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A bad romance: Pakistan and US

The Pakistanis are furious and are on the offensive, at times saying the US is not helping; at other times saying the US is simply blaming Pakistan for its own failings in Afghanistan. As ever, finding the truth is tricky business. Perhaps more difficult for both parties is figuring out what the real issue is.
Last modified: 25 Sep 2011 17:22
Photo by EPA

Like all great lovers' tiffs, this one started with frustration. Admiral Mike Mullen, the chairman of the US joint chiefs of staff, decided to make his feelings public.

In a nutshell, he accused Pakistan of state sponsored terrorism, alleging that its Inter-Services Intelligence backs the Haqqani network. The Haqqanis are a fearsome bunch of fighters whose lineage goes back to Soviet occupation of Afghanistan.

Back then, their leader, Jalaludin Haqqani, was seen as a hero, even sitting in the White House with the then President Ronald Reagan. But it wasn't just the US. The Pakistanis nurtured and encouraged him to go fight in Afghanistan, supplying him with weapons and safe havens.

That was 20 years ago and, like all bad marriages, things left unresolved often explode. And so Pakistan's affair with the Haqqani network has created a split in the US-Pakistani marriage.

The Pakistanis are furious and are on the offensive, at times saying the US is not helping; at other times saying the US is simply blaming Pakistan for its own failings in Afghanistan.

As ever, finding the truth is tricky business. Perhaps more difficult for both parties is figuring out what the real issue is.

Assumptions

That the US needs Pakistan, and vice-versa, is not in dispute. What is, is how you fix this broken relationship. Let us, for example, make certain assumptions that the US holds true:

Firstly, the Pakistani are indeed sponsoring the Haqqani network. Should the Pakistanis stop? On the surface at least it would go a long way to fixing things.

However, Pakistan cannot just publicly say it has stopped supporting the Haqqani network, because then it would have to admit it supported them in the first place.

Secondly, Pakistan needs the Haqqani network. Once the US pulls out of Afghanistan, and it will sooner rather than later, Afghanistan, history has repeatedly shown us, is a cauldron of competing interests and bloodthirsty rivalry. Pakistan needs a dog in that fight. That's what ultimately drives Pakistani support for the Haqqani network.

But with the Haqqani network involved in a bitter and bloody fight with American forces in Afghanistan, the Americans simply want them gone.

So let's take a look at the Pakistani position. Officially it denies any support for the Haqqani network and therefore cannot stop supporting it. It also says the Americans are getting  defeated by the group and are looking for someone to blame. The world's most powerful army is effectively being routed by bearded men with light weapons and an unshakeable faith in God.

That simply does not play well in the 'good ole US of A', so there must be someone to blame - the Pakistanis in this case.

Stalemate

Then the Pakistani army steps in. It says by playing up Pakistan's connection with Haqqani, the US is stomping all over the sacrifice Pakistani soldiers have made in the so called war on terror. Thousands of Pakistanis have died and terror attacks are an almost daily occurrence. In short the Pakistanis say they are the victims here, not the aggressor.

So things are at a stalemate. A solution is needed. Pakistan and the US are at loggerheads and at stake is billions of dollars worth of aid for Pakistan, and a decisive victory in Afghanistan for America.

Seasoned diplomats and observers of the US-Pakistan relationship are divided on the subject. A few point to the fact this stalemate may well be the only solution and instead of fighting it, you should embrace it.

One diplomat on the Pakistani side spoke to me candidly but refused to be identified. He said:  "Privately a deal should be offered by the US to back away from the Haqqani network, offer us a bigger role in post-occupation Afghanistan to temper the Indian influence. Limit India's role in our neighbour and we won't need any networks, Haqqani or other wise."

But angering India is not on the US agenda. It has a close working relationship with the country and sees its support for the US as key in the wider, global scheme of things. So that option is off the table.

Increasing drone strikes and firepower to go after the Haqqani network is another option. General Petraeus, the new head of the CIA, understands this. That's why many say he is in that job. A military general in charge of an intelligence-gathering organisation can only mean one thing: the CIA is now effectively a military wing in its own right, and one with drone strike capability. 

All bets off

But a decade of war and death from the skies has not weakened any of the parties in Afghanistan. So, is there a diplomatic solution? Bring the Taliban and therefore the Haqqanis to the table for talks. It's been mooted and back channels are open, but many Afghans don't want the Taliban anywhere near power so those talks remain tentative and slow moving, shall we say.

Finally, then Pakistan and the US are living in the same house, but not sharing the same bed. What will ultimately split them up is not what happens in Afghanistan. The two countries' fate and that of Afghanistan are far too closely tied to each other.

What about a terror attack on US soil that can be tied back to Pakistan? To a group some in the US say Pakistan sponsors? Then all bets are off. That's the nightmare scenario. So Pakistan-US relations need to be strengthened and forged in steel to stop these two uneasy allies from having to face each other in that scenario.

Publicly it's a war of words right now, but one would hope a backstage deal is being done that will put a stop to this escalation of words. However, as a long-time reporter in the region and of the politics I can tell you the US and Pakistan only have a narrow self interest at heart.

Both sides should be careful for what they wish for, and once again Afghanistan could well be another graveyard of empire.