far down that path.)The development of links with networks of guerrillas and terrorists helps Pakistan exploit the situation in Kashmir, gives it the ability to strike India, and is a vital dimension of Pakistan’s efforts to ensure a friendly Afghanistan after the departure of NATO.The current tussle between the US and Pakistan involves an effort by the Americans to invoke the stated threat of a military aid cut off and the implied threat of a full-bore US realignment with India to force Pakistan to give up at least part of its fifth pillar: the links to terror and guerrilla groups and the use of these groups in Afghanistan.There seems to be a genuine division in Pakistan about how to respond. There are some who see the present national strategy as suicidal (the Via Meadia view, by the way) and want to use the American threat as a way to force ISI hands off the levers of power and call a halt to activities in both India and Afghanistan that hurt rather than help Pakistan in their view. These are nice people, but there are not enough of them to swing the debate.Then there are those who want to temporize: always in the past it has been possible to buy off the Americans with a few pretty gestures or even occasionally a real concession. Throw them a few more Al-Qaeda officials, give them a bit more help eradicating some rebel units you also don’t much like in the tribal areas, and guilt-trip the Americans into more aid.There are those who think the Americans are bluffing: that America needs Pakistan so badly to get out of Afghanistan that Pakistan can safely defy the Americans at minimal cost.And finally there are those who think that America is Pakistan’s enemy. Either for religious reasons (we are the leader of a global western and Christian assault against Islam as they see it) or national ones (we have decisively chosen to take India’s side) we are hostile to Pakistan and our cooperation and aid is intended to confuse Pakistanis, gain an intelligence edge and, quite probably, prepare ourselves for a strike to destroy or capture their nuclear weapons.Given the balance of forces in Pakistan, it appears that group one — those who think the alliance with America is beneficial enough and important enough to modify the rest of Pakistan’s national strategy — is not now and likely never will be strong enough to deliver very much of what Americans want.One must then ask what Admiral Mullen and his colleagues (who surely understand the basic facts of Pakistani national security policy better than a humble blogger) hope to achieve by ratcheting up the pressure in this public and official way. The most likely theory: they believe the last group of Pakistanis who think of America as a strategic enemy (presumably the ones responsible for supporting the recent attacks) are not yet strong enough to dominate Pakistani policy making. Forcing a showdown will lead the other groups in Pakistan to clip the wings of the ISI-types who might welcome an open breach. That won’t be enough to stop the ISI from playing games, but it may limit how far they dare to go.One hopes this calculation is correct, but it would be unwise to underestimate the degree to which many Pakistanis think they have the US in a trap, how deeply a culture of brinkmanship has embedded itself into Pakistani security thinking, and how much contempt many Pakistani decision-makers feel for many of their US counterparts.The ISI and its allies just might not back down. At that point, the US would face some extremely difficult choices — although there are plenty of people in the US armed forces and diplomatic corps who are angry enough with Pakistan at this point to make and to implement those choices.