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 two countries are allies but their relationship has been plagued by mistrust over the last 50 years.
Admiral Mike Mullen and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta say Pakistan has provided safe haven to a terrorist group that carried out attacks on the U.S. Embassy in Kabul and others. (Sept. 22)
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.