The Haqqani leverage

US-Pakistan tensions draw from a bid to gain a negotiating advantage

Pakistan’s Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani called an all-party conference on Thursday to discuss the security situation in the country,particularly the ongoing tension with the US. Islamabad and Washington seem to be drifting apart on the methodology to end the war on terror in Afghanistan. Currently,the bone of contention is Islamabad’s reluctance to attack the Haqqani network,which is causing the US problems in Afghanistan. One cannot miss the war cry of Pakistan’s media. Some channels even started playing war songs,an exercise in bolstering public opinion against any possible unilateral action in Pakistan by the US. The discussion has become so lopsided that no one dare disagree with the official position that Islamabad must not heed US demands on attacking the Haqqani network.

But despite the bilateral tension following Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen’s accusation of the ISI supporting the Haqqani network,a rupture in US-Pakistan relations does not appear to be on the anvil. Many in Washington are irked by Pakistan’s continued support for the Haqqani network against whom Islamabad has resisted any action since the early and mid-2000s when it had launched an offensive against Taliban groups in South Waziristan. The Pakistan army has historically been reluctant to fight the Taliban,as they are seen to represent Pashtun interests. As a result,GHQ Rawalpindi never put its heart into attacking the various Taliban groups. The offensive in South Waziristan during the early and mid-2000s was essentially to gain a stronger bargaining position. Therefore,every major offensive in South Waziristan,including against Taliban leaders like Nek Mohammad,Baitullah Mehsud,Hakimullah Mehsud and others,was followed by a peace agreement that usually irked Washington. Pakistan’s complaint,on the other hand,was that the US did not cooperate in fighting the Taliban hurting the Pakistani state.

One of the Pakistan army’s excuses for its reluctance to combat the Taliban in general is their ethnicity and the fact that about 20 per cent of the armed forces are Pashtun. Also,the army’s links with some of these warriors,especially Sirajuddin Haqqani,dates back to the 1980s when the CIA and the ISI both supported various Afghan warlords and the Taliban to fight Soviet forces. While the CIA abandoned them in the 1990s,the ISI maintained its links. No demobilisation exercise was carried out,nor were these groups encouraged to break their ties with and oust the Central Asian and Arab warriors who had lived in the Tribal Areas since the 1980s.

When push came to shove after 2001 to take action against terrorism in the region,the army made sure to communicate its appreciation of the difference between Pashtun warriors and al-Qaeda,which comprised of Arabs and Central Asians. Barring Osama bin Laden,who was captured by the US on May 2,most other al-Qaeda leaders were caught by Pakistan and handed over to America,with the precondition that Pakistan alone would deal with the Taliban.

The war on terror,however,brought Pakistan into confrontation with the new generation of the Taliban like Nek Mohammad,Baitullah Mehsud,Hakimullah Mehsud,who were mainly based in South Waziristan. These groups attacked the Pakistani state which it considered an American partner in the war. The army tried various methods to resolve the crisis,including deals with groups based in South Waziristan. A final military operation,nonetheless,was carried out in October 2009 after Baitullah’s death in August that year. The group,now headed by Hakimullah,is anti-Pakistan and leads the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan. It acts differently from the other two Taliban groups,the Afghan Taliban and the Haqqani network. Lately,there were rumours of the Haqqani network possibly playing a role to eliminate the unfriendly Mehsud.

The Haqqani network’s leadership comprises of Sirajuddin Haqqani,a son of the old Afghan warrior Jalalududin Haqqani,Mullah Nazeer and Hafiz Gulbahadur. With bases in North Waziristan for regrouping purposes,these warriors are basically Afghans who came to Pakistan during the 1980s and stayed on. The Pakistan army views these groups as friendly and sees them as part of any future Afghan end-game arrangement. This is to ensure that any dispensation or political arrangement in Kabul is not averse to Pakistan’s interests.

A recently published Jinnah Institute-USIP report on the Afghan endgame denotes the support of Pakistan’s foreign policy elite for negotiations between the Haqqani network and the US. One argument is that if the US in principle has agreed to talk to the Taliban,it should expand it to other groups including the Haqqani network which must be part of the political arrangement in Kabul once US forces leave.

The attack on the US embassy in Kabul or intensification of war in Afghanistan by the Taliban probably follows the old adage of wanting to negotiate from a position of strength. The US,on the other hand,wants to use its leverage to de-link Pakistan from the Taliban to improve its own standing during negotiations. However,at this stage,too much pressure may actually result in turning Pakistan into North Korea without bringing any dividends for the US in Afghanistan.

Note: This article originally published here.