Calm Before the Storm

John Kerry’s Pakistan trip might be all smiles and handshakes, but there’s a crisis brewing beneath the surface.

On July 31, following several false starts, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry arrived in Islamabad for meetings with Pakistan's political and military leadership. And while the visit comes at a turbulent time for Pakistan -- on the heels of a massive jail break in Dera Ismail Khan that saw more than 300 prisoners escape, including at least 25 members of the Pakistani Taliban (TTP) and militant Lashkar-e-Jhangvi group -- it also comes at a time when U.S.-Pakistan relations have been remarkably cordial.

Pakistan's May election, in which the country completed its first democratic transfer of power, appears to have put both capitals in a good mood. Shortly after his electoral triumph, Nawaz Sharif received a congratulatory call from President Barack Obama. Since then, Washington has announced new investments in Pakistan's troubled energy sector, and Sharif has responded by promising to help facilitate America's withdrawal from Afghanistan and by vowing to cooperate on counterterrorism.

The goodwill has lasted since then, allowing for the resurrection of several moribund cooperative initiatives between Washington and Islamabad. For example, the U.S. ambassador to Pakistan, Richard Olson, has stated his desire to re-launch the Strategic Dialogue -- broad-based talks on non-security issues that have been grounded for several years. Meanwhile, on July 16, Pakistan's finance minister, Ishaq Dar, indicated that talks will soon resume on a bilateral investment treaty between the two countries. These negotiations have occurred fitfully since 2005, but hit snags in more recent years.

Today represents a far cry from 2011, when CIA contractor Raymond Davis shot and killed two Pakistani civilians, when U.S. forces raided Osama Bin Laden's compound without giving Pakistan advance notice, and when NATO aircraft accidentally killed 24 Pakistani soldiers stationed on the Afghan-Pakistan border. Reprisals and angry rhetoric ensued on both sides. Islamabad shut down NATO supply routes to Afghanistan, and Adm. Mike Mullen -- then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff -- famously referred to the Taliban-aligned Haqqani network as a "veritable arm" of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), Pakistan's spy network.

Relations remained tense into 2012, when then U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta openly called for a greater Indian role in Afghanistan -- a message that surely infuriated Pakistan's security establishment, which wants no Indian influence in Afghanistan.

Today, Washington and Islamabad are not one-upping each other with retaliatory acts, and the charged rhetoric has been toned down. Instead of lambasting Pakistan for what it doesn't do --such as launching a military offensive in North Waziristan -- Washington is commending Pakistan for what it does do. In May, for example, a Pentagon official praised Pakistan for adopting new measures that prevent fertilizers produced domestically from being used as bombs in Afghanistan. The two sides are even seeing eye-to-eye on the war in Afghanistan; both want to bring the Afghan Taliban to the negotiating table.

Given these developments, does Kerry's trip to Pakistan herald a new era of warm relations for the two reluctant allies? Don't bet on it. The relationship between the United States and Pakistan may be in better shape than it was several years ago, but it remains troubled -- and could easily plunge back into crisis.

One source of brewing tension is Islamabad's interest in opening peace talks with the TTP, which is waging a brutal and unyielding insurgency against the Pakistani state -- one that targets civilians, the government, and the military alike. Sharif campaigned heavily on the issue of talks, so his resounding electoral victory gives him a strong mandate to pursue negotiations. Since taking office, his government has floated the idea of launching a "working group" to explore talks -- even as the TTP has declared its unwillingness to negotiate and continued to stage attacks. Likewise, the new provincial government of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa -- near Pakistan's tribal belt -- is led by a party sharing the PML-N's desire to talk to the TTP.

For Washington, the fear is that a peace agreement between Islamabad and the TTP would merely appease a terrorist organization that has never respected such agreements previously. Back in early 2009, for example, after concluding peace deals with Islamabad, the TTP seized control of the picturesque region of Swat -- a mere 60 miles from the capital, Islamabad. The group violently enforced a harsh form of Sharia law until the military recaptured the region several months later. This time around, the fear is that instead of laying down its arms, the TTP could again use a ceasefire to regroup -- and then carve out new areas of control that enable it to intensify its campaign of attacks on NATO supply vehicles.

In effect, Pakistani peace talks with the TTP could imperil U.S. security interests in Afghanistan at a time when the Obama administration is desperately trying to orchestrate an orderly withdrawal from that country. Against this backdrop, the potential for bilateral friction is considerable.

