August 5, 2012

Smoke From Petraeus & ul-Islam Meetings Reveal Joint-Campaign

Rehman Malik needs to sign up for some advanced classes on information warfare before launching his next attack. Or perhaps he completed his current mission exactly as planned.

Speaking to Reuters after Pakistan's new intelligence chief, Lieutenant-General Zaheerul ul-Islam, met with an array of U.S. policymakers in Washington, the country's Interior Minister deployed a number of crude diversionary tactics to shape the ensuing media reaction. Malik, of course, knew what ul-Islam was walking into: intense American pressure to crack down on the Haqqani network and other militant commanders that maintain contact with Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). Turning towards Pakistani militant "Radio" Mullah Fazlullah, he then made a predetermined redirection across the border.

"If somebody is living in somebody's house and you ask him 'who is giving you food, who is giving you all this shelter?' You know he is in Afghanistan. I think some of the elements (of the Afghan government) there are supporters. Maybe state actors, maybe non-state actors."

Malik's comments are suicidally unbelievable outside of Pakistan, but his risk hovers over an understandable series of decisions. At the surface, Malik's attempt to shift the border's focus and blame away from Islamabad will gain no ground by provoking Kabul and Washington. The Obama administration presumably shares the reaction of Afghan Interior Ministry spokesman Sediq Sediqqi, who responded, "These comments made by the Pakistani Interior Minister are irresponsible and a baseless allegation." However the layers beneath Malik's interview reveal a more nuanced strategy to manipulate the hydra-like dilemma of Pakistani militants. Putting Fazullah up for public trade is a concrete piece of the shadow games in progress between Washington and Islamabad.

"He is as dangerous (for Pakistan) as the Haqqanis are dangerous for Afghanistan," said Malik. "He is energizing terrorism now. He is recruiting people, he is planning."

While U.S. officials view this weighing as disproportionately absurd, Fazullah's threat to Pakistan is great enough to keep Washington involved in Islamabad's strategy. The "Radio Mullah" has organized attacks on Pakistani troops before and after they entered his Swat stronghold in 2009, and subsequently vowed to escalate his campaign after escaping to Afghanistan during Operation Black Thunderstorm. Pakistani officials have repeatedly called on U.S. and Afghan forces to target Fazullah, establishing their own precedent to not act decisively against the Haqqanis and other "friendly" TTP commanders. The inability of Afghans and Americans to respond, they argue, is no different than their own problem.

Denying Fazullah's threat, which was previously used by U.S. officials to amplify fears of loose Pakistani nuclear material, is a quick way to squash any willingness to confront the Haqqanis. As for their relationship with the ISI, Malik claims, "They are not our babies, they are no longer anyone's babies. They have become independent."

Washington will absorb all of these rhetorical bruises if the Obama administration can persuade Islamabad to launch a multi-year sweep before 2015. That scenario, at least, has floated up to the surface and dictates the bulk of Malik's statements. Instead of bluntly demanding that Islamabad "do more," U.S. and Pakistani officials have reportedly agreed to launch "Operation Tight Screw" in North Waziristan, a series of joint-campaigns ”intended to help stamp out major security threats facing each country.” Specifically, Pakistani officials asked their American counterparts to target "about a half-dozen Pakistani Taliban operatives based in Afghanistan's Nuristan and Kunar provinces," territory where America's presence is at its weakest. Islamabad frequently complains that Kabul and Washington fail to police the other side of the Durand Line, and the Obama administration is being forced to close off every avenue of excuse.

General ul-Islam would tell CIA Director David Patraeus that a halt on drone strikes would help drum up support for a ground operation.

Problematically, the idea of a joint-campaign appears to remain a smokescreen for both sides; Islamabad hopes to limit drone strikes and Washington wants to solidify expectations that may not materialize. The Obama administration desperately needs Islamabad to distract the Haqqani network from Afghanistan before 2014, theoretically reducing the country's overall violence and the high profile attacks that U.S. officials attribute to them. The country's non-military issues, along with Washington's own strategic errors, would be minimized in the process. On the Pakistani side, Islamabad is bending against U.S. pressure as far as possible without breaking, and staying involved is preferable to unilateral actions.

Many outstanding issues will add friction to any operation, starting with the controversial matter of intelligence sharing and ending with the popular backlash that may greet any U.S. activity on Pakistani soil. Taliban on both sides of the border have also been put on alert and could already be planning their deterrents.

The probable outcome of Operation Tight Screw, like previous U.S. and Pakistani operations, is indecision. Whether the Haqqanis are connected to Islamabad or not (they claim not to be), the network cannot be reduced to Washington's desired level within the allocated time and budget. U.S. officials know that the Haqqanis have spent the last four years diversifying outside of North Waziristan, so they cannot realistically expect the same results that they demand in public. The TTP is also likely to survive relatively intact, leaving the fractured network operational far past 2014, and the non-military conditions that enable militarism in Pakistan's tribal region will experience few positive changes.

Thus Washington and Islamabad are most likely to continue their own battle in 2013.

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