U.S.-Pakistan Ties Plunge to New Low After Mullen's Testimony

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Ahmad Masood / Reuters

A NATO helicopter flies next to the building taken over by insurgents during an attack near the U.S. embassy in Kabul on Sept. 13, 2011

Just when it seemed relations couldn't get any worse, they did. In the sharpest criticism leveled against Pakistan yet, a flurry of top U.S. officials are directly accusing their nominal ally of being behind a string of high-profile attacks against American interests in Afghanistan. The most serious allegation, as the U.S.'s top military officer, Adm. Mike Mullen, told a Senate panel on Thursday, is that the Haqqani network, described as "a veritable arm" of Pakistan's top spy agency, was responsible for the September 13th attack on the U.S. Embassy in Kabul.

Up to this point, Washington seemed prepared to sanitize references to Pakistan's connections with the Haqqani network, based in North Waziristan, and the Afghan Taliban in the hope that the Pakistanis would eventually act against these elements. The U.S. would quietly urge action from time to time against these groups, though U.S. officials differed on the levels of influence Islamabad actually maintained over them. Now, Pakistan stands accused of being a state-sponsor of terror, and faces the possible threat of sanctions and even the use of force.

General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, the Pakistan Army chief, was obviously stung by his friend's remarks. According to a terse statement issued by the military on Friday, Kayani viewed Mullen's testimony as "unfortunate and not based on facts." He also categorically denied "the accusations of proxy war and ISI support to Haqqanis" and, adopting a wounded tone, the statement deplored "the blame game in public". If the remarks weren't galling enough for Pakistan's generals, their author's identity was. In recent years, Mullen was considered the friendliest U.S. official, often indulging in cigar-tugging bonhomie with Kayani.

"The U.S. and Pakistan have not found themselves at this spot before," says Vali Nasr, a professor at Tufts University and a former senior official in the State Department's Afghanistan-Pakistan office. "This is the worst and most dangerous moment in the relationship." The allegations are not necessarily new. Pakistan has been suspected of sponsoring similar acts of violence in Afghanistan in the past. Back then, the U.S. was happy to keep them quiet, Nasr says, as the stakes weren't so high.

Adopting a new approach, the U.S. is prepared to be more confrontational. "This is a strategy that is light on carrot and very heavy on stick," says Nasr. The relationship has been steadily deteriorating since the Raymond Davis affair in late January, when a CIA contractor killed two Pakistani men, sparking weeks long hostilities between the U.S. spy agency and its Pakistani counterpart, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) directorate. Shedding a patience it pursued in recent years, Washington seems intent on favoring what Nasr describes as "a forthright approach that relies less on private diplomacy or the promise of economic assistance."

It is not clear how Pakistan will react, but will have to move fast to placate domestic opinion. "We have to do something," a senior military official tells TIME. "We are being pushed against the wall. If we don't react, the public opinion will consume us." Like Kayani, the military official denies the charges of official complicity in the attacks on the U.S. Embassy, the Intercontinental Hotel in Kabul and a September 10th truck bomb attack. But the official does acknowledge Pakistan isn't prepared to antagonize the Haqqani network and is looking to deliver them to the negotiating table once the endgame in Afghanistan comes into view.

"What General Kayani tells the Americans when they ask about the Haqqanis," the military official says, "is that no agency in the world will cut off their last contact with them." The arrangement or non-aggression pact, the military official adds, is in place to yield "positive" dividends. In South Waziristan, the Haqqanis' neutrality helped the army move in against the Pakistani Taliban. In Afghanistan, the Pakistan Army hopes that it will be able to deliver the Haqqanis to the negotiating table.

But that ambition may now be in jeopardy. Adm. Mullen said the "Quetta Shura" and the Haqqani Network were not only hurting prospects for security, but also "spoiling possibilities for broader reconciliation." Later, he added that Islamabad's support for these groups "continues to jeopardize Pakistan's opportunity to be a respected and prosperous nation with genuine regional and international influence." The suggestion is that Pakistan could be blocked out of the Afghanistan endgame.

To some observers, that is already happening. "The Pakistanis are not involved in the endgame in Afghanistan," says Nasr, the former senior State Department official, referring to the various backchannels that have opened up in recent months. "Pakistan expects to have a much larger say in Afghanistan, especially southern Afghanistan," says Nasr. "The U.S. is treating Pakistan as an important player, but only equal to the others." The much-coveted role of principal interlocutor is no longer open to Pakistan.

At the moment, Washington is still resisting a possible rupture of relations with Islamabad. For all his criticism, Adm. Mullen also reiterated the need to somehow maintain the alliance. "A flawed and strained engagement with Pakistan is better than disengagement," he said, reflecting on the costs of disengagement in the past. But that does not preclude the possibility of punishing Pakistan through different measures.

Sanctions are not an immediate prospect. "The U.S. cannot quite afford that right now," says Nasr. But by publicizing alleged acts of Pakistani villainy, the ground is being laid for it to be possible in the future. Just in recent months, the U.S. defied Pakistani claims to sovereignty by mounting a covert raid to kill Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad, accused the Pakistan military of being responsible for the murder of journalist Saleem Shahzad, and has now laid to a fresh series of charges. These events have helped turn global public opinion against the Pakistan Army, and nudge it closer to pariahdom.

But sanctions, or the withholding of further U.S. aid, are unlikely to coax Pakistan into changing its fundamental strategic thinking. "They're not going to walk away from their interests easily after the first application of pressure from Washington," says Nasr. Indeed, a relationship that has plunged to unprecedented depths could get worse — and more dangerous — still.

If the U.S. resorts to a use of force, Pakistan would be forced to respond. In a fiercely anti-American climate, Kayani and his top generals are already nervous about the mood in the army's middle and lower ranks. Any perceived U.S. aggression would trigger loud demands for retaliation. "If we don't take action," says the military official, "there could be a mutiny. The worse thing that could happen to Pakistan is if the army splits." For the U.S., the demon it knows is still better than the one it does not.