He doesn’t come close to answering, yet an indirect response often reveals as much as a direct one. We ended our last post by speculating on a post-Kayani U.S.-Pakistani relationship, an admittedly basic question that everyone is asking. During today’s Pentagon briefing with Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, Michael Mullen found himself staring down this exact dilemma.
“You have developed, of course, a personal relationship with General Kayani,” the reporter prefaces. “Are you concerned that he may be headed out the door? And what would be the meaning for the military cooperation with Pakistan if he were no longer in the picture?”
Having obviously read The New York Times’s article himself, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs responds cooly and collectedly, “From my perspective, nothing's changed in terms of the criticality of the relationship, which is one of the reasons that I've worked it so hard. And certainly, I have a very strong personal relationship with General Kayani, and I consider him a friend. But it's not just the personal relationship, because I have a very strong professional relationship. Nor is mine the only relationship in our military-to-military relationship between the two countries.”
Mullen’s non-denial denial, like any of its type, appears strongest on the surface before degrading into ambiguity. The friendly nature of Mullen’s tone represents a root problem between the U.S. and Pakistani governments - General Ashfaq Kayani, Pakistan’s Army Chief of Staff, is under domestic fire for being too friendly with Washington. Clearly Mullen isn’t the only Pentagon official with relationships across Pakistan’s military, a fact that has nothing to do with the question at hand. Mullen is already on the way out, to resign in September.
Those relationships with Kayani’s peers form the real crux of the dilemma.
Responding to rumors of rising anti-Americanism within Pakistani’s military leadership and rank-and-file, Mullen spun an ever-widening trust gap as well as he could. At least if no one was really paying attention, a condition that propaganda depends on. His answer doesn’t shed any real light on the situation. Labeling the Pakistani military’s one-sided schism against expanding U.S. operations as “considerable introspection based on recent events,” Mullen confidently declares, “That makes a lot of sense to me. They've got some questions.”
Such a response runs on bravado more than logic; introspection is hardly the word to describe Pakistan’s review of U.S. military and intelligence relations. Islamabad is contemplating how to comply with new U.S. demands while retaining a shred of independence. Pakistan’s military isn’t debating whether to increase U.S. cooperation, especially if Kayani is the only American bulwark, but how to decouple and still receive aid benefits. The military is also plotting new methods to spare its loyal militant groups, the same ones that Washington wants eliminated.
Because Obama bin Laden compromised its sovereignty, Pakistan must now cede even more sovereignty or risk a complete loss - constant unilateral U.S. operations. Thus its military has chafed under this potential arrangement. Mullen concludes. “I know General Kayani well enough to know - what he cares about the most is not himself: What he cares about the most is his institution. And leaders in -- throughout the world, and certainly in this case, you know, we share that with him.”
Until he backtracks on a campaign in North Waziristan, or fails to cooperate with a joint-intelligence team tasked to kill the Taliban’s “Quetta Shura.”
Although Mullen claims to, and may enjoy, friendly relations with Pakistan’s military, he has achieved no progress in befriending the Pakistani people. Expressing exasperation when confronted with persistent anti-American feelings - a sense of bewilderment that remains clueless to a solution - Mullen follows Gates’s lead and chalks them up to “difficult times,” or “ebbs and flows.” Both realize the seemingly impossible historical chasm between America and Pakistan.
“First of all,” says Gates, “I would say that the long history of the U.S.-Pakistani relationship has had its ebbs and flows. They have regarded over the decades that we have abandoned them on at least four occasions: two wars with India, when the Soviets left Afghanistan, and then after the enforcement of the Pressler amendment. So it's a -- it's a relationship both sides have had to work on.”
Yet neither appear capable of legitimately resolving these differences.
“First of all,” Washington has also supported a series of unpopular governments in Islamabad; the Musharraf era can be counted as simultaneous engagement and abandonment. The Zardari era, despite its democratic trappings, hasn’t seen much of an improvement either. Dominated by U.S. interference and subservience, the idea of overlording a democratic government is nearly as perverse as supporting an autocracy. Asked if he regrets how he handled U.S.-Pakistani relations, Gates brushes the question aside: “my view is that this is a relationship where we just need to keep working at it.”
However Washington has a great deal to regret throughout the decades, and the last two years alone are full of errors. After all, how can U.S. relations possibly be described as improving when Pakistani disapproval has risen under President Barack Obama? Why would he fall below than George Bush if his “new” policy of engaging Pakistan was truly succeeding?
Beyond drones and Afghanistan's unpopular war, Pakistan’s nuclear weapons have played a key factor and here Mullen makes his gravest error (one he routinely makes). As Gates compiled a short list of reasons to stay in the region - namely regional stability - the ongoing Chairman echoed his remarks before ending on Washington’s obsession of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal. Perhaps regional stability includes the well-being of Afghans and Pakistanis, but Gates and Mullen never actually clarify local populaces as their primary motivation to stay.
“I would just re-emphasize the last point,” Mullen says after Gates brings up nuclear weapons. “It's a country with an awful lot of terrorists on that border. Obviously the links that we've got with -- in the Afghanistan-Pakistan campaign, if you will, which is what it's been for me from the beginning -- it's not about one country or another; it's about the region. And those things that I fear in the future, it's the -- it's the proliferation of that technology and it's the opportunity and the potential that it could fall into the hands of terrorists, many of whom are alive and well and seek that in that region. And that's of great interest, I think, to our country and certainly to the rest of the world.”
To be clear the threat of nuclear proliferation to a terror cell is real. However Mullen and Gates are also hyping a notorious bogeyman in Pakistan, raised whenever U.S. defense officials need to scare the U.S. establishment into supporting their hegemony. The Defense position would rather absorb Pakistan’s blows at the cost of retaining deep influence, rather than become outright enemies (many U.S. law-makers are openly hostile to Islamabad) for the sake of unilateral activity. Pakistan’s nuclear weapons provide an inarguable reason to maintain the status quo.
They also happen to be one of the most inflammatory issues a U.S. official can raise, more controversial than drones and unilateral raids. The latter merely fits into this grander scheme. While Gates and Mullen claim to have no regrets of their relationship with Pakistan’s military, they should have nothing but regrets in relation to the Pakistani people. And if their heavy-handedness positions a more anti-American general atop Kayani’s throne, we suspect the Pentagon will silently lament their failure underground.
Before returning to the surface and acting like it’s just another “ebb,” rather than an unchanging reality.