Lawfare Podcast Episode #20: Daniel Markey on U.S.-Pakistan Terrorism Cooperation and Pakistan’s Extremist Groups
This is the third in a series of interviews I am doing with scholars around Washington D.C. who have non-legal expertise that bears on the national security legal questions near and dear to the hearts of Lawfare readers. My first interview with Brookings Senior Fellow Bruce Riedel and my second interview with Brookings Senior Fellow Daniel Byman focused on broad questions about Al Qaeda, its affiliate organizations, the Taliban, and other regional groups. For this episode, I sat down with Daniel Markey, a Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, to talk about Pakistan’s jihadist groups, as well as about U.S.-Pakistani cooperation on terrorism issues over the last decade and in the future. Once again, I am posting the full interview as an episode of the Lawfare Podcast. The interview took place both before the recent designation of the Haqqani Network as a foreign terrorist organization and before this Wall Street Journal story cast new light on the question of Pakistani consent for drone strikes. The following piece condenses and paraphrases our conversation, but also contains a good bit of Markey’s own language.
Markey held the South Asia portfolio on the Secretary of State’s Policy Planning Staff from 2003-2007. He also taught at Princeton University, and was a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard University’s Olin Institute for Strategic Studies. He served as project director of the CFR-sponsored Independent Task Force on U.S. Strategy in Pakistan and Afghanistan in 2010. He is the author of, among other things, a chapter of the May 2011 Random House eBook Beyond bin Laden: America and the Future of Terror; the September 2011 CFR Asia Security Memorandum, “Pakistan Contingencies;” the May 2011 CFR policy innovation memorandum, “Next Steps for Pakistan Strategy;” and the January 2010 CFR contingency planning memorandum, “Terrorism and Indo-Pakistani Escalation.”
(Note: I’d like to thank Brookings intern Nik Royce for his help transcribing parts of this interview.)
U.S.-Pakistan Relations: Consent and the Unwilling-or-Unable Dilemma
I begin by asking Markey what we know about how the Pakistani government views American involvement in Pakistan. Pakistan’s position—publicly and privately—on U.S. drone strikes has certainly evolved over time. But what do we know about whether the United States has Pakistan’s consent for the operations it conducts on Pakistani territory?
Markey agrees that the Pakistani position has changed over time. Specifically with regard to drone strikes: America’s first drone strikes on Pakistani territory began in 2004. At that time, President Pervez Musharraf was also the army’s chief, and therefore, it was clear whose consent the U.S. government needed in order to launch these strikes. Musharraf’s consent represented both that of the Pakistani military and its civilian government. Not only did he grant his consent, but initially, the Pakistani military tried to take credit for these kinds of attacks—claiming that they weren’t the work of drones, but Pakistani air strikes. This wasn’t a very credible claim on Pakistan’s part, but it worked for a while because the strikes were initially much less frequent than they are now. And the misdirection helped the Pakistani government weather the domestic backlash.
This position gradually changed as the Pakistani military, including President Musharraf, increasingly felt that it couldn’t take credit for the strikes, because it was becoming more evident that they were the product of U.S. drones. The Pakistani government thus began to make pro forma, inconsequential public complaints about the use of drones. Because President Musharraf and his government never followed up or acted on these complaints in private, however, the U.S. government took this as mere public posturing—not any real change in Pakistani consent. One can only assume, Markey says, that the private messages from the Pakistani government were different from their public messages.
Today, Pakistan has a civilian government that is legally in charge of the country, but in practice, Markey insists, the military and army chief still retain a considerable measure of autonomy. The Parliament has made very public statements that drone strikes on Pakistani soil are impermissible—yet at the same time, there is evidence that the Pakistani civilian leadership has privately conveyed to the U.S. government that some strikes are okay. We can assume, Markey says, that at least some in the military, particularly the senior command, have also made it clear that certain types of drone strikes continue to be permissible. Thus, the Parliament speaks with one voice against the strikes, but the private messages sometimes suggest that drone strikes remain acceptable—two completely different messages.
The U.S. government’s response thus far has been to accept the private “yes,” and ignore the public “no,” and to justify that by saying, first, that this continues to be a national security threat that the United States has to deal with, and second, that if the Pakistanis are really serious about telling the United States to stop the strikes, they’ll do so privately as well as publicly.
