There are two themes which appear quite frequently in the study of current international relations. A lot has been said in the last couple of years about a certain systemic uncertainty, about the fact that the predictability of developments that used to be provided by the US omnipotent hegemony after the Cold War (the ‘indispensable nation’ as it was called by a high-ranking American official at the end of last millennium). Any crack in the system, any international derailment would get an immediate and useful American reaction thanks to its remarkable military force and system influence. Today, on the other hand, amidst what experts call the American decline, the predictability has been replaced by systemic uncertainty, or the likelihood of a multiplication of conflicts and wars and unrestricted affirmation of anarchy inside the system. The second theme is the fact that the system hegemon needs to carry the burden of the privilege of being a regulator of the natural anarchy characterising the Westphalian system, that it has to carry it on its own because all other major players are not very keen to share it either because of the huge costs involved and because of a weakened hegemon is always preferred over an all powerful and discretionary one.
These thoughts popped to mind when I read about what happened in Kabul on September 13 and, most of all, about the consequences of that fact which may seem quite ordinary in the context of the war going on in Afghanistan. An armed group of insurgents hit two symbols of the American military and political presence in Afghanistan – the US embassy and a NATO command headquarters situated nearby. It was, no doubt, an eloquent demonstration of the ability of Afghan insurgents to infiltrate and hit one of the most secure parts of the Afghan capital. More than that, the group withstood the following attacks on them and managed to cause damages (7 people killed and 19 injured) in the course of the 18 hours of fighting that followed. The American and Western presence in Afghanistan was symbolically attacked, the insurgents demonstrated their ability to act at the very heart of the country and, in the context of the Obama Administration decision to pull out by 2014, the capacity of the resistance to influence the time-table of troops withdrawal and to actually turn that into an American defeat. An official of the international coalition in Afghanistan said the attack described before makes any peace negotiation with the Taliban ‘absurd’ and that ‘this doesn’t show reconciliation; it does show determination. If the Taliban can do this with five guys perched in a building and they can alternate it with these vehicle-borne I.E.D.’s which they have been doing more of, well then this won’t be the last time.’ It is true that, aware of the psychological impact of such Taliban operation, Afghan President Hamid Karzai was prompt to state that it ‘cannot stop the process of transition from taking place and cannot affect it, but rather will embolden our people’s determination in taking the responsibility for their country’s own affairs.’
The surprise was to come a few days later, when US joint chiefs chairman Mike Muller, accompanied by Secretary of Defence Leon Panetta, in front of the US Congress, accused Pakistani secret services, the much feared ISI, of being ‘hand in hand’ with the terrorist network Haqqani that has its operating base in Waziristan, a region poorly controlled by Pakistan, lying at the border with Afghanistan, for the purpose of undermining US war efforts in the latter country. Admiral Mullen said: ’With ISI support, Haqqani operatives planned and conducted that truck bomb attack, as well as the assault on our embassy’; ‘We also have credible evidence that they were behind the June 28th attack against the Intercontinental Hotel in Kabul and a host of other smaller but effective operations’; ‘the Haqqani network acts as a veritable arm of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency.’
The Pakistani authorities rushed to deny such links between ISI and the terrorist network. The head of the Pakistani army pointed out that the accusations made by Admiral Mullen were ‘not based on facts’, the defence minister said Pakistan ‘cannot be threatened’ and the foreign minister that it is an ‘unacceptable’ thing for Pakistan to be ‘humiliated’ by its ally, the USA. Moreover, he noted that, should Washington decide to take that step, there would surely be costs involved for the USA.
This is where we walk into the highly complex terrain of the so-called loneliness of the hegemon. Admiral Mullen definitely holds credible information in the ISI connections, but, at the same time, the US cannot afford losing a partner/ally such as Pakistan, otherwise a country that has the nuclear weapon. Such an eventuality would turn the Pakistan-Afghanistan-India region into a nightmare that could end up in a devastating nuclear war. But is Pakistan still the ally of the US under these conditions? It’s something quite difficult to believe, even if we believe that ISI operates on its own and enjoys large discretion of action, being not censored, but rather feared by the state authorities. On the other hand, the Pakistani army needs the US financial support and sometimes it fights against terrorist networks threatening the security of the whole region, endangering not just relations with the US, but also with India.
British foreign policy commentator Gideon Rachman notes on his blog that ‘Increasingly the US-Pakistani relationship looks like a bad marriage, in which both partners are cheating on each other.’ One comment made on the above position on the blog forum is worthwhile quoting in its entirety: ‘ The story of Pakistan seems limited to how the ISI cabal can stay in power. Upheaval in India and Afghanistan seems to serve that purpose. How else could it justify its existence and mad budget were it not for all those <dangers>? The story of Pakistan always has been one of justifying its existence separate from India, and the ISI defines itself within that mindset.’
Obviously, the Eastern terminal of the big instability area of Greater Middle East is going to be facing a few major clashes in the near future. Standing on the unsafe borderline separating decomposition from a restoration of trust, the ‘wayward marriage’ between the US and Pakistan will, perhaps, be the first one to be put to the test.