The Haqqani network is still center stage in a troubled US-Pak relationship. The Wall Street Journal reported on Wednesday that US officials met with leaders of the Haqqani group earlier this year. The statement said a meeting had been arranged by Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence Agency, in an effort to draw the groups into negotiations on peace.
Nonetheless, the issues raised by recent statements from retiring Admiral Mike Mullen, assassination of Burhanuddin Rabbani and the Afghanistan-India strategic deal this week, will have and affect on Pakistan’s relationship with its neighbors as well as with the US.
The Pakistanis have not kept it secret that they consider the Haqqani group a significant player in a post-US Afghanistan, and have engaged with leaders of the group as stakeholders in the Afghan reconciliation process. They have claimed to have repeatedly told the US not to misconstrue this contact as undermining the US efforts in Afghanistan.
On the other hand, US is threatening to declare the group a terrorist organization, that would exclude it from any negotiated settlement.
The dynamics surrounding the role of Haqqanis has to be understood in the larger struggle that is unfolding in the AfPak region. In a series of articles, PoliTact would be covering the following key themes around the Afghan Conflict:
1. The competing narratives on who has the initiative in Afghanistan.
2. The status of political reconciliation with Taliban and peace process.
3. The significance of ‘Taliban Offensive’ unfolding in Afghanistan.
4. The status of US, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Taliban strategies on the desired future outcome.
5. The options of US and Pakistan regarding the Haqqani network.
6. The global geopolitical context and US-Islamic world relations.
This article looks at the changed geopolitical situation of the AfPak region as Afghanistan-India signed a strategic deal this week.
Islamabad was left affronted and upset in the aftermath of Admiral Mike Mullen’s comments that the Haqqani network was a “veritable arm” of the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence Agency (ISI). The administration vehemently denied the allegations, which were deemed without base or provocation. The media response in Pakistan was that the threat of all-out war between the US and Pakistan became real when Mullen made his accusation, however unrealistic an actually war between the two countries may be.
However, it is not only Pakistan’s relationship with the US that has taken a battering. Afghanistan and India have also understood the implications of Mullen’s comments to mean a validation of their position that Haqqani network in Afghanistan, and of the Lashkare Tayyeba (LeT) in India, are more directly linked to Pakistan.
For Pakistan, this means that there is unparalleled pressure to deal with these networks, which are perceived to have free run in certain areas of the country, and if not free run, then a long leash in the rest. However, it is a little over-zealous and naive to think that the government or even the ISI have control over these networks and can simply rein them in. Pakistan must consider the possibility that if they come down too hard on insurgent groups they may find that the frontline, which used to be a few safe-havens along the Af-Pak border, becomes a country-wide frontline, because there is no way of telling just how many militant cells are operating within the country at large. The extremist have from time to time demonstrated the havoc they can unleash in various parts of Pakistan.
So Pakistan is faced with mounting regional and international pressure to deal with these networks on the one hand, and the threat posed by the networks themselves, on the other. Add to this the prospect that Pakistan truly believes that the Haqqanis will play a major role in a post-US Afghanistan, and you have a recipe for a lot of appeasement and little real action from Islamabad, which will in turn further frustrate US-Pakistan relations.
On the other hand, the Wall Street Journal reported on Wednesday that US officials met with leaders of the Haqqani group earlier this year. The statement said a meeting had been arranged by Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence Agency, the ISI in an effort to draw the groups into negotiations on peace. According to the newspaper’s reports, the US government has realized it would have to negotiate with the militant network in order to achieve peace in the region. Officials said the talks however did not seem to have made a significant breakthrough. The report seems to contradict earlier accounts of the nature of US policy towards the Haqqanis.
Pakistan is using the sudden deterioration of relations with Washington as a chance to increase ties with other regional benefactors who may look on sympathetically at Pakistan’s ‘treatment’ at the hands of the US. China, Russia, Iran and Saudi Arabia are all candidates in Pakistan’s mind for increased ties that will help sure-up its regional position.
