Pakistan’s relations with the US have never been as strained as in the last few months. And the relations between the two intelligence agencies, the CIA and the ISI, have never been as full of mistrust as they are today. In the context of the recent visit by Pakistan’s top spy to Washington recently, is Pakistan winning the game of chicken or have the rules of the game changed?
As I have pointed out in my book (Explaining Pakistan’s Foreign Policy: Escaping India) the US-Pakistan relationship is flawed because both sides have different goals, even though at times their short-term interests have converged. Pakistan fears an existential threat from India and believes that the aim of India’s foreign and security policy is to undo the creation of Pakistan. This has led to a foreign and security policy where Pakistan seeks to build its own resources to stand up to India and also have a friendly (read ‘client’) state in Afghanistan. Close ties between Afghanistan and India are viewed as antithetical to Pakistan’s interests. In return for supporting some US policies, Pakistan has desired American aid and support against India, especially in the context of Kashmir and Afghanistan.
For American policymakers, Pakistan’s geo-strategic location has been indispensable over the decades. But to the US, the relationship has been tactical and transactional, not strategic and long-term. Further, while desirous of peace in the South Asian subcontinent, the US has never seen India as an enemy or threat. For decades Pakistan was the only American ally in South Asia. Today, US has three allies: India, Pakistan and Afghanistan. Moreover, its military presence in Afghanistan confers unprecedented military advantage on the US in the region even as this presence creates political problems. While American policymakers—both military and civilian—understand Pakistan’s concerns about its neighbors, they do not agree with Pakistan and are reluctant to view the region and the world from the Pakistani prism.
The Pakistani military-intelligence establishment is hence not pleased with the current impasse in Afghanistan. Pakistan has always sought the right to decide who will rule in Kabul—Gen Zia claimed that right in 1988 and the current Pakistani military-intelligence leadership claims the same today. When the Americans or Soviets were reluctant to help Pakistan on this score in 1989, Pakistan sought it first through the mujahideen and later through the Taliban. Pakistan still believes that the road to Kabul runs through Islamabad (read Rawalpindi) and hence seeks a prominent role in any reconciliation and talks with the Afghan Taliban leaders. Pakistan would also like to ensure that India has a marginal (preferably no) role to play in this process.
What is the ideal situation sought by Pakistan and especially Pakistan’s military-intelligence complex is brought out very well in a recent piece by former CIA officer and current Brookings fellow Bruce Riedel. In a piece in The New York Times titled ‘No Return to Reagan Rules’, Riedel argues that the ISI would like a relationship with the CIA similar to what existed during the Reagan-Zia era. During the 1980s the ISI was the conduit through whom the CIA provided money and military aid for the anti-Soviet Afghan jihad and the Americans did not do anything without first asking the ISI and the Pakistani military. However, as another CIA officer Reuel Marc Gerecht points out, “the primary problem between the two countries is the Pakistani dream that time can be reversed.”
While the CIA and ISI had close ties during the 1980s circumstances have changed since then. Then, the key US strategic objective was the defeat of the Soviet Union. The US did not have any significant economic stake in India which had chosen to stay out of the Cold War as a non-aligned country. It was easy for US to subcontract its Afghan adventure to Pakistan and ignore Pakistan’s attitude towards India. America’s priority after 9/11 is not the defeat of a non-existent Soviet empire but the elimination of Al Qaeda and other terror groups. The Reagan era considerations therefore no longer apply. Both during the Bush administration and more so during the Obama administration there have been regular meetings between the top American and Pakistan military and intelligence leadership about the long-term future of Afghanistan. There has still been no meeting of minds. The reason is the difference in the US and Pakistani worldviews. According to a leading American scholar on Pakistan, Christine Fair, both Langley and Rawalpindi believe “the other is perfidious and operating to undermine the other’s interests”.
For Pakistan’s establishment India is still the biggest threat not the Al Qaeda or the Taliban. Pakistan would be happy with a Taliban government in Afghanistan if it helps keep India at bay. Pakistan also continues to seek American support in standing up to India and resolving the Kashmir issue on Pakistani terms. When Pakistan’s army chief Gen Kayani came to Washington DC in October 2010 to participate in the strategic dialogue, he handed over a 14-page document which reportedly listed Pakistan’s fears of India and Pakistan’s need for strategic depth and allies in Afghanistan.
The Pakistani military-intelligence complex has adopted a dichotomous attitude towards the various jihadi groups operating within Pakistan. The Pakistani security establishment views the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) as an enemy because the latter focuses its attacks within Pakistan. However, groups like the Haqqani network, Afghan Taliban and their local Pakistani allies, sectarian groups like Lashkar-e-Jhangvi and India-focused groups like Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) are treated as ‘assets’ or proxies who would be helpful in achieving Pakistan’ goals in Afghanistan and India.
The Americans do not share the Pakistani worldview. They do not see India as a threat, they view all jihadi groups as a threat to Pakistan and the world and while they would like the Afghans to decide their own government, a Taliban-led Afghanistan is not something they view with pleasure. Also, the CIA views groups focusing on India and Afghanistan as threats to US interests, especially groups like LeT and the Haqqani network that have attacked Americans in India and Afghanistan.
According to Christine Fair, the Raymond Davis affair was a “calibrated move” on the part of the ISI in order to “reset” relations with the US. Ever since the civilian government came to power, every few months something happens that leads to anti-American protests which most analysts assert are “manufactured” and “calibrated” to ensure military supremacy in policy making in this country. According to Christine Fair, the two countries are playing a “game of chicken” where ISI is “confident it will win.”
This is because Pakistan’s civilian and military policymakers and strategists believe that Pakistan is and has been indispensable to the US and therefore in the end the Americans will give-in and allow Pakistan to do what it wants. The strategy has worked off and on but if we recall history such a view also led to the imposition of the Pressler sanctions in 1990. Currently, most of American logistics for Afghanistan flow through Pakistan but it will not always be the case. In March 2011, the Russian parliament approved a deal with the US to allow transit for military equipment and personnel across Russia to the NATO force in Afghanistan, easing reliance on Pakistan as a transit route. In any case, a superpower has more strategic options than a medium-sized country beset with economic, political and ethnic problems.
Pakistan has always feared an India-Afghan pincer movement against Pakistan and has sought American help to prevent this from happening. The irony is that Pakistan’s actions may actually result in a situation where the worst might happen. Frustrated with Pakistani refusal to change its blinkered world vision, America’s ties with both Afghanistan and India may deepen to the level where the US supports Pakistan’s neighbors at Pakistan’s expense.