Pakistan's Strategic Calculus and al-Qaeda
Posted by Michael Wahid Hanna
When Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited Pakistan in the fall, she caused something of a stir when she touched upon the issue of al-Qaeda, telling a public gathering that she found "it hard to believe that nobody in your government knows where they are and couldn't get them if they really wanted to." And yet, months after this bracing upbraiding, this issue is not discussed by commentators with any particular intensity. At the same time these commentators are transfixed by the current debate about Pakistan’s intentions with respect to the Taliban following the recent highly-publicized arrests of several leading Taliban figures in Pakistan.
In one sense this is entirely understandable: the byzantine machinations of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) are fascinating and worthy of a spy novel. And yet, this drama has overshadowed a fundamental question regarding our entanglement in Afghanistan: why hasn’t the Pakistani regime been more helpful in rooting out the few hundred remaining al-Qaeda members within their borders?
This strange lacuna in the United States’s conceptualization of the war is indicative of how clouded thought about the war in Afghanistan has become—our primary national security interest in this theater remains to “disrupt and dismantle, defeat and destroy al-Qaeda.” While the Obama administration adopted a counterinsurgency strategy aimed at counterterrorism goals, our efforts against the Taliban are essentially derivative with al-Qaeda our main focus. In this light, it seems perverse that we have become comfortable with the notion that this critical issue is now solely the domain of drone strikes. The Obama administration has argued that the strikes have increased in efficiency and effectiveness and have degraded al-Qaeda’s capacity, but the collateral costs are nonetheless high and the strikes have not been able to reach the uppermost echelon of al-Qaeda’s leaders.
If Pakistan were to present the United States with Osama bin Laden’s and Ayman al-Zawahri’s corpses, the Obama administration would go a long way in fulfilling its primary mission in the current war. While decapitation is generally not decisive in fighting an insurgency, the overwhelming symbolic import of such a scenario would have massive ramifications for the United States, not the least of which would be the domestic political space that the administration would have in charting its future course in (and out of ) Afghanistan. Of course, al-Qaeda is not simply these two men and the United States would continue to face a serious threat from transnational takfiri jihadists whether they belonged to Al-Qaeda central, were loosely affiliated with it, or merely inspired by it. But in the event of their capture or death, the iconic status of these two figures would, I believe, change the entire complexion of the current conflict.
With the Taliban (broadly conceived here to include the Quetta Shura and the Haqqani Network), there are a host of reasons why Pakistan, which sees itself as encircled by hostile forces, has been reluctant to cut loose what it sees as its sole strategic allies in Afghanistan and a prime tool to further its geopolitical ambitions. But these same considerations are absent when considering al-Qaeda. al-Qaeda is not a proxy or an ally of Pakistan and would not be of particular use to the Pakistani military/intelligence establishment in shaping political outcomes next door or blunting Indian and Iranian influence in Afghanistan. And with the United States overextended and exhausted by years of war, it is not far-fetched to believe that the decimation of al-Qaeda and the near-term withdrawal of U.S. forces would provide Pakistan a freer hand in pursuing its perceived national interests in Afghanistan.
So then, why has Pakistan failed to capture or kill bin Laden, Zawahri and their immediate peers? In my mind, there are only three possible explanations: the Pakistanis don’t know where they are and are unable to go after them due to a lack of actionable intelligence; they are unable to execute such high-risk missions in the FATA; or, finally, the benefits of the U.S. partnership with Pakistan in the context of its fraught relations with India and Iran outweigh the negative and destabilizing consequences of a U.S.-led war on its border.
Of these explanations, the second is the least credible, as the Pakistanis could certainly provide the United States with actionable intelligence that could be used to target the highest-value targets, as is currently happening with the drone strikes against al-Qaeda cadres.
The first explanation raises many questions and does seem somewhat hard to believe, as Sec. Clinton’s assessment makes clear. In 2008, however, Ashley Tellis argued that “all senior Pakistani military officers are agreed that the al Qaeda presence in the FATA must be eliminated.” Most notably, Pakistani cooperation did result in the 2002 and 2003 captures of Ramzi bin al-Shibh and Khalid Sheikh Muhammad. As such, Pakistan has been involved in numerous operations targeting al-Qaeda. But it still seems curious that Pakistani patronage and its influence over al-Qaeda’s allies have not provided greater access to more recent information on the whereabouts of al-Qaeda’s top leaders. And bin Laden and Zawahri remain free and beyond the reach of the world’s leading military power.
This leaves the final explanation. The ongoing conflict is destabilizing and in recent years has spawned a Pakistani Taliban dedicated first and foremost to attacking the Pakistani state. If this line of reasoning is to be believed, it would mean that the strategic benefits that derive from the U.S. presence are valued highly, so highly, in fact, that Pakistan is willing to tolerate the presence of al-Qaeda on its soil and the destabilizing effects of the war.
The most obvious benefit is in the form of U.S. military aid. Until 1990, Pakistan was the third largest recipient of U.S. military aid behind only Israel and Egypt. That aid was suspended after the discovery of its nuclear weapons program. These sanctions were further tightened following the Pakistani nuclear tests in 1998 and the Musharraf-led military coup in 1999. Military aid was restored by President George W. Bush in October 2001 when Pakistan agreed to assist the United States against the perpetrators of the 9/11 attacks. Since that time the United States has also resumed significant arms sales. This cooperative relationship is clearly a great leveler in Pakistan’s ongoing military tensions with India.
The presence of U.S. forces in Afghanistan and the quieter presence of small numbers of U.S. advisors on Pakistani soil are also an important hedge against direct military conflict with India. Following the Mumbai attacks of November 2008, the United States sought to restrain the Indian response as open conflict in South Asia would imperil the U.S. mission in Afghanistan. A similar scenario transpired following the December 2001 terrorist attack on the Indian parliament in New Delhi.
Needless to say, this situation is opaque and difficult to parse, and I don’t have any claim of authority in terms of drawing a firm conclusion on Pakistani strategic planning. But if Sec. Clinton’s past statement is to be taken seriously, then it does seem more than a little odd that her comments evaporated shortly after her visit and now seem an afterthought to the discussion of ISI-Taliban links. It could be that the United States now believes that the Pakistanis are cooperating to their utmost in assisting the drone strikes against al-Qaeda. U.S. leaders have also indicated that the rise of a domestic insurgency has shifted Pakistani strategic thinking and that the recent military offensives against the Pakistani Taliban are evidence of this shift.
But while we are busy discussing the implications of Mullah Baradar’s arrest, we shouldn’t forget that al-Qaeda’s key leaders are on Pakistani soil and that they are the real reason we are fighting in Afghanistan to begin with.