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Face Down Pakistani Army

By Selig S. Harrison

April 1, 2009

Unless the Obama administration can get Pakistan's army to stop supporting the Taliban with weapons and logistical support, the insurgency will continue to threaten the U.S.-supported Kabul government no matter how many more troops the U.S. sends to Afghanistan.

Pakistan's army and its powerful intelligence agencies control the country's role in Afghanistan. The outcome of the power struggle between Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari and his rival, Nawaz Sharif, will not affect this reality. The army lets the elected civilian government run domestic affairs and handle economic aid, but it gets unfettered control of foreign and security policy, including military aid.

So it would not be enough for the U.S. to push Pakistan's shaky civilian leadership on the Taliban issue, and it is not desirable to do so while it is preoccupied with terrorist violence at home. To get Pakistan's cooperation in Afghanistan, Washington will have to face down the army, threatening to cut off its largely unmonitored military aid. But the Obama administration has shied away from this reality in its newly announced Afghanistan policy, seeking instead to buy off Islamabad with more economic aid.

Aid to fight Taliban

Since 9/11, the United States has given Pakistan $11.5 billion in economic and military aid $7.5 billion of it in the form of direct cash subsidies to the armed forces, known as "Coalition Support Funds" (CSFs), provided for the express purpose of fighting the Taliban and other jihadists. Suspicions that Islamabad has been playing a double game have steadily grown, but it was not until nine months ago that definitive evidence of its support for the Taliban surfaced.

In his new book, The Inheritance, New York Times correspondent David Sanger reveals that "several" key U.S. intelligence officials told him of National Security Agency telephone intercepts in which Pakistan's army chief of staff, Gen. Ashfaq Kayani, referred to a key Taliban warlord, Jalaluddin Haqqani, as a "strategic asset." According to Sanger, another Pakistani general, in a meeting with the visiting U.S. director of national intelligence, Mike McConnell, explained that "we must sustain contact with the Taliban and support them" to make sure that in the future, the Afghan government "is a government friendly to Pakistan."

In my own reporting, I found that then-President Pervez Musharraf did just enough to keep U.S. aid flowing by providing occasional intelligence information on al-Qaeda activities along the border while at the same time permitting the Taliban leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar, to set up his operational headquarters in the Pakistan border city of Quetta.

U.S. officials argued that Pakistan would stop providing intelligence on al-Qaeda if the U.S. forced a showdown on the Taliban issue. But Islamabad is so dependent on multiple forms of U.S. and U.S.-arranged economic and military aid that Washington has enormous bargaining leverage hitherto unused.

To make the Musharraf regime solvent after 9/11, the U.S. orchestrated an extension of its $13.5 billion in foreign debt. Today the Pakistan economy would collapse if these debts were called in. Much of the $4 billion in economic and military aid approved by Congress during the Musharraf years is already in Pakistan's hands and cannot be used as a bargaining chip. But the U.S. has leverage in the overblown CSF subsidies. A Government Accountability Office probe last year suggests widespread fraud in the program and makes clear that it could be drastically cut without affecting what Pakistan does on the Afghan border.

Cuts would be painful

Threatening to cut CSF funds would get results because the money goes directly into the Pakistani treasury and despite U.S. protests makes it possible for Pakistan to beef up its military capabilities against India. Since 2001, the army has doubled its heavy artillery, self-propelled howitzers and combat helicopters. It has also increased its armory of anti-tank missiles from 200 to 5,250. Faced with an end to these subsidies, the Pakistan army would become more cooperative on the Taliban issue.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton used the threat of an economic aid cutoff to get Zardari to compromise with Sharif and end the crisis in Islamabad. Now, military aid leverage should be used before resorting to the Predator missile strikes and commando raids on Taliban sanctuaries in populous Quetta that some U.S. officials are advocating.

A cutoff of Pakistani weapons and logistical support to the Taliban would make a major difference in the military struggle in Afghanistan.

Looking ahead, it would also make the Taliban more amenable to compromise in any future negotiations to end the war in Afghanistan that the Obama administration ultimately envisions.

Selig S. Harrison is director of the Asia Program at the Center for International Policy


Selig Harrison