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.
Politicians hyped an inflated threat from the Soviets, just as they do with today’s enemies
During the so-called Missile Gap period, American politicians and the public believed that the Soviet Union had hundreds of intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), outmatching the US in bombing capabilities. But over 189 documents were recently released which “showed the Soviets didn’t really have an advantage,” Chief of the CIA’s Historical Collections Division Bruce S. Barkan said.
John F. Kennedy showed himself stronger on defense by hyping this “gap” when debating Richard Nixon for the presidency, and continued to inflate the threat during his term. But one of the documents from Sept. 21, 1961 debunked this theory, providing evidence that the Soviets only had four ICBMs.
During the Eisenhower administration, there was a concern about a “bomber gap,” that the Soviets had more bomber aircraft than the US. The CIA discredited this and by 1957, the bomber gap concept turned into the missile gap.
The government has a record of inflating security threats and parallels can be drawn with today’s supposed threats. Iran is consistently hyped as a major threat, specifically a nuclear threat, despite leaked intelligence that there is no nuclear weapons program. Before the 2003 US invasion, the threat from Iraq too was inflated, to tragic effect. Similarly, terrorism is recognized by many experts as a much weaker threat than Washington makes it out to be.
Overestimating the Soviet threat during the Cold War not only led to an enormous and unnecessary build-up of arms, it served as the justification for various deadly wars abroad and the loss of civil liberties at home. Today’s threat inflation has similar consequences in both foreign and domestic policy.