What Does the U.S. Expect from Pakistan?

Roland Paris suggests that Admiral Mike Mullen’s allegations will have little effect on Pakistani behaviour.
By: /
September 28, 2011

U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Admiral Mike Mullen’s declaration last week at the Senate Armed Services Committee that Pakistan has supported militants attacking American targets in Afghanistan came as a surprise to many observers—but the surprise was less for what he said than how he said it. Though it has long been rumoured that Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence Agency is protecting and abetting elements of the Afghan Taliban based in Pakistan, until now U.S. officials had been more circumspect in making such assertions, at least in public. Adm. Mullen’s comments represented an unmistakable verbal shot across Pakistan’s bow. But why is the U.S. speaking up strongly now? And is it likely to have any effect on Pakistani policy?

Why Now?

There are four possible explanations for the timing of this outburst. First, the U.S. administration seems exasperated after years of waiting for Pakistan to deliver on promises to clamp down on the Haqqani network, a militant group responsible for attacks on American and Afghan government targets in Eastern Afghanistan and Kabul. The Haqqanis are rumoured to be based in North Waziristan, a remote part of the Pakistani tribal area bordering on Afghanistan. Not only did the Pakistani offensive against the Haqqanis never materialize, but the militants have been launching ever-bolder attacks, including the recent assault on the U.S. embassy compound in Kabul. American frustration with Pakistani inaction is probably part of the explanation for the public denunciation of ISI complicity in Haqqani terrorism.

Second, the discovery that Osama bin Laden was living comfortably in Pakistan raised new questions about the extent of official Pakistani duplicity in the bilateral relationship. Although no evidence proves that senior Pakistani military or intelligence officials were aware of bin Laden’s presence, it’s implausible that he lived in the shadow of a prestigious military academy for years without anyone in a position of influence knowing about it. This realization has hardened American attitudes towards Pakistan, culminating in Adm. Mullen’s public accusation.

Third, U.S. officials must now be realizing that the ‘surge’ of American troops has increased security in parts of southern Afghanistan but has done little to change the strategic situation in the larger region encompassing Afghanistan and Pakistan. These conditions still favour the Taliban, in part because the Taliban continues to enjoy safe havens in Pakistan, while (as a rule) U.S. troops are restricted to Afghanistan. This has been a liability in the NATO operation all along; however, now that the endgame seems to be approaching – defined, most notably, by the U.S. decision to begin withdrawing troops – American officials may have concluded that cracking down on these safe havens is a vital U.S. interest that cannot be delayed any longer, even if doing so risks profoundly alienating the Pakistani government.

Finally, we should not rule out the possibility that Adm. Mullen was speaking more bluntly than perhaps he had been authorized to do. After all, he was days away from retirement when he appeared at the Senate committee, and his former boss, ex-Secretary of Defence Robert Gates, established a precedent for politically incorrect straight talk in the days before he left the Pentagon. Moreover, unnamed “American officials” have subsequently suggested that Adm. Mullen was overstating his case against Pakistan. Nevertheless, while it’s possible that the good admiral took liberties, other reports suggest that the U.S. administration has adopted a much harder line on Pakistan’s support for the Haqqanis, and that there has been a coordinated campaign by administration officials to convey this message in private and public. It appears that Adm. Mullen’s testimony was one part of that campaign.

What Difference Will It Make?

Assuming that the United States has decided to push Islamabad harder than before, what impact will such efforts have on Pakistani behaviour? Alas, probably very little.

Allow me to digress for a moment. Last week, in a Master’s seminar on peace operations that I teach at the University of Ottawa, my students and I reviewed academic research on what happens when peace negotiations succeed or fail. The findings reminded me of a fundamental point relevant to American policy prospects in Afghanistan and Pakistan: namely, that parties to a conflict tend to respond to incentives and to their own calculations of costs and benefits, rather than to verbal entreaties. Thus, peace negotiations in any given conflict may go on forever without reaching fruition until the major parties calculate that it is in their respective interests to conclude an agreement.

Similarly, the United States can cajole or even threaten Pakistan in hopes of getting it to cease supporting the Haqqani network, but the dominant strategic fact in the region is not America’s intensified protests. Rather, it is the reality that the U.S. has begun to withdraw its forces and the likelihood that this move foreshadows a more substantial U.S. military disengagement from Afghanistan in the coming years. Given that prospect, elements in Pakistan’s security establishment may have concluded that their country’s overriding medium-term interest in relation to Afghanistan is to maintain close ties to proxy forces that will be in a position to promote and protect Pakistani interests in Afghanistan after the bulk of U.S. and NATO forces depart.

If this is true, U.S. officials should be very careful with their demands and threats, because Islamabad is unlikely to heed them – except perhaps in the half-hearted and symbolic manner that the Pakistanis have used to deflect previous U.S. pressure. Without a reasonable expectation of policy change transpiring in Pakistan, an escalation of America’s public demands for Pakistani action may serve only to reinforce perceptions of American weakness and declining influence in the region. How would that serve U.S. interests?

Photo courtesy of Reuters.