Why Mullen speak out now?


Admiral Mike Mullen, the outgoing Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, spoke unusually bluntly about Pakistan’s military and intelligence services during his last appearance before the Senate Armed Services Committee on September 22. He identified the Haqqani network as “a strategic arm of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence Agency,” which thereby made the ISI complicit in the September 13 attacks against the US Embassy in Kabul, the June 28 attack against the Inter-Continental Hotel in Kabul, and the September 10 truck bomb attack that killed five Afghans and injured 77 US soldiers.

When Mullen, the foremost US defender of maintaining sound working ties with Pakistan’s military, expresses this much exasperation, those who seek to retain decent bilateral relations are in trouble.  Ties have become extremely tenuous and are likely to deteriorate further.  By publicly confirming and not qualifying reality, Mullen has changed the rules of the game, while laying the predicate for US military actions against the sanctuary within Pakistan that the Haqqani network enjoys. This, in turn, will embarrass Pakistan’s military hierarchy and further inflame anti-US opinion within Pakistan – two consequences that are not unrelated.  Then the prosecution of the US military campaign in Afghanistan will then become much harder, and whatever residual support Pakistan provides to the United States on other issues can vanish.

Pakistani military and intelligence officers denied Mullen’s charges. They keep tabs on the Haqqani network, they say, but do not collude with it. Nor do they take active steps to prevent such attacks or to warn the intended victims. If this does not constitute collusion, it reflects incompetence or hard-nosed cost/benefit analysis: the costs of preventing this carnage would be great – including adding Pakistani targets to the Haqqani target list – and the benefits modest, compared to securing a large footprint in Afghanistan’s future.   

Why would Mullen speak out now? The answer in Pakistan is that Washington needs a scapegoat for a military campaign in Afghanistan that is unlikely to end well.  This answer conveniently absolves Pakistan’s security establishment of responsibility for this mess. There’s another answer: the Haqqani network has raised the stakes and the Obama administration has concluded that it has been unable to influence Rawalpindi’s unfortunate choices.

The United States and Pakistan are well past the stage of doing favours for each other; cooperation is limited to common interests. After 9/11, the Bush administration issued an ultimatum for Pakistan’s military establishment to cut ties with the Taliban and help the United States crush al Qaeda. Pakistan’s military was let off the hook for its championing of the Taliban, and paid for its support and its self-interested sacrifices. The United States military made good use of Pakistan’s territory to resupply US troops in Afghanistan, secured early cooperation in collaring al Qaeda leaders, and carried out drone strikes, including against enemies of the Pakistan military.

Both countries became disillusioned with this partnership.  Rawalpindi’s contributions in the “war on terror” were highly selective, and the benefits provided by Washington came with insults to Pakistani sovereignty and contention over the Taliban’s role in Afghanistan’s future. Disputes now loom larger than common interests.

In 2009, there was talk of moving beyond this transactional relationship with the passage of the Kerry-Lugar-Berman legislation, but these hopes have been unfulfilled.  Not much aid has made it through the pipeline because of bureaucratic obstacles and concerns over corruption. Differences in US and Pakistani policies have also grown as Washington’s relations with New Delhi have improved.  Only Pakistan opposes the start of negotiations to end the production of fissile material for nuclear weapons.  Rawalpindi continues to pursue policies toward Afghanistan, India, and nuclear weapons that diminish Pakistan’s international standing.  Inputs from Pakistan’s President, Prime Minister and Ministry of Foreign Affairs on these matters are imperceptible.

Both Washington and Rawalpindi are quite capable of repeating past mistakes and making matters worse.  Pakistan’s woes are mostly self-inflicted, but Washington has repeatedly bet against Pakistan’s future by focusing on military ties.  Pakistan’s military leaders continue to resist improved relations with India, a prerequisite if Pakistan is to become a normal nation. Rawalpindi’s Afghan policy, which seems to be repeating the mistakes of the 1990s, may be based on the assumption that the Pentagon and the US intelligence community will continue to prevent another divorce – but both of these stores are now under new management. Alternatively, the boldness of recent strikes in Afghanistan by Rawalpindi’s partners may reflect the conclusion that the relationship has been broken beyond repair.  Besides, most US troops will soon be leaving Afghanistan. For whatever reason, Pakistan’s security establishment is acting in ways that suggest that its influence within Afghanistan matters more than its relations with the United States.

Admiral Mullen advised his listeners on Capitol Hill not to disengage from Pakistan, but rather to “reframe” the relationship to buttress civil authority and to expect far less from military leaders in Pakistan. This was the sentiment behind Kerry-Lugar-Berman – one well worth pursuing, but which has not yet had much success. Unless Rawalpindi changes course, Pakistan may find itself reframed from a major non-NATO ally to a state sponsor of terrorism.  Then the architects of policies that have diminished Pakistan’s security and international standing will again blame the United States for exiting the relationship after misusing it.

Michael Krepon is co-founder of the Stimson Center.