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General Islam Goes to Washington

Lt. General Zahir ul-Islam, newly-appointed head of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence directorate, has been roaming around Washington, meeting with several American officials, including, most importantly, General David Petraeus, head of the CIA. The relationship between ISI and the CIA has become particularly badly frayed in recent months, so officials are hoping that General Islam’s ascent could be an opportunity for a fresh start.

The General is an unknown quantity to American policymakers, The New York Times reports:

Beyond the bare details of his résumé, American officials acknowledge they know little of General Islam, a tall man in his 50s with a flop of black hair, except that he comes across as taciturn, thoughtful and passionate about sports.

General Islam’s personal style is said to be different from that of his predecessor:

In contrast with General Pasha, who was known for his sharp-tongued, sometimes impassioned private outbursts, General Islam is described as a low-profile operator, happy to take a back seat in meetings. “He is cool as a cucumber,” said a serving ISI officer.”

But is a real change in policy likely? General Islam was recommended by Army Chief of Staff and former head of the ISI General Kayani, a sign that Pakistan’s top brass judge the new chief to be one of them. And Pakistan’s basic strategic considerations have not changed at all: controlling Afghanistan through its radical proxies after the U.S. departs, and preventing India from gaining influence.

U.S. officials seem keen on getting the message out that they’re not looking to roil Pakistan much either. A separate article in the Times contained some remarkable admissions. This past June, the radical Haqqani network attacked Forward Operating Base Salerno in Afghanistan and nearly managed to kill dozens of American troops. Though the attack was not as successful as its planners originally hoped, it got the Obama administration thinking:

Days after the Salerno attack, the White House held a series of interagency meetings to weigh its options in the event of a major success by the Haqqanis against American troops. [ . . . ]

The meetings yielded a list of about 30 possible responses, according to a senior official who was briefed on the deliberations — everything from withdrawing the Islamabad ambassador, to a flurry of intensified drone attacks on Haqqani targets in Pakistan’s tribal belt, to American or Afghan commando raids on Haqqani hide-outs in the same area.

“We looked at the A to Z of how to get the Pakistanis’ attention,” the official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity, as did other American and Pakistani officials interviewed about the issue.

Yet there were no easy answers. Officials concluded that most options ran the risk of setting off a wider conflict with Pakistan’s nuclear-armed military. “It came down to the fact that there wasn’t much we could do,” the official said. Other senior officials confirmed the broad details of his account. . . . [Emphasis ours.]

Though the ISI readily admits it is in regular contact with the Haqqani network, they deny providing operational support. Western intelligence claims that ISI does more with its Haqqani friends than just talk. Haqqani operatives are allowed to earn their living unmolested in Pakistan and regularly travel to the Gulf states without fear of harassment. Pakistan seems to have an appeasement policy designed to prevent Haqqani violence inside Pakistan, while keeping the Haqqanis strong enough to influence the future of Afghanistan. And it’s because of these realities that General Islam is requesting a halt to American drone strikes in Pakistan’s tribal areas and an upgrade to Pakistan’s F-16s, so they can do the job instead.

Since the drone strikes are not going to completely end—a “non-starter” according to another policymaker—the unnamed official’s remarkably candid statement was perhaps meant to soften the blow for General Islam: we reserve the right to continue doing what we’re doing, but we won’t be escalating things much past where they are right now.

Relations between the U.S. and Pakistan remain remarkably fraught despite the recent breakthrough, which allowed NATO forces to resume using overland routes through Pakistan.

There’s little doubt that ISI regards the United States as at worst a dangerous enemy, at best a kind of rogue elephant—stupid, maddened, recklessly trampling on Pakistani vital interests in a fundamentally misguided “war on terror.” The retired ISI chiefs and officials I’ve met over the years left me in little doubt about that. But it’s also true that Pakistan needs the U.S. more than the U.S. needs Pakistan. India continues to rise, Pakistan continues to stumble towards chaos and internal dissension, the Saudis don’t much trust the Paks, and China persistently declines repeated Pakistani invitations to replace the U.S. as Pakistan’s sugar daddy and BFF.

Many Pakistani officers are well known to their U.S. counterparts. Picking a man who’s had little dealing with the U.S. is in itself a powerful signal about where Pakistan would like to go. But Washington should not be too quick to write off the possibility of affecting Pakistani behavior by hard bargaining and the use of what leverage we actually have. They need us more than we need them, and while there are real limits to what we can get the Pakistanis to do, those limits may not be quite as narrow as the newly pessimistic Washington consensus seems to think.

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  • Walter Sobchak

    If anybody in Washington had the least amount of sense, they would put General Islam in irons and send him to Gitmo straight away. Pakistan is our enemy and needs to be treated as such.

  • Anthony

    “…A sign that Pakistan’s top brass judge the new chief to be one of them.” Another indication perhaps that Pakistan views its long term interest relative to Afghanistan, India, and Haqqani network as strategically different from ours (or at least perceived to be different – which for all intents and purposes is what matters). So we continue the dance and keep a wary eye on our disengaged dancing partner while conscious of our limited moves…

  • gracepmc

    Perhaps we could detain the good general until Dr. Shakil Afridi is released. Admittedly difficult our relationship with Pakistan is one big fail.

  • Riki Tiki Tavi

    To say that Pakistan needs the US more than the US needs Pakistan is nice propaganda. It may be the only thing you can openly say, but it’s rather obvious that Pakistan is the west’s hedge in South Asia against India. Of course, the word “hedge” is never used in polite conversation. Instead, euphemisms like “regional stability” are used to justify western support for Pakistan. There must be a reason why Pakistan has been mollycoddled for over 60 years in spite of repeated bouts of bad behavior? Pakistani strategists know that the west will never punish them too severely for their bad behavior.

    The problem of course is that by neither punishing Pakistani bad behavior, nor seriously investing in its transformation, the west is essentially condemning this nation to perpetual immaturity and stunting. And possibly its demise or dissolution.

  • Kris

    “while there are real limits to what we can get the Pakistanis to do”

    A situation that is undoubtedly ameliorated by trumpeting to the NYT that even if dozens of American soldiers get killed by a ISI surrogate, the US won’t do anything intemperate for fear of offending Pakistan.

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