The evolution of Pakistan’s position has made the relationship exceedingly uncomfortable for both sides, Markey says. The private pushback from the Pakistani military has increased over time, and the military’s discomfort has grown, especially as the use of drone strikes has accelerated in recent years. It remains unclear how these strikes can be justified publicly in the political and legal spheres—given what the Pakistani Parliament, which is supposed to be sovereign in the country of Pakistan, has been saying.
The United States claims the authority to conduct drone strikes unilaterally where a country is unable or unwilling to counter the threat posed by non-state actors operating on its territory. So I asked Markey whether, and in what way, Pakistan qualifies as unwilling or unable to manage the threats posed by extremist groups on its soil. Conversely, how useful is Pakistan in helping the United States deal with terrorism—and how has its cooperation evolved since 9/11?
Immediately after 9/11, Markey explains, the Musharraf government, the military, and the ISI were helpful in locating and arresting some senior Al Qaeda officials. American cooperation with the Pakistanis in those efforts was essential. Pakistani authorities gradually became less helpful—a reflection both of limitations in their capacity and lack of will to go after Al Qaeda leaders as they moved out of Pakistan’s major cities and into North Waziristan and other parts of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). Pakistan’s capacity to control these semi-autonomous tribal areas has always been limited, Markey explains.
The U.S. government is now focused heavily on the Haqqani Network, and by all accounts, the Pakistani military has done less than the U.S. government would like. By many accounts, the military continues to have a cooperative relationship with the Haqqanis and is even funneling assistance to them as a way of projecting Pakistani influence into Afghanistan. At the same time, Markey explains, if the Pakistani government were to turn on the Haqqanis tomorrow, Pakistan would have a serious fight on its hands. This gets back to the capacity problem: the Haqqanis are a strong enemy. And if they became an enemy of the Pakistani state, which they haven’t been so far, that would be a very violent situation—not just in the tribal areas, but throughout the country.
All in all, there is certainly a capacity problem, Markey concludes, but there is also a “will” problem—and the two are related. If the will shifted in a verifiable way, he says, we might see U.S.-Pakistan cooperation inside Pakistan, which would, in turn, alleviate the capacity problem.
The Haqqani Network
This brings us to a discussion of the Haqqani network itself. I ask Markey how big the group really is, and he estimates that it numbers in the low thousands. Asked to define the group’s objectives, Markey notes that the Haqqanis have existed as an Afghan militant group for decades, initially with an Afghan-specific interest—to project their influence throughout parts of eastern Afghanistan—making them broadly similar to other Afghan militant groups.
What distinguishes the Haqqanis (and particularly troubles U.S. officials) is that in addition to their parochial, narrow Afghan territorial interests—control of smuggling businesses and other criminal, mafia-type behavior— their attachment to an extreme form of Islam has brought them into contact with groups like Al Qaeda. Markey argues that this has expanded their ideological perspective beyond their original Afghan-centrism to a more jihadi global world-view. This makes the Haqqanis more like international terrorists than regional militants.
The current debate, Markey says, centers on whether we should see the Haqqanis as just another narrow, regional militant group that can be brought into the fold of a future Afghanistan, or whether we should also see them as an international terrorist organization. This question, he says, divides the analytical community and its answer necessarily influences whether one thinks they could be included in a reconciliation process, whether they should be designated as an international terrorist organization (a step the administration has since taken), and how American forces should go after them.
The Pakistanis, Markey notes, claim to see the Haqqanis as merely a regional militant organization, not distinct from other factions of the Taliban or other Afghan militant groups. The only distinction the Pakistani government would make is that the Haqqanis are, comparatively, quite sophisticated and quite capable. The Pakistani government doesn’t see the ideological distinction as a meaningful one at all, and it doesn’t see the interactions between Al Qaeda and the Haqqanis as distinguishing the group from other Afghan militant groups in some fundamental way. That is the core of the dispute between the U.S. and Pakistani governments over the Haqqanis.
I then ask Markey about the possibility of Haqqani-U.S. reconciliation and the status of the negotiations with the Haqqanis. The Pakistani newspaper, the Express Tribune, had run a story shortly before this interview about alleged U.S. willingness to cede the control of three Afghan provinces to the Haqqanis if the group agreed to withdraw its support for the Taliban-led insurgency in Afghanistan. The paper claimed that it had gotten the information from a U.S. military source, but U.S. officials and the U.S. embassy in Islamabad quickly rejected the claim as false—and Markey seemed skeptical. He was surprised when he saw the piece, he says, as it didn’t sound like anything he had previously heard from any official U.S. government source. The only part that sounded real, he joked, was the U.S. government’s denial of the claims.
