Joint Chiefs Chairman Mike Mullen went a little off the reservation this week, openly saying what everyone in the national security establishment knows to be true: Pakistan’s Internal-Services Intelligence directorate – the ISI – is deeply in bed with the same network of jihadists that provoked a 20-hour firefight in Kabul last week. The Haqqani network is tolerated for three reasons in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Area: 1) Because they only attack Afghan and Coalition targets, 2) because Pakistan believes that the Taliban and their Haqqani allies will give them leverage in Afghanistan after the US withdraws, and 3) because launching an army sweep of the FATA will be both too costly in lives, and too emotionally wrenching to the fragile Pakistani body politic.
Reason #1 is little more than the toleration of bloody murder so long that no one you care about gets hurt, but as statecraft it makes a kind of sense: Why hurl yourself against a powerful potential adversary that means you no harm? At least, not yet.
Reason #3 is probably true, but if so the Pakistani establishment has no one to blame but themselves.The ISI has used the violent instincts of their pastoral rustics to what they believe is good effect both in Soviet-occupied Afghanistan and in the Indian-contested Kashmir region, but the genie of violent extremism has proven easier to uncork than bottle back up, and Pakistan continues to suffer terrorist attacks on its own soil by disaffected jihadists only a little way removed from their state-sponsored brothers.
Reason #2 deserves a little closer inspection:
Afghanistan is a multi-ethnic state, with the Pashtun population as its biggest constituency. The Taliban and Haqqani also are predominantly Pashtun, which is also one of Pakistan’s major ethnic groups. Pakistan’s military thinks that a hostile regime in Afghanistan would threaten it with a possible war on two fronts, with traditional enemy India to the east and Afghanistan to the west, so backing Pashtun forces are its best insurance policy.
Afghanistan’s other ethnic groups, such as Uzbeks and Tajiks, are associated with the former “Northern Alliance,” which Pakistan believes to be in the pay of India and to have dominated Kabul since 2001, though President Hamid Karzai is a Pashtun.
“The policy is India-centric. The fear is a two-front war,” said Asad Munir, a retired brigadier who had served as the ISI chief in the tribal area. “Pakistan wants a government that is dominated by Pashtuns, but not an extremist government.”
Pakistan’s suspicions of the U.S. have been fueled by the fact that Washington has cut Islamabad out of tentative negotiations it has held with representatives of the insurgent leadership, including talks this year in Qatar and Germany with a man considered close to Taliban founder Mullah Omar and reportedly also to Ibrahim Haqqani, brother of Jalaluddin.
“America has started a reconciliation process in Afghanistan but they want Pakistan to fight,” said Aftab Sherpao, a former Pakistani interior minister. “They want peace over there and war here.”
Analysts say there is little the United States can do to wean Pakistan from its ties to the Haqqani network.
Pakistan has engaged in four wars with India since the fall of the Raj. All of them were initiated by Pakistan, with the possible exception of the war in 1971 - a simmering inter-ethnic conflict whose open hostilities commenced after Pakistan launched a pre-emptive attack against Indian forces. The Indians were supporting the democratic secession of East Pakistan, and attempting to end a series of brutal atrocities committed by Pakistan’s army. In all four conflicts, Pakistan army suffered humiliating defeats or withdrawals, and in 1971 was required to sign instruments of surrender for members of its army stuck in the newly founded country of Bangladesh.
The Pakistani army, despite its inevitable impotence in the face of a virtually limitless pool of Indian draftees, remains the state’s principal institution. It permeates every level of Pakistani society. It has India as an enemy because it has chosen India as an enemy: No objective or rational reason lays behind this choice, Pakistan quite literally has nothing that India wants and, suffering from its own impoverished masses and its own turbulent ethnic dysfunctions, a great deal that it does not. The Indian threat is chimerical.
But armies need enemies, even if those enemies are nuclear armed and conventionally superior. Even if, as in the present case, the choice of a foe leads a country to commit itself to evermore damaging policies that poison internal security, further impoverish an economy deeply dependent on foreign largesse and which gravely damage international relations. Nor is there time, having formed an alliance with the Taliban and its proxies, for the Pashtun-dominated Pakistani army to make alliances with the Pashtun-led Afghan government.
The issue then, is less Pakistan’s national survival, than the survival of the Pakistani army, at least in its current form. By getting in bed with the Haqqanis in an alignment against a non-existent Indian threat, the army and the ISI have chosen to get atop the tiger. Now it can’t quite figure a way to get off, leaving us all to watch the spectacle of a country repeatedly laboring to wound itself, and unable to change its course.