WE ALL KNOW that the United States is balancing on a very high wire concerning its South Asia policy, caught between its long-term strategic interests with India and its shorter-term need for Pakistan to support the war in Afghanistan.
The situation is complicated by Pakistan’s double game. Pakistan needs to garner influence with Pushtuns both in Pakistan and Afghanistan in order to give it “strategic depth” vis à vis India. Its dealings with militant groups such as the Haqqani Network extend back into the Soviet occupation period, when Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency, the ISI, was point-man between the United States and the resistance. And, of course, it was midwife to the birth of the Taliban. Even though Pakistan is itself threatened by a militant revival, such is its fear of India that Islamabad will not easily abandon its links with the extremists. From Islamabad’s point of view, the matter is not helped by what it sees as India’s close relationship with the Karzai government and its involvement in south-eastern Afghanistan, where it has several consulates and a number of aid programs.
Given these circumstances, some of the outspoken comments made by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton during and immediately after her recent Pakistan visit are interesting. They are especially interesting coming just before this month’s release of the “Afghan War Logs” by WikiLeaks, which exposed what everyone already knew, that Pakistan was dealing indirectly, and possibly directly, with the Taliban. (Mind you, even the Guardian, one of three newspapers to vet the leaks prior to their release, is of the view that the material on the direct involvement of the ISI with the Taliban falls short of a “smoking gun,” especially since most of it comes from Afghan informers who have an interest in presenting the ISI in this way.)
Clinton’s remarks are also interesting in light of the growing row between India and Pakistan, which escalated around the edges of the recent India–Pakistan Foreign Ministers’ summit, about alleged direct ISI support for terrorist attacks on Indian soil, including the devastating attack on Mumbai of 26–29 November 2008 (known in India as 26/11). Prior to that reportedly fractious summit, India’s home secretary, G.K. Pillai, alleged that terrorist planner David Headley – who was associated with the Lashkar-e-Toiba, which perpetrated the 26/11 attacks – had provided US and Indian authorities with details of ISI involvement in planning the 26/11 attacks. “Leaks” in India, meanwhile, also alleged that Headley had confirmed that the Pakistan navy was involved in training the attackers – a claim initially made by the condemned terrorist Ajmal Kasab in his interrogation.
Although the Indian foreign minister subsequently described Pillai’s remarks on the eve of the summit as unhelpful, they have since been reaffirmed and even strengthened by India’s national security adviser, Shivshankar Menon, who reportedly said that interrogation of Headley revealed a nexus between militants and “the official establishment” (the ISI), which was “getting stronger.”
What is interesting about Clinton’s visit is that she appeared implicitly to endorse the Indian position put by Pillai and Menon. According to a report in Dawn, “Secretary Clinton… for the second day running, handed out a stern warning to Pakistan that any future terrorist attack traced back to its soil would have devastating consequences.” Some reports assume these comments relate to an attack on US soil. But they can equally be read as relating to an attack on India. Such language (if accurately reported), coming as it did on top of the accusation of a leading Indian official, can hardly have been accidental. To this reader at least it says: we know what you did and we are warning you not to do it again.
Indeed, Washington has a choice on this. If it believes that New Delhi’s account of the Indian interrogation of Headley is inaccurate and therefore mischievous it could say so, since the FBI also interrogated Headley extensively and since the basic US interest in view of any misrepresentation by India would be to set the matter straight on behalf of Washington’s client, Pakistan.
The idea that Clinton’s remarks might also apply to India is strengthened by a recent report in the Times of India suggesting that the US State Department is warming to the Indian view that progress in relations between India and Pakistan should be dependent on progress in stemming terrorists operating from Pakistan’s soil. But the question remains: is this new sympathy for India an outcome of what was learned from Headley (and to an extent the WikiLeaks) or is it, rather, part of the general attempt to balance relations between India and Pakistan by giving a sop to India?
Other remarks by Clinton during and after her visit lent credibility to the view that Washington’s anger is strong and genuine. Pakistan’s Dawn newspaper reported that she strongly opposed Pakistan’s attempts to enter the civil nuclear trade through a deal with China similar to the US–India deal. According to the same report, Clinton did not mince her words: “The problem with A.Q. Khan [the Pakistani nuclear scientist whom Washington still regards as a “serious proliferation risk”] raises red flags for people around the world, not just in the US, because we can trace the export of nuclear information and material from Pakistan through all kinds of channels to many different countries. That cannot be overlooked or put under the carpet. Pakistan, right now, is the only country standing in the way of the Conference on Disarmament pursuing something called the Fissile Material Cut Off Treaty.”
A third – and perhaps the most extraordinary – comment by Clinton concerns the location of Osama bin Laden. In a statement made to Fox News after her Islamabad visit, she said that “elements” of the Pakistani government know where bin Laden is hiding but will not divulge the information. This is a strong statement indeed. One can assume that the United States has information based either on intercepted phone messages or other intelligence. If the US government really believes that some officials in Pakistan know of bin Laden’s location but will not divulge the information, it would be cause for considerable anger given the nature of the 9/11 attacks.
There is another indication of the depth of US concern, this time coming from the White House in the context of the WikiLeaks. One obvious response to the leaks would be to say that they don’t really tell us anything new and that they don’t present a “smoking gun” indicating ISI involvement with the Taliban – which is true. But instead the White House reportedly described the situation that the leaks revealed as “unacceptable” and called militant safe-havens in Pakistan “intolerable.” While it would be going too far to share Hamid Gul’s distorted view that the US government arranged for the leaks in order to discredit him and Pakistan (the egos of retired generals!), it would not be going too far to argue that the White House is making the best of a bad deal in relation to the leaks and using them to garner what leverage it can.
But the crucial question is: what does it all mean? Has anything changed as a result of the events chronicled above? In answering this question we need to ask: could the United States “dump” Pakistan and go it alone in Afghanistan? The answer is that it probably could not. While it has a poor deal with Pakistan, it is better than no deal at all.
A second question is whether tough talk of the kind cited above is likely to change the basics of Pakistan’s longstanding policy of “running with the hare and hunting with the hounds”? Past experience, when President Bush issued stern warnings to President Musharraf, suggests that while such warnings can achieve temporary results, they cannot change the basics of Pakistan’s policy, which seems to be part of its DNA. Moreover, if the Pakistani government assumes, probably correctly, that the United States and its allies will leave Afghanistan before the job is done – the same assumption under which the Taliban is operating – then why wouldn’t they keep their options open, knowing that India will be there long after the Americans have gone? •
Sandy Gordon is a professor in the ARC Centre of Excellence in Policing and Security at ANU. An earlier version of this article appeared in South Asia Masala.