Can Pakistan Deliver the Haqqanis to the Negotiating Table?

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Kevin Lamarque / Reuters

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton listens at a press conference in Islamabad on Oct. 21, 2011

When Hillary Clinton arrived in Islamabad on Thursday night, Oct. 20, Pakistan's General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani was wondering why the U.S. Secretary of State had even bothered to stop by and be civil. Earlier in the day, while still in Kabul, Clinton had warned Pakistan's leaders that if they were not willing to take action against Afghan insurgents operating out of Pakistani territory, then they could end up "paying a very big price." Abandoning his customary mumbling, Kayani asked, "If you're going to serve an ultimatum, then what was the point of the visit?"

But four hours later, at 2 a.m., the two fractious allies emerged with the broad outlines of a plan that could see Pakistan play a crucial role in helping the U.S. bring the decadelong war across the border to a close. After weeks of bitter recriminations, both sides say the relationship has been "stabilized" — for the moment. "I think we've done a lot to clear the air," Clinton told reporters on Friday. Quoting Kayani, she added that the two sides are "90% to 95% on the same page."

Clinton's visit came as relations between Washington and Islamabad plunged to an all-time low. A series of high-profile terrorist attacks in and around Kabul were traced to the Haqqani network, whose leadership is believed to be hiding in a safe haven in the Pakistani tribal areas. In testimony before a U.S. Senate panel, the recently retired Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, described the Haqqani network as "a veritable arm" of Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency. In some ways, the nominal American alliance with Pakistan now hinges on the Haqqani network and what Islamabad can do to stop the group's attacks on U.S. troops.

The decision to entertain talks with the Haqqanis marks a significant shift in U.S. policy after years of deeming the group irreconcilable. During that time, Washington's calls from Islamabad to do more against the group were met with obstinate refusals. "What has been happening is a game of brinkmanship," says a Pakistani military official, explaining how Islamabad perceived events. "They've been pushing, and we've been resisting. We have leverage [when it comes to the Haqqani network], and they wanted to neutralize that leverage." Now, after an initial meeting arranged by the ISI between a member of the Haqqani network and U.S. officials, Washington wants to see if Islamabad can deliver.

In the meetings, Kayani suggested that his army could take some action against the Haqqanis that would "limit" the "space" available to the group. The North Waziristan tribal area, U.S. officials complain, is used as a safe haven and logistical base where wounded fighters return to heal and fresh cross-border attacks are plotted. In recent months, the Pakistani generals have talked among themselves of possible "surgical operations" in the main North Waziristan towns of Mir Ali, Miranshah and Datta Khel. But Pakistan is unlikely to take such action unless a fresh round of attacks by the Haqqani network leaves them with no choice.

Washington and Islamabad, however, remain divided on whether the Haqqani talks should carry prerequisites. On her visit, Clinton reiterated that the U.S. expects all groups involved in the so-called reconciliation talks with the Afghan government to renounce violence, disavow al-Qaeda and recognize the constitution of Afghanistan. The Pakistanis say these expectations should instead be "end conditions" for a negotiated settlement. "We know that they are not in our pocket," says the military official, referring to the ISI's murky relationship with the Haqqani network. "If you set down conditions, they'll tell us to go take a hike. They'll say that the U.S. is not winning in the field and so they're not interested." It is for this reason, according to the military official, that Pakistan has insisted it cannot "guarantee a favorable or successful outcome" of the negotiations. It also helps the Pakistanis evade blame for any potential breakdown.

The real question is whether the Pakistanis can deliver the militants to the negotiating table at all. "I have to be very candid with all of you," Clinton told one of her audiences in Islamabad. "We're not sure — that there may be no appetite for talking on the other side, that for ideological reasons or whatever other motivations, there may be no willingness."

Nevertheless, Washington and Islamabad have at least put on an appearance of agreeing to work together — even if the Haqqanis never make it to any negotiations. The Americans, as Clinton noted, are keeping their options open. Indeed, the U.S. is mounting a new military offensive against the group. During the meeting, U.S. officials said they would calibrate their "military tempo" — the pace of action against the Haqqanis — to progress in talks. If there is movement, the U.S. will be prepared to reward them with an easing of pressure.

Meanwhile, the Pakistanis feel gratified that their concerns regarding Afghanistan are being heard. The U.S., says a senior Pakistani military official who was briefed on the meeting, has "more or less accepted our stance on Afghanistan." The Pakistanis are pleased that U.S. officials like Lieut. General Douglas Lute, a special adviser to President Obama, are sensitive to their concerns about the sustainability of the Afghan National Army and police force that are being trained. The military official says Pakistan fears the creation of Afghan security forces that are too large and too pricey to maintain. Without adequate funding, the official adds, the force could break down into warring militias. And without greater Pashtun representation, the Pakistanis fear that a security force of over 400,000 could be vulnerable to Indian influence. A recent security agreement between Kabul and New Delhi heightened that alarm.

The Pakistanis, says the military official, told their U.S. counterparts they would like to hear Washington speak with "one voice." They say they are frustrated by what they perceive as "mixed messages" on the region emanating from different arms of government in Washington. Kayani also expects "clarity" in the process. "Each side," says the military official, "should be clear on what we expect from each other, so our efforts can complement each other." Another Pakistani demand is for time lines to be drawn up, establishing when the process will begin and how long it is expected to last.

The tentative agreements were made between the two high-powered delegations at the Prime Minister's House in Islamabad. On the Pakistani side, Kayani was joined by ISI head Lieut. General Ahmed Shuja Pasha, Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar and Foreign Secretary Salman Bashir. On the U.S. side, Clinton's team included General Martin Dempsey, the new Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; David Petraeus, the new CIA director; Mark Grossman, the special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan; and Lieut. General Lute.