Washington's talking tough to Pakistan about the Haqqanis. But does it have enough leverage to walk the walk?
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.
Second, Washington believes it has relatively little to lose in its bilateral relationship with Pakistan. To be sure, much is still at stake. Supply routes to Afghanistan and bilateral ties with a nuclear-armed state are nothing to sneeze at. But the calculation has to do with relative losses, not absolute ones. As U.S. officials peer into the future, they see little reason to expect that relations with Islamabad are likely to improve. Indeed, there's precious little evidence to suggest that the trajectory of the U.S.-Pakistan relations will go anywhere but downhill. If there is already a realistic chance that this relationship will rupture and that the benefits of bilateral cooperation will eventually be lost, why not press Pakistan now while Washington still enjoys some positive leverage and before relations hit rock bottom?
Of course, for Washington's coercion to work, it has to be credible. Tough talk alone is not about to sway the generals in Islamabad. But today's threats are already more serious than those of the past because they have been made in public -- and because Congress has already signaled that it will make assistance to Pakistan conditional upon action against the Haqqani network. These steps will be hard to undo.
But Pakistan also has cards to play in its escalating bout with the United States. First, Islamabad can cry foul. It is already doing so. Pakistani Army chief Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani in a statement called Mullen's remarks "very unfortunate and not based on facts." And Foreign Minister Khar has cautioned, "You cannot afford to alienate Pakistan; you cannot afford to alienate the Pakistani people." But these protests have less weight than they once did -- Barack Obama's administration already knows the risks it is running.
Next, Pakistan is likely to remind Washington that it controls the ground supply routes into Afghanistan, perhaps by halting or delaying entry or by allowing shipments to be destroyed. Both of these steps have been taken in the past. And it could get far, far worse than that. Pakistan could close its airspace to American overflights, end remaining military and intelligence cooperation, deny visas to U.S. officials, enable militant attacks on U.S. Embassy employees and facilities, and shoot down the U.S. drones that still fly over Pakistan's tribal areas.
Would Washington be willing and able to respond to each of these steps? Perhaps; but it won't be easy. The United States could take the costly step of shifting ground supply routes to Afghanistan to run through Russia and Central Asia, along the so-called Northern Distribution Network; negotiate new agreements for airborne shipments and personnel; substitute drones with less-discriminating, higher-flying bombers that can evade Pakistani air defenses; and launch commando raids into Pakistan supported by a surged conventional presence on Afghanistan's eastern border.
These are ugly options. They could get even uglier. But this is now the reality, with Washington having taken such an aggressive, public stance against its erstwhile ally. Quiet, indirect, but still forceful methods were more likely to engineer a shift in Pakistan's policies at a lower risk. Many of those options, however, have been exhausted.
Faced with such terribly high stakes, the question now is which side will blink first, and when.
KAREN BLEIER/AFP/Getty Images