Admiral Mike Mullen unleashed a diplomatic firestorm last week with his testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee alleging that Pakistan’s spy agency, the Directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), played a direct role in supporting the insurgent’s deadly attack on the American Embassy in Kabul last week. According to Adm. Mullen, the departing chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and one of the nation’s top military officers, the insurgents who attacked the Embassy were “a veritable arm” of Pakistan’s spy agency.
Adm. Mullen’s remarks come after heavily armed insurgents wearing suicide vests struck the United States Embassy and the nearby NATO headquarters in the south of Kabul on September 13, 2011. The attack left 11 civilians and at least four police and 10 insurgents dead. An attack just three days prior, which was one of the worst tolls for foreign troops in a single attack since the commencement of the war, left 77 coalition soldiers wounded. In addition to connecting these attacks to the ISI, Mullen stated, “We also have credible intelligence that they were behind the 28 June attack against the Inter-Continental Hotel in Kabul and a host of other smaller but effective operations.”
When asked again about his testimony later in the week on National Public Radio’s Morning Edition, Mullen decisively affirmed his prior statements, asserting he would not change “a word.” He declared, “I phrased it the way I wanted it to be phrased.” In his interview with Morning Edition host, Steve Inskeep, Mullen explained, “I am losing American soldiers. The Haqqanis are killing American soldiers. And from that perspective, I think it’s got to be addressed, which is the reason I spoke to it.” However, Mullen did make clear that he would not go as far as saying the Haqqanis are acting out the will of the Pakistani government, reiterating that he had only “talked about them supporting it,” not directing it.
Since his testimony the White House and State Department have attempted to temper Mullen’s remarks. For example, when White House press secretary Jay Carney was asked whether the Haqqani network was “a veritable arm” of the ISI, Carney told the press, “It’s not language I would use.” Likewise, two administration officials said Mullen had overstated the precision of evidence linking the ISI to the recent attacks. However, while the White House seemed to shy away from Mullen’s bold language, the Obama Administration, as well as the State Department, have supported the broader claim that “links” exist between the Haqqani network and the ISI. Moreover, there are even those within the White House and Congress who feel that Pakistan was complacent in protecting Osama bin Laden whom was living in plain view in a compound just miles from Islamabad last May. In short, while United States’ officials generally agree that Pakistan’s intelligence agency supports the Haqqani network, Mullen ratcheted up the Pakistan-US tension when he asserted that support extended to the high-profile attacks aimed directly at the United States.
The universal reaction in Pakistan has been one of outrage, with both Pakistan’s civilian and military leaders denying the accusation. In an interview with NPR, Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar said having “links” to those networks doesn’t mean Pakistan is involved in an attack. Knar pointedly stated, “I can assure you that your intelligence agency would have links with the same people, maybe.” Likewise, Rehman Malik, Pakistan’s Interior Minister, denied accusations of ISI involvement in the Afghanistan attacks, stating, “If you say that it is ISI involved in that attack, I categorically deny it.”
While there is a difference of opinions on the events leading up to Mullen’s statement, all sides seem to acknowledge that, rightly or wrongly, his testimony has further strained the already shaky relationship between the U.S. and Pakistan. Mullen himself acknowledged that there is a “huge trust deficit” and that it’s a “difficult relationship.” Shortly after the statements were made, Secretary of State Hilary Rodman Clinton also acknowledged the frayed relationship between the two countries, while some members of Congress suggested that aid to Pakistan be halted. Likewise, BBC correspondent M Ilyas Khan explained, “These comments are just the latest and most extreme in a series of statements that will be seen in Pakistan as incendiary.”
However, it seems that there is one thing Mullen and both governments do agree on: that although the relationship between Pakistan and U.S. is strained, it needs to be maintained. This mutual acknowledgment of the requisite to maintain a working relationship is evident through Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s statement that “we’re going to continue to work with our Pakistani counterparts to try to root [terrorists] out and prevent them from attacking Pakistanis, Americans, Afghans or anyone else.” Similarly, U.S. Ambassador to Pakistan, Cameron Munter, has stated that Washington believes in a long-term collaboration with Pakistan. Consequently, as of October 1, the two countries seem to have pulled back from the brink: a diplomat stated that the two countries had gone the extra mile this week to defuse tension and there has been talk of an All Parties Conference, convened by the Prime Minister to discuss the recent events. Moreover, the incoming Chairman Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen Martin Dempsey, will also visit Pakistan in an attempt to repair ties with the Pakistani military leadership.