Markey says that, in principle, all kinds of potential deals could be on the table with the Haqqanis and the Taliban. But so many fundamental stumbling blocks remain to any negotiated settlement, that any deal is hard to imagine this early in the negotiating process. The negotiations have been fitful, hardly fruitful, and very frustrating, says Markey, and spoilers are lurking everywhere—within the Afghan government, outside the Afghan government but among Afghan groups, among the Pakistanis, among other regional players, and even within the U.S. government. With so many potential spoilers, Markey argues, don’t put much of a bet on the process as a whole.
I noted that Badruddin Haqqani, the day-to-day commander of the group and the son of its founder, had just been killed in a drone strike. How much of an impact was his death likely to have on the future of the group?
In some ways, Markey states, Badruddin Haqqani was uniquely placed. He was the son of the legendary Jalaluddin Haqqani, the founder of the group, and over the course of his lifetime, he had developed personal and political connections—relationships that would be hard to replicate in the group’s fundraising, smuggling, and other criminal activities. He also played a significant operational role in the group’s military operations inside Afghanistan. Moreover, the broader symbolic and political value of his loss is significant, because it drives home the point that the Haqqanis are not immune, and that its leaders are vulnerable even at the most senior levels. That’s a pretty big blow.
But Markey says he has not heard anyone say, even with this attack, that the Haqqanis have been significantly degraded, are less capable of waging war inside Afghanistan, or are less capable of waging war on the Pakistanis, should the Pakistanis turn on them. The Haqqanis remain significant, and their influence in Afghanistan, in North Waziristan, and their connections to the Gulf and parts of Pakistan, is strong enough to keep them viable as an organization—one that would really bloody the Pakistanis if they tried to take it on.
The Pakistanis and the Haqqanis
We then turn to the question of all questions: the relationship between the Haqqanis and the government of Pakistan. To what extent, I ask, are the Haqqanis really supported by either the military or civilian leaderships in Pakistan? And do we have any sense of how much support they really enjoy?
Markey explains that the Pakistani government is currently a coalition government, led by the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), a center-left, secular party, whose leadership clearly believes that extremists of various stripes are dangerous to Pakistan. This belief does not mean the PPP can do anything about the Haqqanis, he notes, but its leaders clearly think such groups present a problem. Extremist groups have also killed PPP leaders, including Benazir Bhutto. The PPP’s sympathies clearly lie with a more progressive, center-left view of the world. The problem, Markey says, is that the civilian government does not control the tools within the government that would allow them to combat these extremists in a real or robust way—which is why the military matters.
The military’s sympathies, in Markey’s view, are much harder to discern. The army chief, Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, has spoken about how the primary threat to Pakistan is an internal one, and how the country needs to address that threat. In doing so, he is presumably preparing the country for another military offensive in parts of North Waziristan. But while that’s the right message, Markey says that it is difficult to discern how that translates through a much more traditional, much more conservative military rank and file. The army is recruiting from the more conservative parts of Pakistan, Markey notes, and this means that many officers are far less sympathetic to the counterterrorism mission. The accounts of the backlash Gen. Kayani felt from the troops after the Osama bin Laden raid suggests that Pakistani troops were describing a humiliation at the hands of the U.S.—and that the United States was the problem. There is reason to worry that such sentiment is reflected throughout the Pakistani military—which makes some of the military institutionally reluctant to take on fights that officers think are being waged for the benefit of the United States.
To the extent that the Pakistani army sees the Haqqanis as a regional militant organization that is primarily interested in parts of Afghanistan, is just responding to a U.S. military invasion of Afghanistan, and has never taken up arms directly against the Pakistani state, the idea of turning on them for the benefit of the Americans will have no resonance, Markey says. On the other hand, if the United States can reframe the issue by demonstrating that the Haqqanis are a group that has indirectly supported the Pakistani Taliban (who have attacked the Pakistani military), has indirectly supported Al Qaeda (which has attacked inside Pakistan), and will only cause trouble for Pakistan in the future, then the Pakistani military’s sentiment might be different. But this reframing, he states, hasn’t happened yet.
