Adm. Mike Mullen’s assertion last week that an anti-American insurgent group in Afghanistan is a “veritable arm” of Pakistan’s spy service was overstated and contributed to overheated reactions in Pakistan and misperceptions in Washington, according to American officials involved in U.S. policy in the region.
The internal criticism by the officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they did not want to challenge Mullen openly, reflects concern over the accuracy of Mullen’s characterizations at a time when Obama administration officials have been frustrated in their efforts to persuade Pakistan to break its ties to Afghan insurgent groups.
The administration has long sought to pressure Pakistan, but to do so in a nuanced way that does not sever the U.S. relationship with a country that American officials see as crucial to winning the war in Afghanistan and maintaining long-term stability in the region.
Mullen’s testimony to a Senate committee was widely interpreted as an accusation by the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff that Pakistan’s military and espionage agencies sanction and direct bloody attacks against U.S. troops and targets in Afghanistan. Such interpretations prompted new levels of indignation among senior officials in both the United States and Pakistan.
Mullen’s language “overstates the case,” said a senior Pentagon official with access to classified intelligence files on Pakistan, because there is scant evidence of direction or control. If anything, the official said, the intelligence indicates that Pakistan treads a delicate if duplicitous line, providing support to insurgent groups including the Haqqani network but avoiding actions that would provoke a U.S. response.
“The Pakistani government has been dealing with Haqqani for a long time and still sees strategic value in guiding Haqqani and using them for their purposes,” the Pentagon official said. But “it’s not in their interest to inflame us in a way that an attack on a [U.S.] compound would do.”
U.S. officials stressed that there is broad agreement in the military and intelligence community that the Haqqani network has mounted some of the most audacious attacks of the Afghanistan war, including a 20-hour siege by gunmen this month on the U.S. Embassy compound in Kabul.
A senior aide to Mullen defended the chairman’s testimony, which was designed to prod the Pakistanis to sever ties to the Haqqani group if not contain it by force. “I don’t think the Pakistani reaction was unexpected,” said Capt. John Kirby. “The chairman stands by every word of his testimony.”
But Mullen’s pointed message and the difficulty in matching his words to the underlying intelligence underscore the suspicion and distrust that have plagued the United States and Pakistan since they were pushed together as counterterrorism partners after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
U.S. military officials said that Mullen’s testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee has been misinterpreted, and that his remark that the Haqqani network had carried out recent truck-bomb and embassy attacks “with ISI support” was meant to imply broad assistance, but not necessarily direction by Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency.
U.S. officials have long accused Pakistan of providing support to the Haqqani network and allowing it to operate along the Afghanistan border with relative impunity, a charge that Pakistani officials reject.
But Mullen seemed to take the allegation an additional step, saying that the Haqqani network “acts as a veritable arm of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency,” a phrase that implies ISI involvement and control.
That interpretation might be valid “if we were judging by Western standards,” said a senior U.S. military official who defended Mullen’s testimony. But the Pakistanis “use extremist groups — not only the Haqqanis — as proxies and hedges” to maintain influence in Afghanistan.
“This is not new,” the official said. “Can they control them like a military unit? We don’t think so. Do they encourage them? Yes. Do they provide some finance for them? Yes. Do they provide safe havens? Yes.”
That nuance escaped many in Congress and even some in the Obama administration, who voiced concern that the escalation in rhetoric had inflamed anti-American sentiment in Pakistan.
U.S. officials said that even evidence that has surfaced since Mullen’s testimony is open to differences in interpretation, including cellphones recovered from gunmen who were killed during the assault on the U.S. Embassy.
One official said the phones were used to make repeated calls to numbers associated with the Haqqani network, as well as presumed “ISI operatives.” But the official declined to explain the basis for that conclusion.
The senior Pentagon official treated the assertion with skepticism, saying the term “operatives” covers a wide range of supposed associates of the ISI. “Does it mean the same Haqqani numbers [also found in the phones], or is it actually uniformed officers” of Pakistan’s spy service?
U.S. officials said Mullen was unaware of the cellphones until after he testified.
Pakistani officials acknowledge that they have ongoing contact with the Haqqani network, a group founded by Jalaluddin Haqqani, who was one of the CIA-backed mujaheddin commanders who helped drive the Soviet Union out of Afghanistan in the 1980s. Now in poor health, Haqqani has yielded day-to-day control of the network to his son, Sirajuddin.
U.S. officials see indications that their Pakistani counterparts can exert influence on the Haqqani group in some cases, if not exert control.
Last year, at the United States’ behest, the ISI appealed to the Haqqani group not to attack polling stations during Afghan elections, a request that appears to have been honored. The senior Pentagon official declined to say how U.S. intelligence knows that the request was made, except to say, “We were aware of it.”
Mullen’s testimony was prepared at a time of intense frustration with Pakistan, in the aftermath of the embassy attack and other incidents. His remarks were striking in part because Mullen has long been sympathetic to Pakistan, traveling frequently to Islamabad and meeting more than two dozen times with its army chief, Gen. Ashfaq Kayani.
But with his term as Joint Chiefs chairman about to expire, Mullen has become increasingly frustrated with the failure to get Pakistan to cut ties with Haqqani, and instructed his staff to compose testimony for last week’s hearing that would convey a message of exasperation.
In Pakistan, a military official emerged from a meeting of corps commanders Sunday saying they would make no move against Haqqani in the North Waziristan tribal region and warning that a unilateral U.S. action would have “disastrous consequences.”
The reaction in the Pakistani press to Mullen’s message has been more severe. A column this week by retired air vice marshal Shahzad Chaudry asked, “What could be the possible motives for America’s recent diatribes?” It concluded that the United States was intentionally sowing chaos in the region to weaken Pakistan.
In Washington, a senior Obama administration official said that “no one has any interest in walking back” what Mullen said, even while voicing concern over the comments’ impact on the fragile relationship with Pakistan.
“If the Pakistanis are finally scared about this, great,” the administration official said. “But we don’t want to walk [the relationship] over a cliff.”
Correspondent Karin Brulliard in Islamabad and special correspondents Shaiq Hussain in Islamabad and Haq Nawaz Khan in Peshawar, Pakistan, contributed to this report.