Haqqani Network, The Future Of Afghan Conflict And US-Pakistan Relations

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Context

The role of the controversial Haqqani network has come to the forefront in the latest round of tension to hit US-Pakistan relations. Reports coming from Washington and Islamabad are contradictory in regards to the status of the groups and the place it holds in Pakistan, and while both sides are reaffirming that the US-Pak ties is a vital one, the war of words is getting uglier by the day.

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 sets the stage for this thorough examination.

Analysis

Mike Mullen’s Statement

The already-complicated US-Pakistan relationship hit a new low on September 22 when Admiral Mike Mullen labeled the Haqqani network a “veritable arm” of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence Agency (ISI). In the same breath he stated that the group was responsible for the US embassy attack in Kabul on September 13, which is a very easily interpreted as Mullen holding Pakistan responsible for the attack.

Pakistan’s relationship with the Haqqani network, and other similarly cast groups like Lashkar-e-Tayyaba (LeT) has long been a thorn in the side of US-Pak relations, with the US persistently demanding the nation to come down stronger on these outfits, which seem to enjoy a considerable immunity in the country.

The recent statements by Admiral Mullen have caused quite a stir in Pakistan, especially among the military that previously considered their relationship with Mullen quite amicable. Pakistan’s Army Chief General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani has labeled Mullen’s comments “very unfortunate and not based on facts.” Kayani further indicated that he was personally affronted by Mullen’s finger-pointing because the week before Kayani and Mullen had held an extended meeting in Spain which he called “quite constructive.”

In the same statement, Kayani indicated his surprise at the US singling out Pakistan for its connection with the group, as “Admiral Mullen knows fully well which countries are in contact with the Haqqanis.” It was intimated that several EU countries, as well as the US have also had contact with the Haqqanis in view of engaging them in the Afghan reconciliation process.

The Pakistanis have not kept it secret that they consider the Haqqanis a significant player in a post-US Afghanistan, and have engaged with leaders of the network 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.

What would be of great concern for the Pakistanis at this point is whether or not the US is setting the scene for unilateral action against the Haqqani network; building a narrative of Pakistani complicity and unwillingness to cooperate that will support such action. Another strike like that which took out Osama bin Laden by the US on Pakistani soil would be enough to bring relations to breaking point.

Wider Implications

The regional implications of Mullen’s statement mean that any action traced back to the Haqqani network, and as an extension LeT can now be reasonably blamed on Pakistan. In a sense it gives regional players a carte blanche to implicate Pakistan, which is especially concerning, given that its neighbors India, Afghanistan and Iran have already accused Pakistan of using proxies to further their agenda in the region. Similarly in Afghanistan, if the recent killing of former Afghan President Burhanuddin Rabbani is traced back to the Haqqani network, Afghanistan-Pakistan relations will be in dire straights.

This greatly undermines Pakistan’s position in the region, which comes as a blow considering how energetically Pakistan has been refocusing itself regionally, and distancing itself from simply being seen as a US team player.

While the accusation from Mullen is serious, it is obvious that this is a warning shot. If there was concrete evidence that Pakistan was behind an attack on American installations in Afghanistan, we would most definitely be seeing more than a war of words at this point. The Pakistani response has also been quite constrained given the gravity of the charge leveled at them. This appears to be a case of pushing boundaries and testing breaking points.

The game is a dangerous one however, because it is moving relations to such a point that one incident – a new attack by Haqqanis for instance, or another unilateral strike by the US – can push things into dangerous territory. And let’s not forget that while government officials and informed onlookers may understand the subtleties of the game, the public at large on both sides are rapidly loosing site of the reasons for US-Pak friendship. And we have all been reminded through the Arab Spring uprisings just how powerful public opinion can be.