As chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Mike Mullen tried everything he could to rehab America’s tenuous alliance with its frenemy, Pakistan. So when he testified last week that Pakistani intelligence sponsors the brutal Haqqani Network of Afghan insurgents, it represented two middle fingers raised at Islamabad. But the diplomatic furor that resulted has been all kabuki. Not a single aspect of the U.S.-Pakistani relationship will change.
You wouldn’t know it from listening to Pakistani politicians. They’ve lined up to denounce their old friend Mullen. Pakistani generals have done everything but scramble their jets to demonstrate their outrage.
What’s the result? Yet another U.S. drone strike launched into Pakistan’s tribal areas. And those drone strikes occur with the full complicity of the Pakistani military, down to the use of its Shamsi air base, even if the Pakistanis threaten to deny the U.S. future access to the base.
Get set for many, many more U.S. strikes, all while Islamabad publicly whines — and quietly helps. Sure, Pakistan could scramble its F-16s to protest the continued U.S. shadow war on its soil. But that would just remind everyone that it gets its jets from Washington.
Speaking of Washington, Mullen’s candor is bringing out the crazy. Anonymous officials are clucking to the Washington Post that Mullen “overstated” the connections between Pakistani intelligence and the Haqqanis. Notice they’re not saying he’s wrong, because Pakistani sponsorship of the Haqqanis (and the Taliban) is one of those open secrets that everyone can discuss except for senior government officials. They’re just saying that it was inconvenient for Mullen to be, y’know, truthful.
Why’s it inconvenient? Because the Obama administration has done everything it can think of to coax Pakistan out of its sponsorship of insurgents and nothing’s worked. Massive military help to deal with last year’s floods? Nothing. A multi-billion dollar civilian aid package? Nothing. Military equipment running the gamut from night-vision goggles to C-130 cargo planes to anti-armor missiles? Nothing. Unilateral raids that kill Osama bin Laden? Worse than nothing.
You can’t blame U.S. politicians for feeling frustrated. But you can blame them for throwing temper tantrums in response. That’s what Sen. Lindsay Graham did. “If they continue to embrace terrorism as a part of their national strategy,” Graham said of the Pakistanis, “we’re going to have to put all options on the table, including defending our troops.”
So now, instead of hitting targets on Pakistani soil, we’d actually attack Pakistan itself — a nuclear-armed country that receives billions of dollars in aid annually, and which has arguably more influence over the Afghanistan war than we do. Thanks, President Graham!
Graham can issue such irresponsible statements because he’s aware of a basic truth in U.S.-Pakistani relations. Neither country can live without the other. As long as the U.S. believes it has to wage a war in Afghanistan and attrit a terrorist haven in Pakistan, it has no choice but to work with the Pakistani government. And as long as Pakistan wants its failing economy and wheezing military to be propped up, it has no choice but to accept Washington’s patronage. That makes inflammatory rhetoric cost-free. Cue Lady Gaga.
There is a strategy that might — might — result in a massive and positive payoff: defusing tensions between Pakistan and its arch-rival, India. (No, sporadic diplomatic engagement aimed at keeping the peace in Kashmir doesn’t count.) Pakistan maintains its ties to terrorist groups to supplement its relative weakness against arch-enemy India. So maybe Washington could try sponsoring peace talks between India and Pakistan. Not that it’s worked out well between, say, Israel and the Palestinians. But it’s a better strategy than constant feuding, mutual subterfuge and sub rosa military cooperation. And if it works, it’s a game-changer.
More likely, nothing will change. Pakistan will continue to sponsor insurgents. The U.S. will continue drone strikes. And the aid will keep flowing between Washington and Islamabad. There will be the occasional violent accident. No one will be pleased and everyone will act like hypocrites. Mullen might be done playing the game. But in Washington and Islamabad, only the players change.
Photo: Flickr/Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff