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Clinton, Petraeus Head to Pakistan for Talks While NATO Attacks Near Border

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton shakes hands with Ambassador to Afghanistan Ryan Crocker on arrival in Kabul on Wednesday. (State Department photo)

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and CIA Director David Petraeus will be in Islamabad today for talks amid somewhat calmer US-Pakistan relations and to set the stage for a possible negotiated end to hostilities in Afghanistan.  At the same time, NATO has been conducting raids for about a week on the Afghanistan side of the border with Pakistan, attempting to rid the area of members of the Haqqani network.

The previously escalated rhetorical battle between the US and Pakistan has been on a calming trajectory since reaching its highpoint when Joint Chiefs Chair Mullen claimed that the Haqqani network was a virtual arm of Pakistan’s ISI.  Amid these calming relations, Clinton arrives in Islamabad today after a visit to Kabul.

The visit to Afghanistan was aimed in part at boosting Afghanistan’s efforts to negotiate a settlement with the Taliban ahead of the US withdrawal from Afghanistan.  Those negotiations were dealt a severe setback when Burhanuddin Rabbani, the chief negotiator for Afghanistan, was killed last month by a suicide bomber.  As the Washington Post points out, the US and Afghanistan have not always agreed on how to proceed in the negotiations:

Clinton, who traveled to Kabul after visits to Libya and Oman, was scheduled to meet Thursday with President Hamid Karzai and other government and parliamentary leaders. Her trip comes at a time of increased tensions between U.S. and Afghan officials over how to pursue peace with the radical Islamist Taliban movement after a decade-long insurgency.

/snip/

U.S. officials are pushing for a negotiated settlement with the Taliban as a crucial step toward ending the conflict and have engaged in secret parallel talks with Taliban leaders, so far without success.

Karzai, who has criticized the secret U.S. talks, has urged a greater role for Pakistan in the reconciliation process, noting that many of the key Taliban commanders use Pakistan’s lawless tribal region as a base. The State Department official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive diplomatic matters, said Clinton “agrees with President Karzai that Pakistani cooperation is critical.”

Note that while differing on their approaches to negotiating with the Taliban, both Afghanistan and the US agree that Pakistan must do more to control militants, especially the Haqqani network.  However, the accusations of providing safe havens for the Haqqanis now seem to flow both directions: Read more

Afghanistan Affects US-Pakistan Dance, Signing Agreement With India; US Met With Haqqani Network

The never-ending twists and turns in the relationship between the US and Pakistan continues, with Afghanistan now entering the picture by signing an agreement with Pakistan’s chief rival India.  Also, it is being reported that earlier this summer, Pakistan’s ISI helped to arrange a meeting between US officials and the Haqqani network.  This is a remarkable development since the relationship between the ISI and the Haqqani network has been the central feature of the latest dispute between the US and Pakistan.

While still in New Delhi after signing the agreement with India, Afghan President Hamid Karzai realized he needed to reassure Pakistan, whose biggest fear is that India will have more influence than Pakistan in Afghanistan after the US exit:

“Pakistan is our twin brother, India is a great friend. The agreement we signed with our friend will not affect our brother,” Karzai said in a foreign policy speech in New Delhi.

“This strategic partnership … is not directed against any country … this strategic partnership is to support Afghanistan.”

The Reuters report goes on to characterize the agreement:

Karzai and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh sealed an agreement on Tuesday that spanned closer political ties to fighting terrorism and allowed India to help train its police and army.

It signals a formal tightening of links that may spark Pakistani concern that India is increasingly competing for leverage in Afghanistan.

In another very remarkable development, the Wall Street Journal is reporting this morning that earlier this summer, Pakistan’s ISI arranged a meeting between the US and the Haqqani network.  That article is behind a paywall, so here is how Pakistan’s Express Tribune reports on the development:

US officials met with leaders of the Haqqani network in a meeting arranged by the Inter-Services Intelligence agency (ISI) earlier this summer, The Wall Street Journal reported on Wednesday.

The meeting was held “in an effort to draw” the group into talks “on winding down the war.”

The fact that the US would meet with the Haqqani network is stunning, given the strong rhetoric the US has used in accusing the ISI of aiding the Haqqani network attack on the US embassy and ISAF headquarters.  As a result, the story of the meeting seems full of internal inconsistencies:

Officials from Pakistan and the US said the initiative did not yield much. Washington had earlier also said that the group was “beyond reconciliation.”

The report states that the US had come to terms with the fact that targeting the group was not the solution and that they would have be drawn into peace talks.

