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U.S. should react strongly to Pakistanís involvement in attack on U.S. embassy

By Lisa Curtis - posted Wednesday, 28 September 2011

Credible US press reports on Friday revealed that cell phones found on the attackers in the September 13 attack on the US embassy in Kabul were linked to Pakistani intelligence officials. The US has long known that Pakistan’s intelligence agency, the Directorate of Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), works closely with the Haqqani insurgent network, which has been responsible for some of the fiercest attacks against US and coalition soldiers in Afghanistan. But if media reports on the cell phone links are accurate, this would be the first time the US has a “smoking gun” on Pakistani involvement in a direct attack on US civilian interests.

If Pakistani leaders maintain their defiance in light of the new information on the cell phone links of the attackers to Pakistani intelligence, the US should begin to take punitive steps toward Islamabad that could presage a breakdown in US–Pakistan diplomatic relations.

Attempts to Salvage Relationship Prove Fleeting

US–Pakistan relations have been severely strained since the May 2 raid that killed Osama bin Laden. The Obama Administration had advocated for maintaining diplomatic relations and aid programs to Pakistan amidst growing doubts on Capitol Hill about the merits of continuing the engagement. Members of Congress suspected that parts of the Pakistani security establishment had helped protect bin Laden and had grown increasingly frustrated with Pakistan’s resistance to cutting links to Afghan insurgents attacking US and coalition forces. The Administration’s argument for engagement seemed to be justified, however, when Pakistan recently signaled that it would welcome back some of the US military trainers that had been kicked out of the country shortly after the bin Laden raid.


But Friday’s bombshell changes everything. Unless Pakistan agrees to take recourse against those ISI officials involved in the September 13 attack and to work more closely with the US in confronting the Haqqani network, the US will have to recalibrate its policy toward Pakistan, despite the potential negative repercussions for other US interests in the region. As The Wall Street Journal noted in one of its Saturday editorials, “The US cannot be seen before the world, or more especially by the American people, turning a blind eye to Pakistan’s complicity in the murder of US citizens serving in Afghanistan.”

In the event that Pakistan maintains its defiant attitude and refuses to take action against the perpetrators of the attacks on the US embassy, the US must move forward with the following plan of action:

  • Suspend all assistance programs to Pakistan, including civilian aid. Even though it is the military and intelligence establishment that bears responsibility for the attack, it would be nearly impossible to provide effective civilian aid programs without its cooperation. If the US–Pakistan military relationship becomes more hostile, US aid officials and contractors would be even less safe than they are already, and, since Pakistani civilian leaders have been unable to forge independent counterterrorism policies from the military, the US would find it increasingly difficult to justify any aid to the government, parts of which are involved in attacking the US
  • Recall the American ambassador to the US for consultations on future policies toward Pakistan. The Obama Administration has seemed paralyzed over its policy toward Pakistan ever since the bin Laden raid. The intelligence linking Pakistan to the attack on the US embassy should shake the Administration out of this paralysis. The attack shows that the US’s inability to bring change to Pakistan’s counterterrorism policies is risking the entire NATO war effort in Afghanistan and the international community’s ability to defeat global terrorism.
  • Readjust the US force structure in Afghanistan and prioritize finding alternative routes to cope with a disruption or even cutoff in supply routes through Pakistan. The US has been able to increase the amount of supplies it sends through the Northern Distribution Network over the last five years, and it should prioritize building up this network further. A cutoff in the supply chain running through Pakistan would almost certainly gravely impact the US ability to sustain military missions in Afghanistan. This is a price the US would have to pay and adjust to.
  • Immediately list the Haqqani network as a Foreign Terrorist Organization. While this may have little practical effect in terms of cutting funding to the organization, it sends a clear signal that the US does not tolerate attacks on its citizens. Pakistan has been trying to push for a role for the Haqqanis in reconciliation talks in Afghanistan. But the US cannot countenance negotiating with groups that are attacking US civilians. Such a policy would demonstrate weakness and encourage other US adversaries to try to extract concessions from the US through violence.
  • Step up drone strikes on Haqqani targets in Pakistan’s tribal areas. The increased tempo in drone strikes in Pakistan’s tribal areas has severely downgraded the al-Qaeda leadership and disrupted its ability to attack the US Washington should pursue the same kind of aggressive drone campaign against the Haqqani network in North Waziristan and parts of the Kurram Agency, where some Haqqani forces have recently relocated.
  • Reverse US withdrawal plans from Afghanistan. Part of the reason the Pakistanis continue to support the Haqqani network (and other Taliban proxies) is that they believe the US will withdraw from Afghanistan before the situation is stabilized and that the Haqqanis constitute the best chance to secure their interests in the country. The recent upsurge in Taliban attacks inside Afghanistan—especially the assassination of former Afghan president and head of the High Peace Council Burhanuddin Rabbani—demonstrates that the hard-line Taliban leadership has no interest in reconciliation talks and believes it can chase US forces out of the region. The US should demonstrate that it is committed to never allowing Afghanistan to serve as a base for international terrorists again. This can be done only by ensuring that US military commanders have the troops and resources they need to complete the mission in Afghanistan and to finally force the Taliban into genuine negotiations.
  • Consult with European allies on ways to move Pakistan away from the dangerous path it is pursuing. While the US and NATO allies work closely on the mission in Afghanistan, the US has been virtually the sole player in seeking to effect change in Pakistan. The Europeans argue that they have little concrete leverage in the country, but they could reinforce US messages and show solidarity with the US position on Pakistan. Demonstrating solidarity between the US and European and other allies toward Pakistan would disabuse the Pakistani government of any notion that it can play the US and its allies off of one another and thus relieve international pressure on it to pursue different policies.

Time Running Out for Pakistan to Change Course

While there are risks inherent to going down a more punitive path with Pakistan, the recent information on ISI links to the attack on the US embassy leave the US with no other option. There is still time for Pakistan to chart a different course. Pakistan’s military leaders can begin changes within the security establishment that punish individuals involved in attacks on the US and close down ISI operations that support the Haqqani network. Their choices within the next few days will determine the future course of the US–Pakistan relationship.

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About the Author

Lisa Curtis is Senior Research Fellow for South Asia in the Asian Studies Center at The Heritage Foundation.

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All articles by Lisa Curtis

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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