Beyond the recent verbal confrontation between US and Pakistani officials about the Haqqani network lies a delicate political-military effort to draw the Haqqanis into an end-game strategy for the war in Afghanistan. Admiral Mike Mullen, the departing chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, rebuked the Pakistani spy service, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) directorate, for using the Haqqani network as its "veritable arm" in Afghanistan. But US officials know that the ISI also facilitated a secret meeting during the last several months between the US and a representative of the Haqqani clan. This is the double game that's always operating in US-Pakistani relations.
Some US officials believe that the recent wave of attacks by the Haqqanis on US targets in Afghanistan may, in fact, reflect the determination of hard-line members of the clan to derail any move toward negotiation. The US wants the Pakistani military's help in isolating and destroying these "unreconcilable" elements of the network.
The sparring with Pakistan illustrates the wider dilemma of the Afghan war. How does the US bring pressure on the Haqqanis and other Taliban factions, even as it withdraws troops with a 2014 deadline for completing its mission? As Husain Haqqani, Pakistan's ambassador to the US, has said: "The more the U.S. says it wants to leave Afghanistan, the harder it will be to leave."
What angered Mullen and other US officials was Pakistan's failure to act on intelligence reports about planned Haqqani attacks. A timeline helps untangle the threads of the dispute:
On September 8, General John Allen, the Nato commander in Afghanistan, is said to have warned General Ashfaq Kayani, the Pakistani army chief, that two truck bombs had been assembled in Miran Shah, the Haqqanis' base in North Waziristan, and were headed for Afghanistan. Kayani is said to have pledged he would take action.
On September 10, one of those truck bombs struck a Nato base in Wardak, east of Kabul, wounding 77 US soldiers. That triggered Mullen's anger. Some senior officials concede that Pakistan may not have had enough time, or precise 'actionable' intelligence, to stop the bomb-laden truck.
On September 13, insurgents from the Haqqani network attacked the US embassy compound in Kabul. Though Mullen mentioned this attack in his denunciation of ISI-Haqqani links, US officials don't see clear evidence of a Pakistani role in planning or executing the operation, a message the CIA privately communicated to Islamabad. But in the days after the bombing, US officials presented Pakistan with a series of 'what ifs', to convey the danger of the situation: What if the 77 soldiers at Wardak had been killed? What if the US ambassador in Kabul had died? What then?
On September 18, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met with the Pakistani foreign minister and delivered the first of a series of US rebukes, asking how Pakistan could promote the Haqqanis as a prospective negotiating partner and yet sit by idly while they attacked Americans.
On September 25 and 26, two long-time congressional supporters of Pakistan, Senators Lindsey O Graham and Mark Kirk, warned of a halt in military aid. But scheduled military discussions continue, with General James Mattis, the head of US Central Command, visiting Islamabad last weekend and warning that Pakistan had to choose sides.
The message seems to have gotten through to Pakistani military leaders, who reportedly concluded at a secret commanders' conference on Monday that they don't want a confrontation with the US. But surely, this is a sick relationship when the partners have to go to the brink of open confrontation to get the other side to listen.
With all the noise about the Haqqanis, it's important to remember that the real issue here is the larger war in Afghanistan. President Barack Obama's goal remains a political settlement with "reconcilable" elements of the Taliban, and secret contacts have been continuing around the world. The message to the Haqqanis is that they can protect political power in their ancestral homeland in Paktika, Paktia and Khost provinces by coming to the table now.But does the Taliban - or the Pakistani government, for that matter - take the US strategy seriously? How can the US gain enough leverage to tip the process toward negotiation? That's what this war of words was really about.
The views expressed by the author are personal.