The Pakistani military leadership wishes to draw a redline for the U.S.' covert operations so that Washington will be compelled to deal with militant Afghan groups through the single window of the ISI.

In his 22nd visit also, Admiral “Mike” Mullen, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff of the United States armed forces, failed to achieve what he couldn't at the previous 21 calls he made to Pakistan since assuming his assignment in the Pentagon in October 2007. Yet, of all top U.S. officials, Mr. Mullen is projected by Washington as a dogged believer in America's cooperation with the Pakistani army leadership. As he proceeded to Islamabad last Wednesday, he spoke with extraordinary candour on the troubled U.S.-Pakistan relationship. “We have had a very turbulent time,” he told Reuters, but despite tensions, both the U.S. and Pakistan acknowledged that the relationship was vital. “I think that all of us believe that we cannot afford to let this relationship come apart. It's just too dangerous. It's too dangerous, in each country, for each country. It's too dangerous for the region.” The relationship was difficult, but “we walk away from it at our peril, quite frankly.” The U.S.-Pakistan relationship couldn't have been framed more aptly. But then, Mr. Mullen went on to make the stunning allegation that what caused tension most is the “relationship” between Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence and the so-called Haqqani network of the Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan.

Mr. Mullen couldn't have arrived at this realisation on the ISI-Haqqani nexus, which has been one of the worst-kept secrets of the Afghan bazaar, belatedly. The latest bunch of WikiLeaks cables pertaining to Guantanamo Bay actually reveals that the U.S. military, which Mr. Mullen heads, has all along listed the ISI as a “terrorist” organisation alongside the al-Qaeda, the Hezbollah, the Hamas and the Iranian intelligence! Surely, the issue is the timing of Mr. Mullen's statement. He deliberately upped the ante, holding the ISI directly and primarily responsible for the stalemate in the war; in effect, he challenged the Pakistani military leadership that it would be held accountable for the Taliban's summer offensive.

Mr. Mullen betrayed the deep frustration within the Barack Obama administration that the stalemate in the Afghan war cannot be broken militarily. A ferocious Taliban counter-offensive is expected and American officials are nervously anticipating a sharp escalation in war casualties, which may happen at an awkward time as the U.S. presidential election campaign begins to get livelier by the day. The war has become unpopular in the American public opinion and the political class doesn't have the stomach to continue with it. The U.S. coalition partners too (including Britain) are in a tearing hurry to exit.

Over and above, there is an acute “resource crunch.” David Ignatius of The Washington Post wrote recently that the current budget crisis “should force some hard decisions about America's foreign policy priorities ... Today, the U.S. is allocating about $110 billion annually for the Afghan war, about $3.2 billion for military and economic aid to Pakistan, and about $150 million in special assistance to help Egypt's democratic revolution. In terms of U.S. national interests, those spending levels don't make sense. The pyramid is upside down … we should spend less [on AfPak], going forward, as we move along the exit ramp. This will mean a smaller military footprint, more use of paramilitary forces and more emphasis on diplomacy.”

Prima facie, the Washington-Islamabad acrimony is due to the U.S. displeasure that the Pakistani military continues to baulk at launching operations in the North Waziristan region, where the Haqqani group is entrenched, while Islamabad opposes the manner in which the U.S. is conducting drone attacks and intelligence activities within Pakistan. However, the acrimony is quintessentially an attempt to set the bottom line of the Afghan peace talks. The Pakistani suspicion is that the U.S. is deliberately withholding its long-term Afghanistan strategy, which leaves Islamabad groping in the dark about American intentions.

Bypassing the ally

The fact of the matter is that the U.S. has been holding direct talks with the Taliban. It has been able to do this largely because of the extensive intelligence network it has created in Pakistan — which became possible because Islamabad allowed it to happen. That, ironically, enables Washington to dispense with the good offices of the Pakistani military and the ISI, and opt for direct interaction with the insurgent groups. The U.S. intelligence network within Pakistan has penetrated the range of insurgent groups — the Afghan Taliban, the “Pakistan Taliban,” and non-Taliban (Afghan and Pakistani) militant groups. Evidently, if the drone attacks are becoming more “result-oriented,” it is due to real-time intelligence inputs. During the six weeks of gruelling interrogation of U.S. intelligence operative Raymond Davis, the Pakistani military caught on to a host of home truths. By now, the Pakistani military would have a fair idea of the extent of the American intelligence network and its potential to play merry havoc by splintering insurgent groups, pitting one group against another, manipulating factionalism within groups, monitoring the terror network and, conceivably, even turning some of the insurgent groups into instruments of U.S. regional policies. (Tehran insists that the U.S. is indulging in covert operations in Pakistan and Iran.)

