October 23, 2011
“Containing” Pakistan A Fool’s Errand
Gleeful U.S. officials must be popping another bottle of Chardonnay. Often criticized as too soft on Islamabad despite a constant application of pressure, the Obama administration is steadily encroaching upon Pakistan’s “red line.” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton tried to soften her arrival to Islamabad during a speech to the Center of American Progress (CAP), chiding its leadership while clinging to the hope of a peace agreement between Kabul, Islamabad and the Taliban. Yet any positive rhetoric muffles Washington’s louder calls for military action across the Durand Line.
“Nuke Pakistan” is a common expression on U.S. media boards.
Former CIA analyst Bruce Riedel recently outlined the need for a new policy of containment - a process already underway - in an op-ed to The New York Times. Calling for increased trade coupled with sanctions against targeted military officials, the Washington insider believes that “military assistance to Pakistan should be cut deeply.” U.S. policy hasn’t reached the level of “hostility” that Riedel suggests: “Regular contacts between our officers and theirs can continue, but under no delusion that we are allies.”
Tensions aren’t much cooler though. U.S.-Pakistani relations survive in limbo, on a stalled breaking point that always seems just around the corner.
Riedel speaks for a web of people beyond himself. Two weeks ago Obama convened his National Security Council to debate the extent of military action against the Haqqani network, which Islamabad maintains a long-standing truce with. The urban core of Miran Shah, the local capital of North Waziristan, was approved as a new target to demonstrate Washington’s intolerance of safe havens. Janbaz Zadran, a long-time Haqqani ally involved in communications, was selected “to demonstrate how seriously we take Miran Shah.” An inter-agency memo also circulated through the White House, Pentagon, CIA and State Department, ordering the administration “to stop sending mixed messages to Pakistan and others about the administration’s war policies.”
Clarity is usually beneficial in counterinsurgency, but the quality has lost its edge in Pakistan after decades of mistrust and propaganda. Obama’s national security adviser, Thomas E. Donilon, gave Pakistani military chief Gen. Ashfaq Kayani three options “during a secret meeting in Saudi Arabia: kill the Haqqani leadership, help us kill them, or persuade them to join a peaceful, democratic Afghan government.” The third option is lip service, as the administration maintains an insincere faith in a political resolution. Washington believes that Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) attempted to box Washington in by assassinating Burhanuddin Rabbani (conclusive proof has yet to surface), and now the Pentagon is drawing a box around Miran Shah - and Islamabad by extension.
Kayani reportedly left the meeting satisfied - after rejecting an operation into North Waziristan. He later responded that Washington’s problems lie “in Afghanistan, not Pakistan.”
While the administration’s measures are conceived to stop U.S.-Pakistani relations from irreparably breaking, U.S. policy continues to trend towards high-reward, high-risk unilateralism. Osama bin Laden’s raid removed any lingering expectations that Islamabad will assist in eliminating the Haqqani network, leaving Washington free to pursue the task through its mechanical fleet. Problematically, neither the Haqqanis nor Islamabad will be frightened into submission. The result is that Washington must pound the Haqqani network (estimated between 5,000-10,000 fighters) in isolation, without enough time to incapacitate the network. That open-ended scenario leaves the final possibility of a last-resort ground operation in 2013-14, which was “set aside for now.”
“Although the administration has left the raid option on the table,” the Washington Post reports, “the potential negatives of such an operation — including the possible collapse of Pakistan’s military leadership and civilian government — are seen as far outweighing its benefits.”
In Kayani’s words, "The U.S. should think 10 times over before attacking Pakistani soil.”
Bravado aside, the Obama administration is growing increasingly desperate to weaken the Taliban’s regional network. Saturating Afghanistan’s south came at the expense of the Haqqanis’ eastern territory; the group has also diversified beyond North Waziristan, obscuring the potential success of a Pakistani ground operation. Unflinching propaganda can only convince so many people that America is “winning” in Afghanistan, and propaganda cannot negate systemic errors in counterinsurgency. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta is particularly bold in leading the administration’s charge, unleashing a rhetoric sequence that warrants its own future analysis.
“Afghanistan remains a tough fight,” he told the Association of the United States Army, “but there we are setting the conditions for a responsible transition to Afghan security and Afghan governance. We’ve hit the Taliban hard, and we’re going after the Haqqani network and the groups that are launching recent high profile attacks against are forces. As the Taliban have weakened, the Afghan National Security Forces have become increasingly strong and capable. They’re going out on operations, thanks to the remarkable training they’ve received. Overall, I believe our effort in Afghanistan is headed in the right direction, there’s a lot more to be done, this is not going to be easy, but we are setting the conditions to transition lead security responsibility to the government of Afghanistan by the end of 2014.”
Clinton similarly argued on multiple occasions, “The decision President Obama made on taking office and then the second decision he made to first stop, and then reverse, the momentum of the Taliban, has actually succeeded.”
The Washington Post recounts, “as the media chronicled the debate, the White House feared it was losing control of Pakistan policy.” All current actions are expedient measures to reshape 2012’s narrative, but they will eventually lead to the same problems as before. While U.S. officials insist they remain open to negotiations with the Taliban, this rhetoric is designed to guilt Islamabad and justify sustained military operations. Afghanistan’s “progress” continues to be measured in night-raids, drone strikes, statistics of Taliban attacks and Afghan army training - all military factors that leave the region’s political spheres in disarray. U.S-Afghan relations are still impaired, Kabul’s authority still weak, and the Post adds that “Obama had gradually lost faith in Pakistan and its weak civilian leadership.”
“Nobody takes their eye off the ball,” he told his National Security team, referring to the Haqqanis. Such a warning literally expects the network - a locally entrenched network - to be killed off by brute force. Somalis initially welcomed U.S. soldiers to Mogadishu in 1992, but gradually began to mock them for attempting to eliminate centuries of clan politics.
Riedel himself makes for a broken vehicle to recalibrate U.S. policy. High profile and despised by the Pakistani media, the ex-CIA official identified himself as an architect of a strategy that many Pakistanis immediately distrusted. Obama’s “second decision” to deploy 33,000 troops resulted from Riedel and company’s underestimation (and Obama’s underselling of the war’s needs). Riedel was also a leading proponent of “AfPak,” a term that offended both Afghans and Pakistanis. He isn’t the messenger to split hairs in Islamabad: “Now we need to contain that army’s aggressive instincts, while helping those who want a progressive Pakistan and keeping up the fight against terrorism.”
This rhetoric will be taken as a threat by the Pakistani public despite their own disapproval of the government and military. Clinton isn’t very popular herself, and mafia-like visit to Islamabad (led by the unpopular David Petraeus) has once again demanded action against the Haqqanis. An ultimatum, it appears. Clinton would tell reporters, "Our message is very clear. We're going to be fighting, we are going to be talking and we are going to be building... and they can either be helping or hindering, but we are not going to stop."
In that order. A balanced COIN equation should go in reverse.
Contrary to the intended objective of neutralizing the Haqqanis, isolating Islamabad will trend towards regional instability in the long-term. Not only will the government and military increase their leverage with Beijing, the public support that Riedel seemingly wishes to protect is poisoned as well. As NATO allies prepare to withdraw from Afghanistan and neighboring states remain uninvolved in a political settlement, a nuclear scenario with U.S.-Pakistani relations will further isolate America’s ability to stabilize the region. President Hamid Karzai, for example, issued an interesting pledge on Saturday: Afghanistan would side with Pakistan in the event of open U.S. aggression.
After doing most of the talking, hopefully Clinton and her entourage find time on the return flight to reflect on the damage they just inflicted to Pakistan’s non-military spheres.