This isn’t the first time that relations between Pakistan and the United States of America have turned sour. The two had disagreements even when they were close allies during the Cold War and were together in military pacts, such as SEATO and CENTO directed at the erstwhile Soviet Union.
On certain occasions, the US stopped its assistance and imposed sanctions on Pakistan, which felt disappointed as it didn’t expect this from America.
However, the relationship has gone from bad to worse in recent years and is almost at a breaking point. The distrust between the two has never been so deep. The intensity of the animosity prompted President Donald Trump to put Pakistan on notice to take decisive action against militant groups operating from its territory or face the consequences.
Pakistan reacted defiantly to the US allegations and demands by warning it against taking any unilateral action inside its territory. Unlike the past when Pakistan was being asked repeatedly by the US to do more in the war against terrorism, it is now Islamabad’s turn to make the same demand from Washington.
The foremost issue that has caused rupture in the Pakistan-US relations concerns the Haqqani network. The US is convinced that the network has a strong presence in Pakistan and has links with the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). Retired Admiral Michael Mullen, while serving as the Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee in September 2011, had alleged that the Haqqani network is acting as the veritable arm of the ISI. Islamabad has been denying the allegations and has asked the US to share intelligence about the presence of the members of the Haqqani Network, or the mainstream Afghan Taliban movement, in Pakistan so that they could be tracked down and action taken against them.
According to Pakistani officials, action was taken against all armed groups, including the Haqqani Network based in North Waziristan when the massive Zarb-e-Azb military operation was launched on June 15, 2014. This is indirectly an admission that the Haqqani Network had a presence in North Waziristan until June 2014, but it was targeted and dislocated like all other militant factions when Zarb-e-Azb was undertaken.
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Pakistan has also been arguing that military action couldn’t be taken in North Waziristan earlier due to capacity issues as the security forces were stretched fighting on other fronts.
Adamant that Pakistan is capable of doing more but hasn’t done enough to degrade the Haqqani Network’s strength, the US lately has been applying pressure on it through different ways, including suspension of security assistance totalling almost a billion dollars.
The Trump White House has threatened further ‘specific actions’ if Pakistan doesn’t comply with its list of demands. This could include cross-border action by Afghanistan-based US troops against militants in Pakistan or a raid similar to the one in May 2011 in Abbottabad when the US Navy SEALS killed Osama bin Laden.
The Haqqani Network head, Sirajuddin Haqqani, and Afghan Taliban supreme leader, Sheikh Haibatullah Akhundzada, could be the target in such an action if the US obtained actionable intelligence about their presence in Pakistan.
Hafiz Saeed, the founder of the Jamaat-ud-Dawa, could also be targetted as the US has placed head-money on him for his alleged role in the November 2008 Mumbai attacks in which some Americans, too, were killed. The US would also appease its new-found friend and strategic ally, India, if it went after Hafiz Saeed.
Other punitive measures by the US could include scaling up the number of drone strikes in Pakistan, ending Pakistan’s status as a non-Nato ally, using Pakistani militants and Baloch separatists provided safe havens in Afghanistan to destabilise Pakistan, and joining hands with the Afghan and Indian intelligence agencies to put pressure on Islamabad to do America’s bidding. The US has already put Pakistan for the first time on a special watch list for severe violations of religious freedom.
The retaliatory steps that Pakistan could take haven’t been highlighted enough. This is due to the fact that Pakistan has been reacting patiently to US allegations and is keen not to let a complete breakdown in relations. If pushed to the wall, Pakistan could close the ground and air lines of communication being used by the US-led Nato forces almost free to supply their around 20,000 troops in landlocked Afghanistan.
The Pakistani routes are also used to send supplies to the Afghan security forces. Pakistan took such an action once when it blocked the Nato supplies for about eight months until the US offered an apology for the November 2011 incident in which its airstrikes killed 24 Pakistani soldiers deployed at the Salala border post in Mohmand Agency.
Also, Pakistan’s non-cooperation in the war against terrorism and the Afghan peace process could also make it difficult for the US to achieve its objectives in Afghanistan. Pakistan has maintained that it was due to its role in the war against terrorism that al Qaeda was defeated in the Af-Pak region and militants threatening the US-led Nato and Afghan forces were tackled and weakened as a result of its sustained military operations in Fata and Malakand division.
Apart from serious Pakistani objections to the increased role India is being given in Afghanistan by the Trump administration, it is also concerned that waging war against the Afghan Taliban and its affiliate, Haqqani Network, would reduce or even destroy chances of starting a credible peace process.
Pakistan is advocating the need for talking to the Taliban, instead of fighting them as the US and its allies failed to achieve victory despite waging war for 16 years. Moreover, Pakistan has made it clear that it alone isn’t responsible for restoring peace in Afghanistan as this has to be a shared responsibility of all the stakeholders.
The Haqqani Network, designated by the US as a terrorist organisation on September 7, 2012, has fought both against the Soviet and the Nato forces over the past more than two decades and survived as a resilient and disciplined force. Over the years, the US announced head-money on several of its leaders, including Sirajuddin Haqqani and his younger brother, Abdul Aziz Haqqani, and managed to kill at least three Haqqani brothers and some of their field commanders.
The US is presently making perhaps one last major effort to defeat the Haqqani Network and also the larger Afghan Taliban movement. It believes Pakistan can help it in achieving this purpose, but the way Trump is humiliating the former US ally is unlikely to work.
Even if Pakistan and the US somehow agree to work together to defeat the Haqqanis and the Afghan Taliban on mutually beneficial terms, there is no guarantee the battle-hardened militants would be vanquished or weakened enough to seek peace with the Afghan government.