Visits this week by Chinese and Saudi officials coincided with Pakistan’s All Party Conference, which demonstrated an unprecedented show of unity from the traditionally bickering factions of Pakistan’s political parties. Commentator’s are looking on rather wryly, as there is nothing like an insult and threat of war to bring a nation together, and it appears that the government is doing all it can to harness the nationalistic possibilities presented by the ‘great offense’ leveled at Pakistan by Washington.
Chinese officials, including China’s ambassador in Islamabad have stressed the importance of China’s friendship with Pakistan, using the term “all-weather friend” to highlight the contrast of China’s steadfast support of Pakistan with the distinctly hot and cold friendship between the US and Pakistan.
Marking the 62nd National Day of China, Chinese ambassador to Islamabad Liu Jian said: “As diplomats, we don’t only wish for Pakistan, we work for it. Every day and night, we breathe with you, work with you, sympathize with you, and believe that Pakistan’s best days are ahead. And we will always be there for you.”
Stronger sentiments from China couldn’t be wished for by Pakistan at such as time. In a broader sense, there is an unspoken acknowledgment between the two countries that Pakistan is bearing the brunt of a long-run US China containment policy, where the perception is that the US is using its presence in the region to sabotage China’s prospective energy route through Pakistan.
US President Barack Obama stated last week that he cannot endorse the comments made by Admiral Mullen, because the intelligence to support the accusations was “not clear.” He nevertheless reiterated that whatever the Pakistani connection, the Haqqani’s must be dealt with. This may have gone some way to diffuse the ‘imminent war’ hype, but it is in no way meant to let Pakistan off the hook, or to lessen the pressure on Pakistan to act on the Haqqani network.
While Pakistan is being threatened with a lesser role in the negotiation and reconciliation efforts in Afghanistan. The US has not cut ties with Islamabad, but it may be giving the cold shoulder. US special envoy to the region Marc Grossman embarked on a regional tour that included India and China. For Pakistan the danger is that India will become a larger player in the Afghan reconciliation process as the countries signed a strategic deal this week. Afghan President Hamid Karzai released a statement earlier saying he will send investigator to Pakistan following the assassination of ex-Afghan President Burhanuddin Rabbani.
“In spite of three years of negotiations and efforts to make peace and good relations with Pakistan, the Pakistani government has not taken any steps to eliminate terrorist sanctuaries or prevent Taliban military training and armament on its soil.”
Karzai further added that his government may look to closer ties with the US, EU and India instead of trying to negotiate with Pakistan-based Taliban groups.
The sour relations with Afghanistan may hamper Pakistan’s ambition of creating a region-centric vision for the country, but it may also spur Pakistan to conciliatory action with Afghanistan to counter the possibility of India’s prominence in Central Asian affairs rising.
The options for Pakistan are limited and not very pretty:
• They can buck the pressure being placed on them and not act against the Haqqanis. This will anger the US and Afghanistan, but have the payoff of a psychological feeling of taking back some pride and sovereignty. This also leaves the option for cooperation with the Haqqanis if they are to play a significant role in Afghanistan after the US withdraws. This is in line with the resolution that came out from the All Parties Conference, premised on giving peace a chance as oppose to the military options.
• They can bow to the pressure and entangle the armed forces in more border conflict, in an effort which may or may not backfire and become an insurgency full and proper in Pakistan. This will make the US, Afghanistan and India happy in theory, but the likelihood of Pakistan succeeding in rooting out and destroying the safe havens is not great, which will in the long run only frustrate relations.
• Thirdly, they can opt to take no real action and bide their time with diplomacy to appease injured parties. This relies on a hope that the US will not take military action in Pakistan, or that a repeat of the 2008 Mumbai attacks will not happen and ignite Indian fury. However the payoff is that Pakistan knows the US will draw down significantly at some point in the future, at which time the friendships Pakistan is cultivating abroad will take on greater significance.