Suffice it to say the Pakistani military leadership wishes to draw a redline for the U.S.' covert operations so that Washington will be compelled to deal with militant Afghan groups through the single window of the ISI — within the parameters set by what old-timers call the “[Ronald] Reagan rules” during the Afghan jihad of the 1980s. There is hardly any leeway for Pakistan to compromise on this demand, which aims at revising the ground rules of the U.S.-Pakistan strategic partnership in the conduct of the Afghan war (based hitherto on unspoken, unwritten, ever-deniable and flexible templates of collaboration).

To be sure, Pakistan is insisting on the need to reset the ground rules as the endgame advances, in order to avoid the horrible prospect of its so-called “strategic assets” in Afghanistan — which it created at enormous cost and sacrifice and at great risk over the past three decades — getting systematically cannibalised by the American intelligence operatives scavenging the Pakistani territories, on one side of the Durand Line, and by the Special Forces under General David Petraeus relentlessly scouring the Hindu Kush, on the other — the famous “hammer and anvil approach.”

Therefore, Pakistan has done the logical thing by reaching out to Afghan President Hamid Karzai in an attempt to form a condominium to kick-start formal reconciliation with the Taliban in a swift sequential process, which would present Washington with a fait accompli. Mr. Karzai is willing to cooperate in this sideshow since he has his own problems with the Obama administration. The Washington establishment is annoyed with Mr. Karzai due to his inability (or unwillingness) to deliver a status of forces agreement that would effectively legitimise long-term American military presence on Afghan soil. On his part, Mr. Karzai expects a pivotal role in any peace process so that he doesn't become politically expendable by 2014, whereas Washington quietly incites the non-Pashtun elements to challenge his zeal for reconciliation with the Taliban. So, it is this congruence of interests between Kabul and Islamabad that manifests as their joint demand that any Afghan peace process should be Afghan-led and not “dictated from outside”.

The core of the U.S.' strategic dilemma is that the Pentagon desperately wants to perpetuate American military presence in Afghanistan, but knows that the majority of Afghans and the regional powers disfavour it. Therefore, the U.S. is opting for a strategy of selective reconciliation with “friendly” insurgent groups, which allows the drawdown of U.S. troops and gradually turns the war into a matter of Special Forces operations or pinpointed air strikes. The strategy aims at creating a political environment within which American forces can relocate themselves to the tranquil northern regions of Afghanistan (without having to fight and get killed or maimed), while vast areas of southern and eastern Afghanistan and the tribal tracts in the border regions lapse into “cold peace.”

Of course, Pakistan is justified in wondering what is there for it in this scenario. This wasn't how the war was supposed to end. Obviously, Washington's priorities will change once the intensity of the fighting declines. For one thing, the U.S. aid flow will decline. Once the U.S. strengthens its direct line to the insurgents, its dependence on the Pakistani military can only decline. But Pakistan's objective of gaining “strategic depth” in Afghanistan remains elusive. Equally, Pakistan will be left grappling with an assortment of militant groups along its long, disputed border with Afghanistan that have been highly radicalised by the U.S.-led war. These include some groups which have been alienated one way or the other by Pakistan's role as the U.S.' “key non-NATO ally.”

Pakistan faces an existential crisis in its Pashtun tribal tract that has borne the brunt of the U.S.-led war. As last Saturday's London Times report shows, there will be all sorts of attempts to muddy the waters. It suits the U.S. strategy to give the Afghan endgame the exaggerated overtones of an India-Pakistan turf war. The Indian establishment acted wisely to open dialogue with Pakistan in Mohali.

(The writer is a former diplomat.)

More In: Lead | Opinion