Osama bin Laden’s death has closed a chapter in history and opened another in the rocky decades-old marriage between the United States and Pakistan, with the relationship being put to one of its biggest tests following the damning revelation that the world’s most-hunted man wasn’t cowering in a remote mountain cave, but instead living fairly comfortably in a military town not very far from the Pakistani capital.
The discovery has reignited fears that the United States has been sleeping with an enemy, funneling roughly $20 billion in civilian and military assistance into Pakistan since 2001, all while the country has been turning a blind eye to uprooting the violent groups — or sheltering them — that U.S. policymakers warn could destabilize the volatile region.
What’s more, experts say, the United States may have little choice but to stay wedded to Pakistan, a Muslim-majority nation that is still largely secular and home to a large nuclear arsenal. Above all, the U.S. government wants to keep those nukes from falling into the hands of radical Islamists that have both cozied up to and, more recently, challenged the government. Pakistan is also pivotal to American efforts in Afghanistan, and eventually winding down that war, as well as the wider campaign against extremist militants in the region.
Pitifully in Plain Sight
But none of that can whitewash the fact that the world’s most-wanted terrorist was hiding in plain sight in Pakistan, exposing the dark undercurrents of this dysfunctional bilateral relationship. The resulting frustration, confusion and anger have been more than palpable on Capitol Hill.
More than anything else, lawmakers remain baffled as to how bin Laden flew under the radar for so long while living inside a hulking white compound in Abbottabad — smack dab inside a garrison city surrounded by the Pakistani military and close to an academy that’s the equivalent of West Point, all a short drive from Islamabad.
Some lawmakers have surmised that elements of the Pakistani military must have been complicit in harboring bin Laden or they’re simply incompetent. How, they also ask, could four U.S. helicopters fly more than 100 miles inside Pakistani territory, get in a gunfight and then leave undetected? Whether it’s duplicity or ineptitude or sheer intransigence, it doesn’t exactly instill confidence in a strategically vital country that receives roughly $3 billion in annual military and development assistance.
For its part, the Pakistani government has vehemently defended itself, pointing out that al-Qaeda’s spiritual leader eluded the entire world for more than decade. Moreover, it says Pakistan has lost more lives — an estimated 2,000 police officers and 30,000 civilians — in the fight against terrorism than any other nation. In fact, less than two weeks after the raid that killed bin Laden, twin suicide bombings killed at least 80 cadets outside a paramilitary training center in Pakistan’s northwest. Police believe the attack was most likely retaliation for the army’s stepped-up offensive against insurgents in Pakistan’s lawless tribal areas.
As John Brennan, President Obama’s counterterrorism advisor, put it recently: “Pakistan has been responsible for capturing and killing more terrorists inside of Pakistan than any country, and it’s by a wide margin.”
Those arguments have failed to placate a number of lawmakers who are clamoring to suspend U.S. financial support for Pakistan until the nation’s leaders prove they knew nothing about bin Laden’s whereabouts and that they’re committed to fighting the terrorism living inside their borders. And given the current belt-tightening climate, lawmakers across the political spectrum say U.S. taxpayers can’t afford to burn money on a country that’s not trustworthy.
The day after the bin Laden killing, Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) said the Pakistani government has “a lot of explaining to do.” Levin has joined his colleagues Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, and Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), who chairs the Appropriations panel overseeing Pakistan aid, in assessing whether to give Pakistan additional funding and whether conditions should be placed on it.
Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), the ranking Republican on the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, perhaps best summed up the overriding concern when she questioned whether Pakistan — after years of denials that it was hiding bin Laden — was playing a “double game.”
Many experts say Pakistan’s “double game” has involved capturing second-tier jihadists to appease American concerns while protecting others who remain key to Islamabad’s strategic interests. Pakistan has a long history of using militant groups such as the Haqqani network and Lashkar-e-Taiba as proxies against its rivals, namely India and Afghanistan. Moreover, Pakistani mistrust of the United States has an equally long history, with Islamabad hedging its bets that U.S. forces will abandon the region just as they have in the past. (Pakistan, for instance, remains wary of cracking down on the Taliban for fear it will eventually regain some power in Afghanistan after the Americans leave.)
Games though abound on both sides. The Obama administration has waged a covert campaign using Predator drones to target senior militants inside Pakistan, sometimes with tacit approval from the Pakistani military, which has faced a barrage of violent attacks from the Islamists they once nurtured.
But bin Laden may have been the breaking point in U.S.-Pakistani military cooperation, however imperfect, and the rules of the game may have changed.
The Obama administration purposely kept the Pakistanis in the dark about the raid. And the backlash from the Pakistanis has been fierce. Officials condemned the United States for sending Navy Seals onto their sovereign soil without permission, with Pakistan’s spy chief, Lt. Gen. Ahmed Shuja Pasha, denouncing the move as a “sting operation.” Reports have also suggested that Pakistani authorities likely leaked the name of a CIA station chief in Islamabad to news outlets as retribution for the bin Laden raid.
Meanwhile, the Pakistani Parliament has demanded a permanent halt to all drone strikes, and even before the raid, the army was pushing American forces to significantly limit its reliance on the drones — despised by the public — after a diplomatic crisis erupted over the arrest of a CIA officer accused of killing two Pakistanis during an alleged botched robbery.
President Obama, while pressing Pakistan for answers, has also sought to play up ties despite the rupture. “Over the years, I’ve repeatedly made clear that we would take action within Pakistan if we knew where bin Laden was,” Obama said in announcing bin Laden’s death. “That is what we’ve done. But it’s important to note that our counterterrorism cooperation with Pakistan helped lead us to bin Laden and the compound where he was hiding. Indeed, bin Laden had declared war against Pakistan as well, and ordered attacks against the Pakistani people.”