The Pakistanis and the Taliban
I ask Markey about the likelihood that the Taliban will come back to the negotiating table after the suspension of talks in March. The broader question, he argues, is whether the Taliban sees any utility in cutting a deal with the Americans or the Afghans—or whether it sees these negotiations as a way to buy time to continue to prosecute a war that the group believes it can win. Unfortunately, Markey says, Taliban leaders still seem to think that they can succeed, that time is on their side, and that they can create momentum towards a U.S. departure without actually settling on an agreement. Markey does not envision a “big bang deal” that will end the war, bring the Taliban into the political fold in Afghanistan, and solve all of America’s problems—but he does believes that the motives and goals of the Taliban may differ internally, so it may be possible to peel away parts of the Taliban through negotiations.
Markey says his frustrations have stemmed from the fact that by revealing the speed of troop withdrawals and the U.S. and NATO’s timetables for departure, the United States gives Taliban leaders and some people inside Pakistan greater hope that they can simply wait it out. The looming sense of the U.S.’s departure has been counterproductive for everything the U.S. has been trying to do inside of Afghanistan—such as enhancing the security efforts with the Afghan forces.
ISI-CIA Relations and a Pakistani Military Offensive
Pakistan’s new ISI chief, Lt. Gen. Zaheerul-Islam, recently visited Washington to meet with U.S. officials and CIA head David Petraeus, and I ask Markey for his impression of the talks.
Despite all the media buzz in both the United States and Pakistan, Markey believes that the visit was less of negotiating session and more of a getting-to-know-you session—and not a very successful one at that. He cautions that the drone issue may have come up, and Lt. Gen. Zaheerul-Islam may have asked that the United States put an end to drone strikes, as some reports have said. Likewise, the ISI chief may not even have brought it up, knowing that the issue was a non-starter, and knowing that some of these drone strikes are helpful to the Pakistanis themselves, particularly when they hit Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) targets.
Markey says that operational cooperation between the Pakistani ISI and the American CIA has always existed. Granted, it has ebbed and flowed to some degree—and taken a real hit after, for example, the Osama bin Laden raid and the Raymond Davis affair. But some measure of cooperation has persisted all the way through. Operational cooperation, however, does not generally rise to the level of a conversation between the heads of the two agencies; they were probably engaged in a more strategic-level dialogue, says Markey. However, his sense of the talks is that there were no big breakthroughs at the strategic level.
I then ask Markey about the Pakistani army’s statement that it will launch a major military offensive in North Waziristan to root out terrorists. Given that previous offensives in the FATA have dragged on for months, and that a counter-offensive is a serious possibility, how effective is the military campaign likely to be? In addition, how big of an impact is it likely to have on American counterterrorism operations?
Markey explains the likely short-term implications of a military offensive: as the Pakistani army slowly builds up its forces and gradually prepares for the operation, terrorists based in the area have ample opportunity to scatter or to entrench. Scattering is more likely, he says—into neighboring tribal agencies, just across the border into Afghanistan, or to other areas where they may be able to evade U.S. forces on the ground. The U.S. government will be watching for this as much as it can. However, the really bad guys, says Markey, have already heard that this operation is on the horizon and are probably already on the move. A military offensive will thus create new opportunities for the United States to target terrorists. As terrorists move, they get exposed, and those who were really underground, or who were constantly surrounded by women and children (and therefore were not easily targetable), will now be on the radar screen.
The downside to this scattering effect is that for all the U.S.’s complaining about the lack of a Pakistani military presence in North Waziristan, the enemy has been essentially contained in a confined space and not spread throughout Pakistan or Afghanistan—enabling the use of drones and other surveillance in this part of the FATA to identify and kill targets more effectively. A Pakistani military offensive could mean that these terrorists find new hiding places, making it more difficult for the United States to pick them out in the future.
The broader problem, says Markey, is, once again, capacity. The Pakistani army is good at heavy military movements and at effectively occupying territory. But this isn’t a permanent solution, and it has resulted in a backlash from local populations in the past—one that has made it harder for the military to stay engaged. The Pakistani army’s preference has been to conduct “clearing” operations and skip the “hold and build” steps. This sends people scattering, causes a lot of immediate disruption, and a fair amount of loss of life and destruction of property—but it doesn’t solve the underlying problem. It is a very short-term strategy, not what the United States thinks of as a good counterinsurgency strategy. While there is definitely some utility in this strategy, because some jihadist groups are very entrenched in North Waziristan and clearing them out can be useful, the Pakistani army doesn’t have the forces to leave behind. It doesn’t have a civilian administration the people can trust. And the local populations are either untrustworthy or not powerful enough to stand up to returning militants and terrorists. All in all, Markey concludes, the fallout of a military campaign is terribly difficult for the Pakistanis to manage even under the best circumstances.