U.S. Faces ‘Vicious Circle’ With Pakistan on Afghan Withdrawal

U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta
U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta. Photographer: Win McNamee/Getty Images

– The political pressure on President Barack Obama to speed the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan has grown since the death of al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and is complicating his second goal in the region: getting Pakistan to move against Taliban operations on its side of the border.

Pakistan’s importance was highlighted by outgoing CIA chief Leon Panetta’s visit on June 10 to Islamabad, the Pakistani capital. His unannounced trip came just a day after he said Pakistan has “relationships with certain terrorist groups” during the Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on his nomination to become secretary of defense.

The U.S. sees a Pakistani crackdown on the militants as a necessary step toward stability in neighboring Afghanistan as the U.S. withdraws troops. In Pakistan, particularly within the military, those same militants are considered a counterweight against regional rival India gaining influence in Afghanistan once the U.S. exits, say regional experts such a Lisa Curtis, a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation in Washington.

“It’s a vicious circle,” Curtis said in a telephone interview. “The more the U.S. talks about withdrawing troops from Afghanistan and the more pressure that comes from Capitol Hill to speed up that withdrawal, the less cooperation we’re likely to get from Pakistan.”

Some Pakistani leaders are reluctant to give up influence with the Taliban, said Bruce Riedel, a senior fellow at of the Brookings Institution in Washington.

‘Jihadist Frankenstein’

“The Pakistani army continues to believe that parts of the Jihadist Frankenstein it created are useful assets and is not prepared to dismantle those assets,” Riedel, a former CIA officer and National Security Council staff member, said in a telephone interview.

Obama is expected soon to order a drawdown to begin next month, as promised when he approved a surge of 30,000 extra troops for Afghanistan in December 2009.

The political pressure for withdrawal is bipartisan, polls show, though it comes more strongly from Democrats. Senior Democratic lawmakers, such as Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry of Massachusetts and Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin of Michigan, said they want significant troops reductions. Arizona Republican Senator John McCain is among those who said a drawdown should be small in order to maintain security gains.

‘Cut and Run’

The debate and the speed of the drawdown will have ramifications for Afghanistan’s stability and for the U.S.- Pakistani relationship, say analysts such as Curtis, Riedel and military analyst Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

“Pakistan is following this debate very, very closely,” Riedel said. “Their assumption all along has been that the United States will cut and run from Afghanistan.”

The Obama administration is aware of that and, while the president is awaiting a military recommendation before announcing his timetable, outgoing Defense Secretary Robert Gates has sought to dispel the notion of an abrupt pullout.

“There will be no rush to the exits,” he said in a speech June 10 in Brussels.

In his June 9 testimony, Panetta described Pakistan’s importance to the United States. NATO-led troops in Afghanistan rely on supply routes through Pakistan. At the same time, Afghanistan’s “primary enemy” is the militants based in Pakistan’s tribal areas, he said. The militants include the Taliban and the Haqqani Network, an extremist group that a recent Defense Department report called “the most significant threat in eastern Afghanistan.”

Loose Nukes

Pakistan also has nuclear weapons and “there’s the danger those nukes could wind up in the wrong hands,” Panetta said.

In a speech in February, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Pakistan was “pivotal” to stabilizing Afghanistan, including using its influence to “help push the Taliban toward the negotiating table” with Afghan leaders.

Afghan President President Hamid Karzai and Pakistan’s Prime Minister Syed Yousuf Raza Gilani launched a joint commission June 11 to work for reconciliation in Afghanistan, as the government in Kabul pursues peace talks with the Taliban. Reconciliation is key to the NATO-led coalition’s plan to transfer security responsibility nationwide to Afghan forces in 2014 and withdraw.

‘Greatest Threat’

U.S. officials argue that Pakistan must deal with the militants for its own sake. Clinton has noted, often, that terrorists using Pakistan’s tribal areas as a haven have killed more Pakistanis than any other group.

“My view is that the terrorists in their country are probably the greatest threat to their sovereignty,” Panetta said June 9. Yet the Pakistanis “maintain relationships with certain terrorist groups,” Panetta said, and “they continue to not take aggressive action with regard to these safe havens.”

That’s because historically, Pakistan hasn’t seen the militants as a major threat, said Riedel. It helped create some of the groups, partly to counter Afghan governments that Pakistan considered hostile and partly to work against its arch rival India.

Osama bin Laden was contracted by Pakistan’s spy agency, the Directorate of Inter-Services Intelligence, to help Muslim “freedom fighters” battle the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. Jalaluddin Haqqani, patriarch of the Haqqani Network, worked with Pakistani and U.S. intelligence in the 1980s.

History Lesson

Pakistani leaders are mindful of how U.S. aid evaporated after the 1989 Soviet defeat in Afghanistan, Cordesman said. While Clinton and other leaders have stressed the long-term U.S. commitment to the region, Cordesman said there is a suspicion that “the United States might not continue aid to Pakistan despite all the talk.”

Pakistan would maintain ties to the militants to hedge against its historic distrust of Afghanistan, Cordesman said, and the possibility that India, on Pakistan’s east, might expand its influence in Afghanistan on the west.

The pace of the U.S. withdrawal will be a factor in Pakistani decisions, Cordesman said. “The faster the reduction takes place, the more the Pakistanis are going to conclude that they need to act in their own strategic interests,” Cordesman said in a telephone interview.

Leak Reports

During Panetta’s visit, his first to Pakistan since U.S. Navy SEALs killed bin Laden last month, he was expected to raise two recent incidents in which it appeared that insurgent bombmakers evaded capture because they were tipped off by allies in Pakistan’s security agencies. Panetta met with Chief of the Army Staff General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani and ISI head General Ahmed Shujaa Pasha at the Army House in Rawalpindi, the garrison city which adjoins Islamabad, according to the Pakistani newspaper Dawn.

In his testimony before his trip, Panetta told lawmakers on Senate Foreign Relations Committee that Pakistan’s cooperation will determine future U.S. aid to the country. The U.S. funneled a total $4.3 billion in aid and military reimbursements to Pakistan in fiscal year 2010, according to the Congressional Research Service, the nonpartisan research group that serves lawmakers.

If the U.S. finds that Pakistan has failed to aggressively pursue the militants, said Curtis of the Heritage Foundation, “there will be quite a lot of bitterness and calls to cut ties with Pakistan altogether. It’s in Pakistan’s interest to come to the table.”


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