Another looming crisis with the potential to derail U.S.-Pakistan relations is America's drone war, despite the fact that U.S. strikes have tapered off in recent months. Pakistan's previous governments have publicly condemned drone strikes while tacitly approving them -- thus following the lead of the military, which has consented to them. But Sharif is taking a harder line, having declared an end to the policy of facilitating strikes from "behind the scenes" and demanded that the program end immediately.

Washington has no intention of ending drone strikes in Pakistan before the end of 2014; it has few other tools to deploy against Pakistan-based militants that target international forces in Afghanistan. Additionally, the Obama administration may feel compelled to take full advantage of drone strikes through the end of next year, given that their use after 2014 will likely decline.

The extent to which these issues aggravate U.S.-Pakistan relations in the coming weeks and months will depend on the Pakistani military -- the ultimate arbiter of relations with the United States. The army's position on peace talks with the TTP and drones appears closer to that of Washington than of Islamabad. The military is reportedly unhappy about the prospect of talking to extremists responsible for the deaths of thousands of soldiers. While it hasn't ruled out negotiations, army statements suggest considerable uneasiness about the possibility.

As for drones, there's little reason to think the Pakistani military will end a policy that has weakened the TTP, arguably its most formidable nemesis. Drone strikes have killed multiple high-level TTP targets, including commander Nek Muhammad in 2004, top leader Baitullah Mehsud in 2009, and second-in-command Wali ur-Rehman last month. A recent McClatchy report credited drones with breaking the TTP's "chain of command and coherency."

If the military's position on these issues carries the day, then the chances of fresh U.S.-Pakistan tensions are reduced. This presents the Obama administration with a conundrum: Its interests are best served if the Pakistani military marginalizes the very civilian government that Washington wants to help strengthen. In other words, if the Pakistani government pushes back against the military, U.S. security interests in Afghanistan could suffer.

Such pushback is certainly a possibility, given Sharif's past tiffs with the army (one of which led to his ouster in 1999), and given his apparent desire to exert influence over matters traditionally controlled by the military. Soon after taking office, for example, Sharif announced he would take on the portfolios of defense and foreign affairs -- two areas long overseen by the armed forces.

Then again, there's no guarantee that the military's positions will remain the same. November marks the end of Army chief Ashfaq Parvez Kayani's term. If his replacement decides the army has suffered enough from fighting the TTP and opts for talks, and that drones are no longer worth supporting, then U.S.-Pakistan relations could revert to crisis mode. On the other hand, Washington could strike a deal with Islamabad that gives the latter more say over drones. Such an accord could defuse tensions, though it's unclear if the bilateral relationship enjoys sufficient mutual trust to make such an agreement a reality.

Regardless of how this all plays out, one unsettling reality remains firmly in place: Pakistan's security establishment continues to sponsor militant groups that threaten and attack the United States. Until there is peace with India -- which won't happen anytime soon -- the Pakistani state will continue to offer sanctuary to the Afghan Taliban, Haqqani network, Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), and other groups seeking to limit Indian influence in Afghanistan -- and that pose direct threats to U.S. troops. No matter how smoothly relations may be sailing along, U.S.-Pakistan ties would take a major hit if the LeT were to commit an attack in the United States or -- more realistically -- if the Haqqani network were to launch another spectacular assault on American facilities in Afghanistan.

So by all means, expect Kerry's Pakistan visit to feature smiles and handshakes. There may be announcements of new U.S. economic assistance projects, statements about cooperation on Afghanistan and counterterrorism, and timetables set for the re-launch of the Strategic Dialogue and bilateral investment treaty talks.

Yet behind the bonhomie, trouble lurks. Instead of depicting Kerry's Pakistan trip as a prelude to an extended period of goodwill, we should simply regard it as a respite from the tensions that have contaminated the relationship in recent years -- tensions that could easily flare up anew in the months ahead.

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Out in the Open

Why America needs to declassify its foreign policy.

For the past 11 years, and especially the during the last five, a significant portion of U.S. foreign policy and warfighting has been conducted through covert action -- the secret efforts led by intelligence agencies to protect America's national security abroad. While these efforts have clearly been successful in many cases, they have grown much larger than the unique, limited means they were designed to be. Today, covert operations appear to have expanded to include what have traditionally been overt military and diplomatic functions, blurring the lines of authority and leaving the public and most of Congress in the dark.

