As President Obama promotes his new plan for Afghanistan and Pakistan, there’s a little-noticed part of the strategy that draws on psychology more than bullets. It involves an effort by Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen, CENTCOM commander Gen. David Petraeus, and other top U.S. officials to establish closer ties with the heads of Pakistan’s military and intelligence establishments.
Obama’s strategy focuses on Pakistan, a nuclear-armed state, where al-Qaida and other jihadis have established havens along the Afghan border. There is much skepticism in Washington about whether Pakistan’s army or Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) agency is willing to take on key jihadi groups that they view as a hedge against India.
Mullen is hoping to change that mind-set. He says he believes an essential step is rebuilding close ties with Pakistani counterparts. Those ties were breached after Congress cut off military cooperation in 1990 and imposed sanctions eight years later, due to Pakistan’s pursuit of nuclear weapons. Cooperation resumed after 9/11; but Washington’s history of hot-and-cold attention has left a legacy of mistrust.
A critical region
Mullen has pushed for a comprehensive and long-term approach to Pakistan, in which civilian aid and closer military ties are central. “Pakistan is absolutely critical in this region,” Mullen told me in an interview at the Pentagon. “One of my strategic objectives is to close this gap in the relationship with the Pakistani military.”
So Mullen has met repeatedly in recent months with Pakistani army chief Gen. Ashfaq Kayani, and with the ISI chief Lt. Gen. Ahmed Shuja Pasha. Petraeus, too, has held long discussions with Kayani into the wee hours, and CIA chief Leon Panetta just traveled to Islamabad to talk with Pasha. Meantime, Richard Holbrooke, Obama’s special emissary, is promoting behind-the-scenes efforts to ease Pakistani-Indian tensions.
The goal is to develop trust by listening to Pakistani concerns — and talking about U.S. worries. A prime example: whether the Pakistani army — whose doctrine focuses on land war against India — needs more training in how to conduct operations against the militants.
Mullen says he has been “brutally frank” with his Pakistani counterparts and “they with me, particularly Kayani.”
Sensitive to ‘U.S. footprint’
So far, however, Kayani has been reluctant to accept more U.S. trainers in Pakistan. “Actually, he has been open and supportive ... to more training,” Mullen says, “but we have to balance the ability to do this with what is acceptable in his own country. There’s tremendous sensitivity to the U.S. footprint in Pakistan.”
There has been “a very gradual, relatively small increase” in trainers for the Frontier Corps, a paramilitary force that polices the frontier with Afghanistan. “They’ve got new equipment, we’re doing training with them that’s starting to have an effect. So I have confidence this can be done, but I also know we are in the early stages,” Mullen says. More Pakistani officers are coming to the United States — about a hundred mid-grade officers have passed through a program at National Defense University.
Another key U.S. concern: Will the ISI cut off its support for militant groups like the Afghan Taliban, which it uses to counter Indian influence in Afghanistan? Taliban leader Mullah Muhammad Omar operates out of Pakistan’s Baluchistan region. Or will the ISI end ties with Pakistani terrorists such as the group that recently conducted an outrageous attack in Mumbai, India. The ISI trained such groups in the past to attack Indian targets in Kashmir.
“Do I think the ISI has to change?” Mullen asks rhetorically. “Absolutely. Do I think there are elements of ISI connected to those militant organizations? Absolutely.
“Gen. Kayani and I talk about this. Gen. Pasha and I talk about this, more than once, but it isn’t going to happen overnight.”
Mullen says he has “complete confidence that the military and civilian leadership in Pakistan recognize the seriousness of their problem with the insurgents.” He says that Pasha was “handpicked” by Kayani to change the ISI, and that Kayani has “put some of his best people in key positions in the ISI.”
But can Kayani and Pasha change the ISI’s culture? “I’ve led big organizations all my life,” says Mullen, “and it takes a fairly significant time to change an organization.”
Situation growing urgent
The crunch, of course, is that the Pakistani situation is increasingly urgent. Terrorist attacks have spread across its major cities, and its army seems unable to stop them. U.S. predator attacks may hit some key insurgents, but Pakistani leadership is vital to dismantle the networks.
The best outcome would be a reassertion of control by Pakistan’s civilian governmental institutions over the military and ISI. Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari has taken a strong antiterrorist stance, and he tried to rein in the ISI early in his administration. But he was too politically weak to do so; he lacks the credibility to rally his public.
The Obama administration should press for speedy approval of a proposed five-year aid package for Pakistan to try to strengthen its civilian institutions. In the meantime, Mullen’s effort to build personal relationships is worth trying in an environment with no easy or quick answers. If closer military ties fail to produce results, however, congressional pressure will mount to put conditions on military aid to Pakistan.
As I left Mullen’s office, I asked him, “Do you think Kayani and Pasha are capable of facing up to the insurgents?” “Yes, I do,” he answered firmly. Then under his breath, he added, “Whether or not they do it is another question.”
— Trudy Rubin is a columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer.