Admiral Mullen’s Haqqani Act

The U.S. threat last week that “all  options” are on the table if the Pakistani military doesn’t cut its  ties with the Haqqani network of anti-U.S. insurgents created the  appearance of a crisis involving potential U.S. military escalation in  Pakistan.

But there is much less substance to the administration’s threatening  rhetoric than was apparent. In fact, it was primarily an exercise in  domestic political damage control, although compounded by an emotional  response to recent major attacks by the Haqqani group on U.S.-NATO  targets, according to two sources familiar with the policymaking  process on Afghanistan and Pakistan.

One source close to that process doubted that there was any planning  for military action against Pakistan in the immediate future. “I’m  sure we’re going to be talking to the Pakistanis a lot about this,”  the source told this reporter.

Despite the tough talk about not tolerating any more high-profile  attacks on U.S. troops, the sources suggested, there is no expectation  that anything the United States can do would change Pakistani policy  toward the Haqqani group.         The Haqqani network, a force of 15,000 to 20,000 Pashtun fighters led  by former anti-Soviet Mujahideen figure Jalalludin Haqqani, has long  declared its loyalty to Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar.         Looming over the discussions about how to react to the latest attacks  is the firm conclusion reached by the Barack Obama administration in  last December’s AfPak policy review that it was futile to try to put  pressure on Pakistan over the issue of ties with the Haqqani group.

The Obama administration had tried repeatedly in 2009 and 2010 to put  pressure on Pakistani army chief Ashfaq Kayani to attack the Haqqani  network in North Waziristan, but without any result. Finally, in the  December policy review, it was agreed that attacking Pakistan publicly  for its ties with the Haqqani network and its refusal to attack those  forces in North Waziristan not only would not achieve the desired  result but was counterproductive and should stop, according to sources  familiar with that review.         But a rising tide of Haqqani group attacks on U.S. and NATO targets in  2011 has made the Obama administration’s AfPak policy much more  vulnerable to domestic political criticism than ever before.

The New York Times reported Sep. 24 that the number of attacks by the  Haqqani group was five times greater and the number of roadside bombs  had increased by 20 per cent in 2011 than during the same period of  2010, according to a senior U.S. military official.

Even more damaging to the administration’s war policy, however, was  the impression created by the attack by the Haqqani network on the  U.S. embassy and the U.S.-NATO headquarters in the most heavily-  guarded section of Kabul Sep. 13, and a truck bomb attack on a NATO  base three days earlier that wounded 77 U.S. troops.

Top U.S. national security officials had no choice but to cast blame  on Pakistan for those attacks and to suggest that the administration  was now taking a much tougher line toward Islamabad, despite the  knowledge that it was not likely to shake the Pakistani policy,  according to the two knowledgeable sources.         “We’re in a situation where the administration could not do nothing,”  said one of the sources.

The administration decided within a few days of the high-profile  attack in Kabul on Sep. 13 to highlight the claim that the Pakistani  intelligence service, ISI, was somehow complicit in the recent Haqqani  group attacks.

On Sep. 17, U.S. Ambassador to Pakistan Cameron Munter charged that  the Haqqani network had carried out the attack on the U.S. embassy and  U.S.-NATO headquarters a few days earlier and declared, “There is  evidence linking the Haqqani network to the Pakistani government.”

Three days later Defence Secretary Leon Panetta told reporters, “We  are going to take whatever steps are necessary to protect our forces”  in Afghanistan.

Then the administration put out a story through the Washington Post  Sep. 21 that was clearly aimed at satisfying the domestic political  audience that the administration was sufficiently tough toward  Pakistan on its ties with the Haqqani group. Diplomatic correspondent  Karen DeYoung reported that the Obama administration had given “what  amounts to an ultimatum” to Pakistan to cut ties with the Haqqani  group, warning that the United States would “act unilaterally if  Pakistan does not comply”.

In testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee Sep. 22,  Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Michael Mullen made the  unusual admission that the Haqqani network’s attacks in Afghanistan  had become “more brazen, more aggressive, more lethal” than ever  before, but explained it as a function of ties between the group and  Pakistan’s ISI.         He portrayed the Haqqani group as “a veritable arm of the ISI” and  suggested that there was “credible evidence” that the ISI was behind  the truck bomb attack on the NATO base Sep. 10 as well as the attack  on the embassy and the International Security Assistance Force  headquarters a few days later.

Mullen used oddly contorted language in  characterizing that evidence, saying that “the information has become  more available that those attacks have been supported or even  encouraged by the ISI.”         That same line, which only suggested ISI “encouragement” as a  possibility, was then peddled to Reuters and CNN, among other news  outlets. CNN Pentagon correspondent Barbara Starr quoted a “U.S.  military official” on Sep. 23 as claiming ISI “knowledge or support”  in regard to Haqqani network attacks – another formula revealing the  absence of hard intelligence of ISI complicity.

And Mark Hosenball and Susan Cornwell of Reuters reported Sep. 22 U.S.  officials had conceded that information suggesting that ISI had  encouraged Haqqani attacks on U.S. forces was “uncorroborated”.         Absent from these reports was any indication that the U.S.  intelligence community had been consulted by Mullen before making  claims about “credible intelligence” of ISI complicity.

What was missing from the administration’s public pronouncements and  leaks was the fact that both the George W. Bush and Obama  administrations had been well aware that the Pakistani military had  close strategic relations with the Haqqani network.         “It’s not as if the United States didn’t know that the Pakistani  military considers the Haqqani network a strategic asset,” said one  knowledgeable source.

The long AfPak policy review by the Obama administration in 2009 was  based on the knowledge that the Pakistani government was unlikely to  give up its support for the Haqqani network and the Taliban Quetta  Shura.         On Nov. 29, 2009, the day Obama made his final decision to support an  increase of more than 30,000 troops in Afghanistan, his Afghanistan  war adviser, Gen. Douglas Lute, warned him that Pakistan’s policy of  support for the Haqqani network and other insurgents was one of four  key factors that created a serious risk of policy failure in  Afghanistan, according to Bob Woodward’s book “Obama’s Wars”.

Even those who had held out hope in the past that pressure on Pakistan  could lead to change in its relationship with the Haqqani group have  now given up on that possibility. The New York Times reported Saturday  that officials who once believed Washington could manipulate the  Pakistani military to end its support for the Haqqani group “through  cajoling and large cash payments” were now convinced that Pakistan  would not change its policy as long as it feels threatened by Indian  power.

GARETH PORTER is an investigative historian and journalist with Inter-Press Service specialising in U.S. national security policy. The paperback edition of his latest book, “Perils of Dominance: Imbalance of Power and the Road to War in Vietnam“, was published in 2006.

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Gareth Porter is an independent investigative journalist and winner of the 2012 Gellhorn Prize for journalism. He is the author of the newly published Manufactured Crisis: The Untold Story of the Iran Nuclear Scare.

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