To ensure the continued availability of covert action -- a highly valuable and effective tool under the right circumstances -- we must make certain that no president misuses, overuses, or employs this tactic simply out of convenience or the desire to avoid oversight and debate. As a result, it is important to ask just how much of U.S. foreign policy is conducted secretly. The answer, unfortunately, appears to be too much. 

As President Barack Obama seeks to engage Congress on the future of the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF), the congressional authorization that grants the president authority to use force against those responsible for the 9/11 attacks, the time has come for our reliance on covert action to come out into the open and be subject to real policy debate and oversight.

In the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, U.S. intelligence agencies took the fight to the enemy, working to protect America's vital interests and inform our decision makers, while at the same time preparing the battlespace in Afghanistan for our men and women in uniform. That effort, and those that followed, demonstrated the value of quick, decisive, and precise action by U.S. intelligence agencies.

Since the creation of the modern intelligence community in 1946, various declassified operations attest to the vital role that covert action can play in advancing American interests. Its very existence ensures that overt military action -- with its significant footprint of American boots on the ground -- is not the only option when diplomacy fails. Covert action can also provide America's partners -- who for domestic or international political reasons cannot accept overt assistance from the United States -- with a measure of plausible deniability.

But the trend toward ever-increasing use of covert action also has damaging effects. In particular, it can undermine -- or at least run counter -- to larger, publicly stated foreign policy goals. Earlier this year, for example, Afghan President Hamid Karzai claimed to have been receiving cash in secret from the CIA for more than a decade. Press accounts alleged that the amounts involved may have reached into the tens of millions of dollars, but questions about the accountability of the U.S. tax-payer-funded cash transfers have been stonewalled. If the claims are accurate, they raise significant foreign policy issues, not least because a pillar of U.S. assistance in Afghanistan has been to reinforce the rule of law and combat corruption.

The president, who has so far refused to provide any explanation for these payments in public or in private, must work with Congress to make sure overt U.S. aid and covert intelligence activities do not run at cross purposes.

Covert action must also not be a substitute for major military operations. While the Pentagon conducts a publicly acknowledged drone campaign targeting terrorists in Yemen, published reports suggest that the intelligence community runs a parallel program of significant scope and scale. While the success of many of these operations is not in dispute, it is also clear that our broad counterterrorism efforts -- visible and obvious as they are -- should not be handled primarily through covert action designed for unique circumstances where the role of the United States must truly be hidden. 

The Obama administration has announced that responsibility for most drone activities will be shifted to the Department of Defense, but more must be done to bring America's offensive activities out into the open. In particular, the president and Congress must work together to ensure, over the long run, that large-scale offensive operations are conducted overtly, preserving covert action for the more precise, high value efforts it is designed to address.

The problem isn't limited to alleged cash transfers or ostensibly covert counterterrorism operations. In May, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee approved, with broad, bipartisan support, a bill to provide targeted arms and training to vetted, moderate elements of the Syrian opposition. This type of public debate stands in stark contrast to the Obama administration's approach -- conducting its deliberations behind the veil of executive privilege, emerging only to announce the result on television, and then retreating back into the shadows to carry out its policies through covert methods. This approach not only lacks decisiveness, but it effectively prevents any real debate about U.S. policy in Syria. It also flies in the face of the statutory requirement that "the role of the United States Government ... not be apparent or acknowledged publicly" in covert actions.

This is not to suggest that the United States should avoid covert means to go after terrorists or to protect U.S. national interests. But it is to suggest that there must be safeguards in place to ensure that U.S. policies are well coordinated, moving in the same direction, and that covert action is not used simply to avoid public discussion and oversight.

Indeed, it a disservice to members of the intelligence community to ask them to take on foreign policy and warfighting responsibilities except in truly unique circumstances when national security is at stake. Covert action is a valuable tool, but misuse and overuse undermines it.

What is really missing from this equation is responsible leadership in Congress to hold the administration accountable on questions of foreign policy. Right now, we have a unique opportunity to fix this problem, at least with respect to our counterterrorism operations. Since the passage of the AUMF in 2001, Congress has largely sat silent as hundreds of thousands of Americans have served in harm's way in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere. This feckless dereliction of duty must end. Congress must take up and debate a new AUMF that is appropriate for the threats and challenges we face today. Only by owning up to our responsibilities can Congress bring foreign policy out into the open, where the American people can hold it accountable.

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