Given the current rhetoric, it is hard to accept that ” the fact that targeting the group was not the solution” is still the operative belief held by the US.  In fact, there are reports this morning of the US taking out a major leader of the Haqqani network in an airstrike near the Pakistan border in Afghanistan.  Despite the overwhelming evidence that the US position now appears to be one of attacking the Haqqani network until it is decimated, the Express Tribune article carries this quote from a US official describing the decision to meet with the Haqqani network:

We’ve got no illusions about what the Haqqanis ultimately are. The war is going to end with a deal. That’s what we’re trying to make inevitable. The more parties involved in talking, that’s probably going to make for a better deal.

It would be interesting to know whether the summer meeting, followed by the enhanced rhetoric this fall, represents evolution in the consensus of US leaders, where an attempt at negotiation was found to be fruitless or, alternatively, whether there are competing camps within US leadership who continue to hold to advocate opposite approaches favoring violent or peaceful solutions.  Only time will tell.

Pakistan Update: Graham Advocates Escalation, Chaman Crossing Closed After Tanker Bombed

Bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb Pakistan?

In the latest developments in the US-Pakistan war of words, the Pakistani Prime Minister said the US must stop blaming Pakistan, Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) suggested the US should start using bombers in the region held by the Haqqani network and the Chaman crossing, one of two major border crossings into Afghanistan used as US supply routes, has been closedafter a bomb detonated, killing a disposal expert.

In remarks broadcast on television less than an hour ago as of this writing, Pakistan’s Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani warned the United States to stop blaming Pakistan for regional instability:

“The blame game should end, and Pakistan’s sensitive national interests should be respected,” Yusuf Raza Gilani said in comments carried live on local television stations.

Gilani’s remarks were prompted in part by Lindsey Graham raising his anti-Pakistan rhetoric yet another level. From the same Reuters article:

Graham said in an interview with Reuters that U.S. lawmakers might support military options beyond drone strikes that have been going on for years inside Pakistani territory.

Those options may include using U.S. bomber planes within Pakistan. The South Carolina Republican said he did not advocate sending U.S. ground troops into Pakistan.

“I would say when it comes to defending American troops, you don’t want to limit yourself,” Graham said. “This is not a boots-on-the-ground engagement — I’m not talking about that, but we have a lot of assets beyond drones.”

Almost exactly a year ago, on September 30, 2010, the Torkham Crossing from Pakistan into Afghanistan was closed in retaliation for the US killing three Pakistani soldiers in a botched cross-border operation. The closing of this key supply route was a major move, and a number of fuel tankers subsequently were burned as they were idled in various locations around Pakistan. Today, we learn that the Chaman Crossing was closed a couple of hours ago in response to a bomb disposal expert being killed when the bomb he was attempting to disarm detonated:

Pakistani authorities have closed one of the two border crossings used by trucks carrying NATO war supplies into Afghanistan after a bomb hit an oil tanker.

Police officer Mohammad Tayab was quoted as saying by media reports that the Chaman border crossing was closed “for security reasons” after an explosion on Thursday killed a bomb disposal expert who was trying to defuse the device.

It has not been announced how long the crossing will remain closed, but I would not be surprised if the investigation into the bombing of the tanker will be cited as a reason for keeping the crossing closed for several days. Should that happen, a key development to watch for will be whether additional tankers caught in the back-up will be attacked. In last year’s closure of the Torkham Crossing, there were suggestions that the number of tankers attacked could only be explained if one assumed that Pakistan reduced the level of security being provided for transport convoys. Will the same thing happen again this year?

Pakistan Issues New Warning to US; Mullen Accusations Softened

Joint Chiefs Chair Admiral Michael Mullen

There are new developments this morning in the latest war of words between the US and Pakistan.  Pakistan’s Express Tribune reports that an official familiar with what transpired claims that the head of Pakistan’s ISI informed CIA chief David Petraeus last week that should the US take unilateral military action against the Haqqani network in Pakistan, then Pakistan “will be forced to retaliate”.  At the same time, anonymous sources are telling the Washington Post that Joint Chiefs Chair Michael Mullen’s remarks last week to the Senate Armed Services Committee were “overstated”.  That is especially significant since the Express Tribune article notes that Mullen’s remarks played a role in the ISI getting to the point of issuing its warning to the CIA.

From the Express Tribune:

The effort to ensure that diplomacy and calmer heads prevail at a time of fragile relations between Pakistan and the United States is on. However, the effort notwithstanding, Islamabad has made it clear to Washington that, if it comes down to it, Pakistan will be forced to retaliate if American forces attempt to launch a unilateral strike on the country’s tribal belt.

The message was personally delivered by Inter-Services Intelligence agency (ISI) Chief Lt General Ahmed Shuja Pasha to Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) chief General David Petraeus during his recent trip to Washington, said an official familiar with the development.

