Tackle Militants? Pakistan is More Likely to Make Peace With Them

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Asif Hassan / AFP / Getty Images

Pakistani students shout anti-US slogans during a protest to condemn US threats in Karachi on September 28, 2011.

Anyone watching local TV in Pakistan could be forgiven for thinking Pakistan was girding for war with the United States. But it's peace the Pakistani military is seeking — albeit peace with some of America's enemies based on Pakistani soil.

The nationalist chest-thumping on a popular news channel in Lahore recently was not atypical of the belligerent climate that has greeted the latest round of accusations from Washington. Viewers were treated to a series of images of Pakistan's armed forces, with a stirring martial soundtrack. "O infidels," a voiceover declared over images of Admiral Mike Mullen and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, "you have defied this nation." Outgoing Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Mullen was singled out for accusing Pakistan's top spy agency, the Directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) of being the power behind the Haqqani network that struck the U.S. embassy in Kabul. Panetta was being chided for vowing that the U.S. would no longer put up with Pakistan's alleged coddling of jihadists.

The latest accusations out of Washington were viewed in Pakistan as a prelude to U.S. action on Pakistani soil. Some feared war was approaching; more extreme types even invited the prospect. In the southern port city of Karachi, members of the ruling Pakistan People's Party demonstrated in front of the U.S. consulate. Religious parties held rowdier protests in the capital. Some fifty "scholars" from the supposedly moderate Barelvi sect of Islam issued a joint fatwa, urging "jihad" against the U.S. in the event of any perceived aggression. Jitters wiped away a billion dollars worth of equity from the Karachi stock exchange. And genuinely moderate voices, warning against a confrontation with Washington, were marginalized or attacked as "stooges", as willingness to rattle sabers at the U.S. was made a test of patriotism.

Tensions have cooled slightly since Washington made clear it has no plans for unilateral action on Pakistan's soil. U.S. officials have even suggested Mullen had "overstated" what the U.S. believes about ISI links to the Haqqani network. "Sometimes there are periods of high emotion," says a senior U.S. official, referring to Mullen's very blunt criticism of Pakistan. Pakistan's political and military leadership united last week to warn against any violation of its "sovereignty" or "territorial integrity". At the same time, however, they were happy to leave the door open. While two nominal allies have drifted further apart, neither side seems prepared to altogether sever the alliance. "They will probably try and salvage the relationship to the point where the minimum interests are served," says retired Lieut. Gen. Talat Masood, an analyst.

In that spirit, Pakistan's political and military leadership have said they intend to pursue policies more independent of the U.S. Controversially, they have decided to put a halt to future military offensives against militants on Pakistan's soil. Invoking John Lennon, the joint declaration claimed that the military's guiding principle when dealing with the militants would be, "Give peace a chance." As a result, the government is now looking to enter a series of peace deals with Pakistani militants in the Tribal Areas, urged on by army chief Gen Ashfaq Parvez Kayani and right-wing politicians, but likely to alarm Washington. The shift in national strategy, if implemented, dashes long-sustained U.S. hopes of Pakistan taking on the Haqqani network and other militant groups that attack U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan from North Waziristan. "What we are seeing is the army converge with the political right," says Masood. "They haven't given any thought to how peace deals have worked out in the past."

Pakistan denies any link to the Haqqani militants who mounted the attacks in Kabul. But while there are doubts over whether the ISI provides "material support" to the Haqqanis, even Pakistani military officials privately concede the group is allowed to operate freely inside Pakistani territory, where they have a "logistical base", and some of the clan's members are based in Pakistan's cities. While former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif pierced the silence by suggesting, in response to the U.S. allegations, that "there's no smoke without a fire", the Pakistani military's public standing has been bolstered by challenging the U.S. claims.

If anything, despite Panetta's vow to change the game, the latest episode reveals just how limited are the options available to Washington. Banging on the table and demanding action against the Haqqanis hasn't worked. Veiled threats that the U.S. might act directly against the Haqqanis on Pakistani soil appears only to have united Pakistan's political and military leadership against Washington. That leaves intensified drone strikes, but the CIA appears so far to have avoided targeting the Haqqanis in large towns such as Miranshah, for fear of inflicting civilian casualties. That consideration may now change. Drone strikes may be more palatable to Pakistan's generals than "boots on the ground".

There may be another option, however. Until now the U.S. has deemed the Haqqanis "irreconcilables" in respect of its own efforts to engage with the mainstream Taliban leadership in search of a political solution to the war in Afghanistan. But it seems Washington may also be prepared to talk to them. Earlier this year, with the help of Pakistan, the U.S. opened a secret backchannel with Ibrahim Haqqani, a brother of militant leader Sirajuddin Haqqani. When Gen Kayani said in a statement, "Admiral Mullen knows fully well which all countries are in contact with the Haqqanis," he was referring to that line of communication.

"If we can bring in the Haqqani network, that works," says a senior Pakistani official. "But will we? Can we?" Many doubt Pakistan's ability to persuade the Haqqanis to take any course other than violence — and that could prove a big problem for Pakistan. Already, the Afghan government is voicing suspicions of the group and Pakistan's involvement in the recent assassination of former Afghan President Burhanuddin Rabbani. If there are further major attacks in Kabul, the U.S. may find it difficult to maintain the forbearance that has prompted it in recent days to dial down tensions with Pakistan. And that gives those looking to break U.S.-Pakistan ties both the incentive and the means to provoke a new crisis.