The problem with U.S. – Pakistan relations is that both countries give mixed messages to each other. On one hand America seeks to continue its strategic partnership with Pakistan, on the other hand their actions and aggressive critique perpetuate a sense of threat to national sovereignty among the people of Pakistan. The strong anti-American sentiment in Pakistan is not helped much by incidents such as the Abbotabad raid in May, 2011 or with the presence of undercover private security and CIA operatives going on killing rampages in urban areas.
Latest cause of strain in the relations between the United States and Pakistan has been Admiral Mike Mullen’s allegation of Pakistan’s spy agency, the Directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence’s (ISI) support to the Haqqani network. The Afghan government too has been quite vocal in its accusations of the ISI’s involvement in insurgent attacks in Afghanistan, including the assassination of Burhanuddin Rabbani, the head of the Afghan High Peace Council.
Meanwhile, experts like Senator Lindsey Graham claim that “the sovereign nation of Pakistan is engaging in hostile acts against the United States and our ally Afghanistan”. Senator Lindsey employs the familiar “they hate us for our democracy” argument to rationalize Pakistani military’s support of the Haqqanis and Taliban, however in this case, he claims that the Pakistani military does not want to see a democratic government in Pakistan. Such statements tend to leave out the fact that the Haqqanis have a close relation with not just the ISI, but they were funded and favored by the U.S. as well during the Afghan-Soviet war. Only a few weeks earlier American officials were themselves meeting secretly with leaders from the Haqqani network to talk about ending the war in Afghanistan.
Steven Coll and Dexter Filkin, also, seem to share that view that the Pakistani military wants a fractured and weak Afghan government. “It might be a first, but don’t be surprised if this time, Pakistan—caught in the act—is forced to face the consequences of its actions”, wrote Filkin in the New Yorker referring to Admiral Mullen’s accusation. However, Filkin doesn’t elaborate on what he means by “consequences”, does he mean cuts in aid or military action against Pakistan? Another assumption underlying this line of thinking is that the ISI, the Pakistani government and the people of Pakistan form a cohesive unit and should be expected to behave as such.
The Afghan government itself is frustrated with the role ISI plays in internal conflicts in Afghanistan and is interested in restricting their influence. President Hamid Karzai seems to have made that clear to Pakistani government by signing a strategic agreement with India in his visit to New Delhi this week. While the Afghans see Pakistan as exporting terrorism, they also cannot afford to make Pakistan an enemy. Soon after his visit to India, Karzai delivered a message of brotherhood to Pakistan, calling it their “twin brother”.
Afghanistan’s relationship with India is not new and India has been funding development projects in Afghanistan for a long time. However, India’s historic ties with the Northern Alliance have been generally absent from mainstream media conversations. Pakistan sees a strong Indian influence in Afghanistan as an existential threat and has always backed the Taliban openly as well as covertly against the Northern Alliance. While the ISI’s connections with the Taliban and Haqqani insurgents are probably not a surprise for either America or Afghanistan, open criticism in the U.S. media seems to be for the purpose of putting pressure on the Pakistani government to take action. Moreover, by forming political and economic ties with India, Karzai is letting Pakistan know that they do not have a hold over Afghanistan.
India’s presence in Afghanistan has been absent not only from the media but also from the major debates about peace and security in the region. In order to end the conflict, there needs to be a shift in the powers debating the future of Afghanistan and Pakistan. At the same time, Pakistan’s fears about India’s role in Afghanistan are not baseless even if they are majorly overstated. It remains to be seen whether this economic and political partnership between Afghanistan and India will help bring peace in the region or damage stability even further.