Mullen: Pakistani Ties with Insurgents Persist

America can chastise Pakistan for its two faced strategy in Afghanistan but it will not change.

Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, testifies before the Senate Armed Services Committee in Washington DC, December 2, 2010
Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, testifies before the Senate Armed Services Committee in Washington DC, December 2, 2010 (Department of Defense/Chad J. McNeeley)

America’s top military officer bluntly admitted on Thursday that the Pakistani intelligence service is supporting Islamic insurgents in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Admiral Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told senators that the Haqqani network, which is allied to the Taliban, “has long enjoyed the support and protection of the Pakistani government and is, in many ways, a strategic arm” of Pakistan’s spy agency.

Mullen’s admission wasn’t so much a revelation of Pakistan’s questionable allegiances but rather telling of the low to which American-Pakistani relations have sunk.

Discord has persisted between Islamabad and Washington for several years about the counterinsurgency strategy in both Afghanistan and the western tribal areas of Pakistan. American drone attacks against suspected insurgent and terrorist targets in the unruly frontier area are deeply unpopular in Pakistan but extremely effective as far as the Americans are concerned. They risk no lives while decimating the enemy leadership with precision bombardments.

Frustration peaked in May of this year when terrorist leader Osama bin Laden was killed by American special forces in Abbottabad, Pakistan. The failure of Pakistani intelligence to either locate Bin Laden or reveal his whereabouts was a humiliating blow to the organization that has maintained close relations with radical Islamist fighters since the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979.

American military and political leaders complain that insurgent sanctuaries in Pakistan hamper the NATO war effort in Afghanistan but as the United States prepare to pull out of the country in 2014, Islamabad has to prepare for the eventuality of a Taliban resurgence or the formation of a “Pashtunistan” in the border region that is de facto independent of Kabul.

Pakistan, moreover, regards the modern day mujahideen as a wedge against India, to be deployed whenever New Delhi asserts itself too prominently in Afghanistan where India, in turn, has fostered ties with the Hamid Karzai regime to upset Pakistan’s quest for “strategic depth” there.

The rivalry that has defined South Asia for half a century won’t dissipate overnight, no matter America’s insistence that the Pakistanis have nothing to fear from India and little to gain from keeping up their double faced game in Afghanistan.

The Pakistanis have problems of their own. Years of anti-terrorist operations by a majority Punjabi army in predominantly Pashtun territory has pushed the Muslim nation onto the brink of civil war. The army’s offensives in the region displaced nearly half a million people. Before the Afghan war escalated, the battle was confined to the tribal areas but since 2008, it has spread into Pakistan proper with bombings and assassinations taking place in major cities including Islamabad, Karachi and Lahore.

If there is to be reconciliation with the Taliban in Afghanistan, the Pakistanis may wonder why they shouldn’t be part of it. They have fought America’s war since 2001 and sacrificed the lives of tens of thousand. On top of that, the country suffered flooding and devastation twice this year and last, draining the fractured civilian government in Islamabad of the resources it needed to hold the country together.

If the United States are preparing for a withdrawal anyway, it makes no sense for Pakistan to crack down on extremists that might prove an asset in the future — even if it will make some effort or pretend to in exchange for financial support from Washington. Indeed, the surest way for Pakistan to fill the power vacuum that is likely to result from an American drawdown is to cultivate ties with the Taliban and its allies. If it doesn’t, there may be a place for India in whatever power constellation emerges across Pakistan’s porous western border three years from now.