The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told The Express Tribune that Pasha had informed his counterpart that the Pakistani people will not tolerate any US misadventure and in that case the government will be left with no other option but to retaliate.

Senior ISI members, the official said, had felt ‘betrayed’ by the blunt assessment of the US Chairman Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen that the spy agency had links with the Afghan Taliban-allied Haqqani network. In a stinging remark, Mullen accused ISI of supporting one of the most feared Afghan insurgent groups to target US forces stationed in Afghanistan.

The article goes on to point out that numerous high level meetings between US and Pakistani officials continue.

Meanwhile, back in the US:

Adm. Mike Mullen’s assertion last week that an anti-American insurgent group in Afghanistan is a “veritable arm” of Pakistan’s spy service was overstated and contributed to overheated reactions in Pakistan and misperceptions in Washington, according to American officials involved in U.S. policy in the region.

The internal criticism by the officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they did not want to challenge Mullen openly, reflects concern over the accuracy of Mullen’s characterizations at a time when Obama administration officials have been frustrated in their efforts to persuade Pakistan to break its ties to Afghan insurgent groups.

It turns out that the primary evidence linking the US Embassy attack and the Haqqani network is not as clear-cut as some in Washington were claiming. Although Mullen claims to have been unaware of the cell phone evidence when he made his remarks, cell phones found on some of the attackers are widely cited as evidence of close Haqqani network-ISI coordination in the attack:

One official said the phones were used to make repeated calls to numbers associated with the Haqqani network, as well as presumed “ISI operatives.” But the official declined to explain the basis for that conclusion.

The senior Pentagon official treated the assertion with skepticism, saying the term “operatives” covers a wide range of supposed associates of the ISI. “Does it mean the same Haqqani numbers [also found in the phones], or is it actually uniformed officers” of Pakistan’s spy service?

There will undoubtedly be several more twists and turns to this story over the next few weeks, but for now it appears that the US is making a small effort to walk back its most incendiary comments while Pakistan is digging in more firmly on its position.

Continued Escalation in US-Pakistan Rhetoric

The dramatic accusations made by Joint Chiefs Chairman Michael Mullen in yesterday’s Senate Armed Services Committee hearing provoked immediate, strong reactions from Pakistan. Here is how the Washington Post described Mullen’s testimony:

Last week’s attack on the U.S. Embassy in Kabul and a Sept. 10 truck bombing that killed five Afghans and wounded 77 NATO troops were “planned and conducted” by the Pakistan-based Haqqani network “with ISI support,” said Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The ISI is the Pakistani military’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency.

“The government of Pakistan and most especially the Pakistani army and ISI” have chosen “to use violent extremism as an instrument of policy” to maintain leverage over Afghanistan’s future, Mullen testified during a hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee. Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta also testified.

As seen in the video above, Mullen’s remarks provoked a sharp response from Pakistani Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar:

“You will lose an ally,” Khar told Geo TV in New York in remarks broadcast on Friday.

“You cannot afford to alienate Pakistan, you cannot afford to alienate the Pakistani people. If you are choosing to do so and if they are choosing to do so it will be at their (the United States’) own cost.”

Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani also chimed in. From GEO:

The United States should take care of the feelings of 180 million people of Pakistan while issuing statements or commenting on important issues, said Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani on Friday.

/snip/

He said, “Our 180 million people want to defend their motherland and its sovereignty”.

“US cannot live with us and without us,” he said and added “thus the United States should avoid sending ‘wrong messages’ which would affect the bilateral ties”.

From these comments, it is clear that both Khar and Gilani are warning the US that Pakistan could withdraw all cooperation if the war of words continues.

I will stand by the prediction I made yesterday:

Should the US be successful in attaching some sort of cooperation requirement for US funding to flow to Pakistan, look for some sort of token move by Pakistan that will provide even more heated rhetoric. The situation likely will then be resolved by Pakistan grudgingly cooperating in an action against the Haqqani network. The most important point to watch for in this current “crisis” will be to see just how high in the Haqqani network Pakistan is willing to go in sacrificing a part of it to the US in order to keep their seemingly endless supply of US funds flowing.

Stay tuned for further developments.

Once Again, US Ratchets Up Rhetoric Against Pakistan

The pattern by now is all too familiar.  Once again, the US is ratcheting up its rhetoric against Pakistan.  Earlier instances included the “crisis” when the US killed three Pakistani soldiers and Pakistan responded by closing strategic border crossings.  This was followed by the Raymond Davis fiasco. Then came exchanges of bluster over the US unilateral action that took out Osama bin Laden.  Now, the target of US ire is the cozy relationship between the Haqqani network and Pakistan’s intelligence agency, the ISI.

