By Liaquat Ali Khan
After unsuccessfully cajoling for more than a year Pakistan’s military and civilian leaders to attack the Haqqanis (a fierce subgroup of the Pashtun Taliban), an aggravated Admiral Mike Mullen, days before retiring, accused the Pakistani Inter-service Intelligence (ISI) of sponsoring terrorism against the U.S. Armed Forces. The accusation struck a chord with American exceptionalists who cannot bear the writing on the wall that the U.S., much like prior invaders, has been defeated in Afghanistan.
They indict Pakistan as “duplicitous,” “unreliable,” “an enemy in disguise,” etc. Congressional leaders threaten to cut off economic assistance to Pakistan; intelligence experts advocate the escalation of drone attacks; and war hawks propose the introduction of U.S. boots into the Waziristan tribal areas. A U.S. security official describes Pakistanis as “the most difficult people in the world to deal with.”
The American perceptions of Pakistan as a duplicitous ally are far more than mere pressure tactics. Indeed, Pakistani negotiators are frequently so complex and multi-dimensional that no linear equation can capture the behavioral dynamics of their motive and intention. Summoning insights from prior dealings with the U.S., Pakistani policymakers blend trust with skepticism and transparency with thickness. They tenaciously hold on to the bottom line but show extreme flexibility, even inanity, while negotiating the top line. For straightforward, binary, and self-righteous Americans, Pakistanis behave as reluctant allies. On binary matters, Pakistanis refuse to say yes or no. On terrorism, they are neither hard nor soft. On defeating the Taliban, they are neither committal nor non-committal. Holding on to the moving edge, Pakistanis are prepared to fall on both sides of the blade. This skill set, which may be called nuanced duplicity, exasperates Americans but not enough to drive them crazy. The war in Afghanistan has exposed wide open the skill set that Pakistanis have been developing and practicing over the decades.
War is Over
Barely five or six more weeks are left in the active war in Afghanistan. Before the November snow covers the battlefield and the U.S. begins to withdraw troops, the Taliban are determined to inflict the last-minute damage on the fleeing occupying forces. Mullen’s complaint that the Haqqanis are killing American soldiers was a bit disingenuous because the Admiral knows that the enemy does kill in the battlefield. But that’s not what Mullen meant. Mullen, as the military head of the U.S. Armed Forces, was summoning, using sticks and carrots, Pakistan’s coordination with the U.S. military in decimating the Haqqanis. This Taliban defeat, had it occurred, would have given something tangible for the U.S. military historians to write a face-saving chapter in the failed Afghanistan war. Pakistan refused to oblige, primarily for domestic reasons. By lashing out at the ISI, Mullen was making a simple point that the Pakistani military, which has received millions of dollars in cash and hardware from the U.S., could have offered a helping hand in closing an otherwise disastrous war with a small final victory. Therefore, under Mullen’s transactional logic, Pakistan has been an ungrateful ally.
President Obama and his cabinet, however, politely declined to tether Mullen’s wrath to any punitive policy toward Pakistan. This response has nothing to do with Pakistan’s tough stand against Mullen’s statement. A cosmetic departure victory over the Haqqanis is not as critical to the Obama administration as it has been to Mullen. Even the Pentagon is not soliciting any such departure victory because the stakes of taking on the Haqqanis are high and the outcome is uncertain. In this sense the U.S. and Pakistan governments are on the same page. Yet the retiring Admiral was allowed to vent his heartfelt anguish against Pakistan’s betrayal in refusing to join the battlefield against the Taliban.
The Obama exit strategy, though not looking for a closing ceremonial victory, is a bit confused. The Obama administration continues to see the Taliban as the enemy. But the hard reality is that no durable solution in Afghanistan is obtainable without negotiating with the Taliban. A stable Afghanistan peace without the Taliban is impossible. President Karzai understands the ground reality and has been wooing the Taliban as “brothers.” Pakistan knows for sure that the Taliban, whose leadership is tucked away in Quetta, are the natural heirs of Afghanistan. The Obama administration, though aware of the logic of options, cannot bring itself to swallow the bitter pill that it will be leaving Afghanistan to the same people, the Taliban, whom the U.S. forces drove out of power and with whom a failing war was fought for over ten years.
At the end of the day, a negotiated peace with the Taliban with the assistance of Pakistan is the only way forward in ending this unfortunate war that has drained billions of dollars from the American coffers; a war that has killed thousands of Afghan and Pakistani civilians and American soldiers. Killing the Haqqanis, or not talking to the Taliban leaders, cannot be the exit strategy. Pakistan must recognize that the U.S. is leaving Afghanistan not as a wounded superpower, but as a conscientious nation that was attacked out of the blue on 9/11 and a nation that means well and holds few permanent grudges against the peoples it invades in folly. The U.S. must also recognize that Pakistan’s nuanced duplicity may indeed be required in bringing peace to the region.