On Sept. 22, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta testified before Congress that the Haqqani network, the group that launched the Sept. 13 attack on the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, is a "veritable arm" of the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) Directorate. Public testimony has been matched by tough talk in private, including in meetings between CIA chief David Petraeus and ISI chief Ahmed Shuja Pasha and between U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and her counterpart, Pakistani Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar.
Washington is launching a full-court press to show that it will no longer sit idly by while terrorist groups, abetted by the ISI, kill Americans and their allies in Afghanistan. Never before have we seen this sort of high-level, across-the-board pressure from the U.S. government. And never before have U.S. demands on Islamabad to get tough on the Haqqani network been coupled with what -- at least implicitly -- sound like threats of significantly expanded U.S. unilateral action inside Pakistan.
At surface level, these statements require no explanation at all. If Washington has ample evidence of ISI complicity, then how can it possibly look the other way, much less continue to provide assistance to the Pakistani government and military?
But the reality is that evidence of ISI support for Haqqani operations in Afghanistan is hardly new. Back in July 2008, Washington made similar claims of Pakistani complicity when the Indian Embassy in Kabul was bombed. Since then, however, U.S. military and civilian aid to Pakistan has increased, in part reflecting American hopes that carrots, rather than sticks, will be more likely to shift Pakistan's behavior.
In the past, Washington always tempered its criticism of Pakistan for fear that pushing too hard might break the relationship in ways that would cause more harm than good. U.S. officials have always known that the major supply lines for American forces in Afghanistan run through Pakistan's ports, highways, and airspace. U.S. officials have always valued aspects of counterterrorism cooperation that take place in the shadows, away from the glare of the press and the scrutiny of the public. And they have always hoped that by engaging Pakistan's military and civilian leaders, they would gradually work toward a more effective partnership that could satisfy both American and Pakistani security requirements.
What has changed? There are probably two reasons behind Washington's newly aggressive posture.
First, U.S. military leverage in the region is a diminishing asset. Washington can make threats now that will be less credible in a year or two. NATO force levels in Afghanistan are at their zenith, so if there is ever going to be a time for credible threats to expand the conflict into the Pakistani tribal areas where the Haqqani network is headquartered, it is now.