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The pivotal event in relations between the Barack Obama administration and Pakistan was the decision by Obama to escalate the war in Afghanistan in 2009, despite the knowledge that Pakistan was committed to supporting the Taliban insurgents as a strategic policy in its conflict with India.
Obama launched a desperate, last-minute effort to get some kind of commitment from the Pakistanis to reduce their support for the Taliban before the decision to escalate the war. But he did not reconsider the decision after that effort had clearly failed.
It was always understood within the Obama administration that any public recognition that Pakistan was committed to supporting the Taliban could be politically dangerous to the war effort. As a result, Obama’s national security team decided early on to deny the complicity of Pakistani Chief of Staff Ashfaq Parvez Kayani and director of the ISI intelligence agency Shuja Pasha, despite the knowledge that they were fully behind the policy.
On Mar. 26, 2009, a story in the New York Times provided the most detailed news media account up to that date of Pakistani assistance to the Taliban. But the story quoted anonymous U.S. officials as blaming “mid-level ISI operatives” and expressing doubt that top Pakistani officials in Islamabad were directly coordinating the clandestine efforts by ISI operatives to assist the Taliban.
That did not reflect the briefing Obama had gotten from George W. Bush’s director of national intelligence, Mike McConnell, after his election. McConnell had learned from communications intercepts that Kayani considered the Haqqani network, which was being targeted as the most serious threat to U.S. troops n Afghanistan, as a “strategic asset”.
As Obama approached a decision on Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal’s request for another troop increase of as much as 40,000 troops, the Pakistani military’s determination to use the Taliban and the Haqqani network to advance Pakistani interests in Afghanistan was a major issue in the policy debate.
Opponents of the troop surge request, including Vice-President Joe Biden, deputy national security adviser Tom Donilon and Afghanistan War coordinator Douglas Lute, argued that the Pakistanis were not going to change their policy toward Afghanistan, according to Bob Woodward’s account in “Obama’s Wars”.
Biden argued in a meeting on Sep. 13, 2009 that Pakistan was determined to avoid an Afghan government “led by a Pashtun sympathetic to India” – i.e., Afghan President Hamid Karzai. The conclusion was that the Pakistanis would continue to aid the insurgency the U.S. was trying to defeat.
Despite that argument, as the policymaking process was entering its final weeks, Obama tried to exert high-level pressure on Pakistan.
In a Nov. 11, 2009 letter to Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari, Obama said Pakistan’s use of such “proxy groups” as Haqqani and the Taliban would no longer be tolerated, as Woodward recounts. National Security Adviser James Jones and Counterterrorism adviser John Brennan were sent to Islamabad to deliver the message.
Obama wanted Pakistan to understand that he would take unilateral action against the Taliban and Haqqani safe havens in Pakistan, including accelerated drone strikes and commando raids, unless Pakistani forces attacked them.
That message was clearly received. A Pakistani official told the New York Times, “Jones’s message was if that Pakistani help wasn’t forthcoming, the United States would have to do it themselves.”
The week of Nov. 17, CIA Director Leon Panetta met with Pasha and other top Pakistani officials, and complained about the presence of the Taliban leadership headquarters in Quetta, Baluchistan, according to Woodward’s account. He cited intelligence that bombs were being made there, then “taken across the border and blowing up Americans”.
Panetta proposed joint U.S.-Pakistani operations on the ground aimed at the Quetta Shura, but Kayani refused.
In a response to Obama’s letter late in November, Zardari voiced the Pakistani military’s rationale for Pakistan’s use of Afghan insurgents to protect its interests in Pakistan. He charged that “neighbouring intelligence agencies” – meaning India – “are using Afghan soil to perpetuate violence in Pakistan.”
And Zardari did not give a clear response to Obama’s invitation to plan joint operations against those forces.
When Obama met with his national security team for the final time on Nov. 29, he knew that the pressure tactic had failed. Lute, Obama’s Afghanistan coordinator, warned that Pakistani policy was one of four major, interacting risks of a troop surge policy.
But Obama approved a plan for 30,000 additional troops anyway, suggesting that the decision was driven by the political-bureaucratic momentum of the war rather than by a rational assessment of cost, risk and benefit.
Throughout 2010, the Pakistani military continued to make clear its refusal to compromise on its interests in Afghanistan. In late January, U.S. and Pakistani authorities picked up Mullah Ghani Baradar, the second-ranking official in the Taliban Quetta Shura, in a raid in Karchi – apparently without realising in advance that Baradar was present.
But when the United States sought to extradite Baradar to Afghanistan, the Pakistanis refused. And Baradar and several other members of the Quetta Shura who had been detained by the Pakistanis were reported in October 2010 to have been released.
In a January 2011 interview with Public Broadcasting System’s “Frontline”, Gen. David Petraeus, by then the commander in Afghanistan, was asked about Pakistan’s release of top Taliban leaders. “We’ve actually had a conversation on this very recently,” said Petraeus blandly, “and in fact there has been a request for information….”
Two National Intelligence Estimates on Afghanistan and Pakistan in December 2010 pointed once again to the centrality of Pakistani policy to the outcome of the U.S. war effort in Afghanistan.
The NIE on Afghanistan concluded that the United States was unlikely to succeed in Afghanistan unless Pakistan changed its policy to take military action against insurgent sanctuaries in Pakistan. But the estimate on Pakistan made it clear that no such change in Pakistani policy could be expected.
In mid-December, the Obama administration issued a five-page summary of its December 2010 review of the Afghanistan War, which concluded that the “gains” were “fragile and reversible” and that consolidating those gains “will require that we make more progress with Pakistan to eliminate sanctuaries for violent extremist networks.”
Immediately after that review, the New York Times reported a military proposal for cross-border raids into Pakistan aimed at capturing Taliban commanders for interrogation back in Afghanistan.
Beginning in late 2010, moreover, the U.S. infiltrated hundreds of unilateral intelligence agents into Pakistan, suggesting an intention to carry out further cross-border raids.
Those moves had already alarmed Pakistan’s military leaders well before the U.S. raid against bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad.
And in a classified report sent to Congress in early April, the Obama administration strongly criticised Pakistan’s failure to attack insurgent safe havens in Mohmand in northwest Pakistan for three straight years, as reported by the New York Times Apr. 5.
Moeed Yusuf, director of the South Asia programme at the U.S. Institute of Peace, who has been leading a study of Pakistani elite opinion on relations with the United States, believes the crisis in U.S.-Pakistan relations can be blamed on a failure of both governments to acknowledge explicitly the existence of a fundamental conflict of interests.
“If there is a strategic divergence of interests, I think Pakistan needs to put it on the table,” said Yusuf. Pakistani leaders “need to be very candid about why it’s not in their interests” to do what Washington wants, he said.
If the interests at stake are not brought into the open, Yusuf suggested, “A rupture is possible.”
Gareth Porter is an investigative historian and journalist specialising in U.S. national security policy. The paperback edition of his latest book, “Perils of Dominance: Imbalance of Power and the Road to War in Vietnam”, was published in 2006.