USA / Pakistan

U.S.-Pakistani Rela­tions Can Make ‘Strate­gic Hedge’ Moot, Top Offi­cials Say

WASHINGTON, May 18, 2009 — Pakistan’s uncer­tain­ty about the future out­come of the war in neigh­bor­ing Afghanistan moti­vates its intel­li­gence ser­vice to keep ties to the Tal­iban as a strate­gic hedge, Defense Sec­re­tary Robert M. Gates said.

Gates com­ment­ed on Pakistan’s intel­li­gence agency, known as the ISI, and its sup­port for insur­gents in Afghanistan and Pak­istan dur­ing an inter­view that aired yes­ter­day on CBS’ “60 Min­utes.”

“Their main­tain­ing con­tact with these groups, in my view, is a strate­gic hedge. They’re not sure who’s going to win in Afghanistan,” he said. “They’re not sure what’s going to hap­pen along that bor­der area. So to a cer­tain extent, they play both sides.”

On the heels of the Afghanistan-Pak­istan strat­e­gy that Pres­i­dent Barack Obama’s admin­is­tra­tion released in late March, Gates and oth­er top defense offi­cials have expressed con­cern over the rela­tion­ship. But both the defense sec­re­tary and Navy Adm. Mike Mullen, chair­man of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, have sug­gest­ed that stronger and endur­ing U.S. engage­ment with Pak­istan can lead to a dis­tanc­ing between the ISI and insur­gent ele­ments.

Under­scor­ing the his­to­ry of the rela­tion­ship, Gates said Pak­istan and Afghanistan-based insur­gent groups estab­lished con­tact more than two decades ago when U.S.-backed fight­ers clashed with Sovi­et forces. But he empha­sized that present-day insur­gents threat­en Pakistan’s cap­i­tal of Islam­abad.

“What we need to do is try and help the Pak­ista­nis under­stand these groups are now an exis­ten­tial threat to them, and that we will be there as a stead­fast ally for Pak­istan, that they can count on us, and that they don’t need that hedge,” Gates said in a March 29 inter­view on “Fox News Sun­day.”

Mullen, who has pre­vi­ous­ly empha­sized the need for the ISI to change its strate­gic approach, spoke fur­ther today about the bur­geon­ing rela­tion­ship between the Unit­ed States and Pak­istan, which he said is “just begin­ning.”

“The ques­tion I get when I go to Afghanistan and Pak­istan rou­tine­ly is, ‘Are you stick­ing around this time?’ ” he told an audi­ence at the Brook­ings Insti­tu­tion here. “I think it’s a valid ques­tion, and until that ques­tion is answered – and those coun­tries know and the cit­i­zens know that our intent is to have a long-term rela­tion­ship with them, not just a mil­i­tary rela­tion­ship – I think that ques­tion will con­tin­ue to be out there.”

Mullen said he’s “cau­tious­ly opti­mistic” that with time and patience, the Unit­ed States will show that it has fol­lowed through on its ini­tial com­mit­ment to Pak­istan. He added that the Unit­ed States must appre­ci­ate the his­to­ry of the rela­tion­ships between and among tribes and oth­er region­al enti­ties as Amer­i­can engage­ment devel­ops.

“That will dri­ve strate­gies in those coun­tries that often­times hedge against the pos­si­bil­i­ty that we might leave,” he said. “So it’s going to take us some time and some patience to answer those par­tic­u­lar ques­tions.”

By John J. Kruzel
Amer­i­can Forces Press Ser­vice