Reporting for Reuters, Mark Hosenball and Susan Cornwell tell us this morning that some in the US intelligence community are now assigning a direct role for ISI in the Haqqani network attack on the US embassy in Kabul:

Some U.S. intelligence reporting alleges that Pakistan’s Inter Services Intelligence directorate (ISI) specifically directed, or urged, the Haqqani network to carry out an attack last week on the U.S. Embassy and a NATO headquarters in Kabul, according to two U.S. officials and a source familiar with recent U.S.-Pakistan official contacts.

The article informs us that the Senate Appropriations Committee has added to the pressure on Pakistan:

The Senate committee approved $1 billion in aid to support counter-insurgency operations by Pakistan’s military, but voted to make this and any economic aid conditional on Islamabad cooperating with Washington against militant groups including the Haqqanis.

A series of high-level meetings between US and Pakistani officials also has taken place over the last week to hammer home these allegations against Pakistan, despite this warning in the Reuters article:

However, U.S. officials cautioned that the information that Pakistan’s spy agency was encouraging the militants was uncorroborated.

A series of articles on the website for Pakistan’s Dawn news agency provides some perspective on the coverage of the issue in Pakistan.  One article provides a forum for Interior Minister Rehman Malik after his meeting with FBI Director Robert Mueller yesterday: Read more

Relentless Expansion of the Great War on Terror Despite Achieving Primary Goal

Predator drone (US Air Force photo)

It is widely acknowledged that with the death of Osama bin Laden and a number of other high level leaders, al Qaeda is severely crippled in its one-time haven of Pakistan.  Rather than acknowledging this victory in the primary objective of Authorization for the Use of Military Force in Afghanistan (passed on September 18, 2001 in response to the 9/11 attacks) and beginning to phase out the War on Terror, the US instead is finding a new target in Pakistan and building bases from which to launch even more drone attacks in Africa and the Arabian Peninsula, moves which amount to a significant expansion of the war effort.

In Pakistan, the Washington Post reports that the US is applying extreme pressure on Pakistan to dissolve the relationship between the ISI (Pakistan’s intelligence service) and the Haqqani network:

The Obama administration has sharply warned Pakistan that it must cut ties with a leading Taliban group based in the tribal region along the Afghan border and help eliminate its leaders, according to officials from both countries.

In what amounts to an ultimatum, administration officials have indicated that the United States will act unilaterally if Pakistan does not comply.

This threat of unilateral action is unlikely to be seen as mere bluster since the hit on bin Laden was unilateral.

It turns out that the Haqqani network is yet another example of a group the US helped to form only to become one of its targets:

The organization was formed by Jalaluddin Haqqani as one of the resistance groups fighting the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s, with U.S. and Pakistani assistance. In the Afghan civil war that followed, Haqqani sided with the Taliban forces that took power in Kabul in 1996. His fighters fled after the Taliban overthrow in late 2001 to Pakistan, where U.S. intelligence officials think they are in close coordination with al-Qaeda forces.

Pakistani intelligence maintained close connections to the network, now operationally led by Sirajuddin Haqqani, the founder’s son, as a hedge against the future in Afghanistan.

The Post article goes on to speculate that the Haqqani network’s attack on the US embassy in Kabul last week may have been final act to drive such strong language coming from Washington.

As if the declaration of a new enemy in Pakistan worthy of unilateral US action were not enough in the escalation of US war efforts, we also learn from the Washington Post that a new network of bases for drones is being built:

The Obama administration is assembling a constellation of secret drone bases for counterterrorism operations in the Horn of Africa and the Arabian Peninsula as part of a newly aggressive campaign to attack al-Qaeda affiliates in Somalia and Yemen, U.S. officials said.

One of the installations is being established in Ethi­o­pia, a U.S. ally in the fight against al-Shabab, the Somali militant group that controls much of that country. Another base is in the Seychelles, an archipelago in the Indian Ocean, where a small fleet of “hunter-killer” drones resumed operations this month after an experimental mission demonstrated that the unmanned aircraft could effectively patrol Somalia from there.

The U.S. military also has flown drones over Somalia and Yemen from bases in Djibouti, a tiny African nation at the junction of the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden. In addition, the CIA is building a secret airstrip in the Arabian Peninsula so it can deploy armed drones over Yemen.

Recall that just last week, the Obama administration was depicted as being in an internal debate on the legality of expanding the drone war outside of Pakistan to these very areas where the bases are being built.  Considering that the bases are now already under construction, last week’s “debate” story would appear to have been nothing more than a mere academic exercise whose outcome had already been determined.

Only a fool would bet against Washington choosing more war in more locations.