Pakistan is helping insurgents. Could that be seen as an act of war?
The United States has never directly attacked Pakistan’s premier spy agency, the Directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), despite the ISI’s long-standing ties to Islamist militias and terrorist groups opposed to the U.S. and its allies. Yet Pakistani spies occasionally still die from American bombs.
In 1998, the Clinton administration launched cruise missiles at jihadist training camps in Afghanistan in retaliation for al-Qaeda’s bombing of two American embassies in East Africa. The missiles missed Osama bin Laden but killed a team of ISI agents training militants at the camps.
In November 2001, as many as 1,000 ISI agents and Pakistani soldiers from the Frontier Corps found themselves trapped in the Afghan city of Kunduz—along with their Taliban allies and members of al-Qaeda and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan. The Pakistanis had been ordered to leave Afghanistan after 9/11 and had had two months to do so, but they decided to stay and fight with the Taliban instead. The Pakistanis might have reasonably expected to share the fate of their compatriots who died as collateral damage in the American cruise missile attacks three years earlier. Instead, Pakistan asked for and received U.S. permission to send rescue planes. Along with the airlifted ISI agents and Pakistani soldiers were Taliban commanders and international jihadists, including al-Qaeda.
And earlier this year, the Pakistani government loudly condemned an American drone attack on a market in the village of Datta Khel, in North Waziristan. The Pakistanis said innocent tribal elders had been killed. An American ofﬁcial offered New Yorker reporter Dexter Filkins another explanation: “It turns out there were some ISI guys who were there with the insurgent leaders. We killed them, too.”
What all this history means is that when Admiral Mike Mullen, who retired last month as America’s top military officer, accused the ISI of backing insurgents who attacked the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, his comments were surprising more for their candour than content.
Mullen told a Senate panel that the Haqqani network, a militant group based in North Waziristan and the southeastern Afghan provinces of Khost, Paktia, and Paktika—and once an ally of the United States during the anti-Soviet jihad—acts as a “veritable arm” of the ISI. “With ISI support, Haqqani operatives planned and conducted a truck bomb attack [on Sept. 11] as well as the assault on our embassy [on Sept. 13],” he said. “We also have credible intelligence that they were behind the 28 June attack against the Inter-Continental Hotel in Kabul and a host of other smaller but effective operations.”
Pakistan predictably condemned Mullen’s statements, and Washington tried to distance itself from them. Asked if he agreed with Mullen that the Haqqanis are a “veritable arm” of the ISI, White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters: “It’s not language I would use.” Carney didn’t say Mullen’s claims weren’t true. He couldn’t. While some analysts may differ over exactly how much influence the ISI exercises over the Haqqani network, no one seriously disputes that the bonds exist.
“There has been no question over the last several years that the United States, the Canadians and the British have put together a good picture of the Haqqani network’s links with the Pakistani government, including Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate,” says Seth Jones, a senior political scientist at the RAND Corporation who recently worked in the Pentagon on counter-insurgency in Afghanistan and Pakistan. “That doesn’t mean that Pakistan controls all aspects of the Haqqani network, but it does mean they provide them a sanctuary in North Waziristan. It does mean that they have provided some financial assistance. They’ve provided some information, intelligence. They’ve provided some tactical and operational aid, including non-lethal and possibly lethal assistance. But it doesn’t mean they control them, per se.”
Stripped down to its most basic level, this leaves the United States in a messy and unseemly position. Pakistan is a supposed American ally and receives more than $2 billion a year in aid as a result. In return, its spies back a group that attacks the U.S. Embassy—American soil—in Kabul, and other American targets besides. It’s not much of a stretch to see this as an act of war. And yet in the wake of Mullen’s comments, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said only that relations between the United States and Pakistan were “very difficult and complex,” adding, “but I also believe strongly that we have to work together despite those difficulties.”
Pakistan’s ties to the Haqqani network are decades old and fit in with its larger strategy of pursuing foreign policy goals through proxy militias and terrorist groups. Pakistan’s primary enemy is India. Rather than confronting it directly, it sponsors insurgents in Kashmir, and groups such as Lashkar-e-Taiba, which is widely believed to be responsible for the 2008 terrorist attacks in Mumbai.
Pakistan’s links to the Taliban and other insurgents in Afghanistan must also be seen through this prism. Pakistan fears encirclement and believes a government in Kabul that is friendly to India would accomplish this. It wants “strategic depth” in Afghanistan—a secure rear flank. If it can’t control the Afghan government, it wants to destabilize it. And it wants alliances with insurgent groups that can hold Afghan territory. The Haqqanis, with their territorial base along the border and ability to penetrate Kabul, provide this. But they are also unique, and uniquely dangerous, among Afghan insurgents.