Pakistan and the United States are often compared to a couple whose relationship is on the rocks but who are not ready to call it quits. The recent spate of verbal attacks by the now-retired Admiral Mike Mullen and the reply in kind by Pakistanis reflect the fault lines that can cause a major earthquake.
Unfortunately, the usual patch-ups won’t work this time. It appears that the moment of truth has arrived.
Mullen fired the first salvo by testifying to Congress that Pakistan — through the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) — is actively supporting the Haqqani Network, which the U.S. says is behind the attacks on the Kabul embassy and the NATO compound. Pakistan rejected those allegations outright and even threatened to reconsider its relationship with the U.S. Sirajuddin Haqqani, the media-shy leader of the Haqqani outfit, even made an unusual appearance and denied colluding with the ISI.
“It will not be the usual compromise we reach each time,” said a senior military official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. He said the U.S. is supporting the Afghan fighters to enter Pakistani territory and attack soldiers and civilians. In a brazen attack in August, 25 Pakistan soldiers were killed during a cross-border incursion.
The NATO coalition accuses Pakistan of attacking its supply routes, which, admittedly, have increasingly come under fire. Pakistan's provision of sanctuaries to Afghan militants is becoming a serious diplomatic collision. The deficit of trust seems to be growing and it may lead to serious consequences.
There are three possible outcomes of the strained relationship. In the first scenario, things return to their normal, albeit troubled, routine. Pakistan continues hosting the insurgents in its lawless tribal areas while also keeping supply routes open. The U.S. and its NATO allies look the other way as long as there are no major attacks. These most recent developments, however, ensure that this strategy will not work in the future.
This brings us to the second scenario. Pakistan and the U.S. cut all ties. Pakistan blocks the supply route, expels CIA contractors working in the country, and starts supporting the Taliban openly. The U.S. will retaliate by terminating the civilian and military aid programs — amounting to billions of dollars — and will seek to punish Pakistan by encouraging India to take on an active role in Afghanistan. It might also launch ground offensives inside Pakistan alongside an increasing number of drone strikes.
This undoubtedly is the most dangerous, and feared, outcome. American casualties will quadruple in Afghanistan and there will be mass casualties in Pakistan, creating enormous public anger that may result in a coup or even a revolution. The new government will be less friendly to the U.S.
The third possibility is re-negotiating the current relationship between the two countries. At the onset of the War on Terror, the military government of Pervez Musharraf entered into many secret agreements with the U.S. They allowed American contractors to operate and even provided military bases in Balochistan and Sindh. The democratic government and the military leadership have tried to keep up with their obligations under the pacts, but increasing public anger has made it impossible to continue as usual.
There have been voices in Pakistan calling for a refusal to accept aid. Government estimates put the total losses incurred during the 10-year war to be around $70 billion whereas the total aid received hovers around $20 billion. The net deficit of $50 billion, coupled with the loss of over 40,000 lives, means that there are few supporters of U.S. in Pakistan. The deeply unpopular government is trying to play both sides but is failing miserably in its efforts.
Given the fact that separation is not possible without immeasurable harm, there needs to be prompt therapy to salvage whatever is left of the relationship. This calls for tempering media rhetoric and a heartfelt committment between the military and civilian leaderships of both countries to renegotiate the bilateral relationship. Only then can an amiable solution emerge to the growing mess in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Photo Credit: Joint Chiefs of Staff