At the same, the president, speaking to “60 Minutes,” made it clear that Pakistanis had to answer for bin Laden residing under their noses. “We think that there had to be some sort of support network for bin Laden inside of Pakistan. But we don’t know who or what that support network was … and that’s something that we have to investigate and, more importantly, the Pakistani government has to investigate.”
In fact, in the days after the raid, Obama ratcheted up the number of drone airstrikes on terrorist suspects — moves that have been celebrated by lawmakers and defense leaders here, but embarrassed military officials in Pakistan and stoked the flames of anti-American sentiment there.
The diplomatic debacle has put Husain Haqqani, Pakistan’s ambassador to the United States, in a tough political pinch, with security stepped up at the embassy in Washington as a result of threatening phone calls and emails Haqqani said he’s received since the raid. He’s been busy trying to assure Americans that his country is doing all that it can to “to put to rest any misgivings the world has about our role” in bin Laden’s hideout, while also acknowledging Pakistan’s evident shortcomings, suggesting its preoccupation with the threat from India may have been a factor for not uncovering bin Laden.
“Heads will roll once the investigation has been completed. Now, if those heads are rolled on account of incompetence, we will share that information with you. And if, God forbid, somebody’s complicity is discovered, there will be zero tolerance for that as well,” Haqqani told ABC’s “This Week.”
At the same time, Haqqani has pushed back against the flood of criticism, pointing out that more senior al-Qaeda terrorists have been captured or killed in Pakistan than in any other country.
“Be clear, we have been victims of terrorism, and we will see this through, and we will share our intelligence with everyone that we have to share this intelligence with,” Haqqani told ABC.
The ambassador — who last year told CNN that whoever thinks Pakistan is willfully hiding bin Laden “is smoking something they shouldn’t be smoking” — also suggested that U.S. priorities in the region may have been misplaced, helping the terrorist mastermind evade capture. “The United States spent much more money in Iraq than it did in Afghanistan. Then it spent much more money in Afghanistan than it did in Pakistan. So were there cracks through which things fell through? Absolutely, and we’ll investigate that. We’ll get to the bottom of it.”
Question of Trust vs. Necessity
In this heated backdrop of blame, President Obama and top congressional leaders are walking a dangerous tightrope, balancing their calls for clarification and accountability, while reassuring Pakistan that the bilateral relationship remains critical, which it does.
Some administration officials in fact have hinted that the successful mission may give them more leverage in pressuring the Pakistanis to cooperate with the U.S. more, not less.
Despite the anger on both sides, some mutual softening of positions has been evident. After stalling, Pakistani officials allowed American investigators access to bin Laden’s three widows. They also agreed to return the tail of the U.S. military helicopter that was damaged during the raid, following a May 16 visit by Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) in a bid to reduce tensions. Kerry, who helped to develop a massive economic aid package for Pakistan, said he was visiting the country in an attempt to “recalibrate” the relationship, arguing that it would be foolish to cut off assistance but also urging specific actions from Pakistan to alleviate congressional concerns.
“The make-or-break is real,” Kerry, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told reporters. “There are members of Congress who aren’t confident that [the relationship] can be patched back together again. That is why actions, not words, are going to be critical to earning their votes.”
Not everyone is clamoring to cut off aid, however. House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), for instance, agrees with Kerry that Pakistan remains an indispensable ally. “We both benefit from having a strong bilateral relationship. This is not a time to back away from Pakistan,” he told reporters. “We need more engagement, not less.”
Indeed, Washington policymakers are scratching their heads over whether they should blindly fund the bilateral marriage. Between the harsh rhetoric and words of support, there’s also a sense of exasperation with the inevitable reality.
“This is one of the most complicated, maybe the most complicated security-intelligence relationship we have with any nation in the world,” Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.), chairman of the Senate Homeland Security Committee, told reporters shortly after bin Laden’s death. “On the one hand, the fact is, they do give us very helpful intelligence assistance and military assistances. On the other hand, we have a lot of reason to believe that elements of their intelligence community continue to be very closely in touch with and perhaps supportive of terrorist groups that are fighting us and the Afghans in Afghanistan.”
The conundrum facing Capitol Hill is that although neither side trusts the other, cooperation between the two countries is most likely the lesser of two evils.
“They are codependent in the fight against militancy and terror: the United States in trying to exit Afghanistan in an orderly fashion, Pakistan in trying to contain its internal insurgencies,” Shuja Nawaz, director of the Atlantic Council’s South Asia Center, recently wrote.
Eric Edelman, a former top policy official at the Pentagon, agrees. “The sad truth is that as long as we’re involved in Afghanistan, we need to maintain some form of working relationship with Pakistan,” Edelman told Yochi J. Dreazen of the National Journal. “They’re a weak ally, and they always have the power that the weak ally has over the stronger ally, which is that they can say to us, ‘Be our friend, or we may roll over and die.’ “
Nawaz though says “the stakes may be higher for Pakistan since it remains captive of its geography and heavily tied to the U.S. aid program and the coalition support funds that sustain its battles against the Pakistani Taliban. It may be a bad marriage, once again, but not one that affords an easy divorce. Perhaps a separation, followed by reconciliation?”
Breaking Up Is Hard to Do
A breakup simply isn’t an option, most analysts agree. It’s a love-hate relationship fueled by mutual mistrust and necessity — one that’s so complex, it can be difficult to distinguish between friend or foe.
“It is hard to imagine a more complicated bilateral relationship,” Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, told members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in May. “Pakistan is at most a limited partner; it is not an ally, and at times it is not even a partner.”
With a population of 180 million people, Pakistan is teeming with some of the highest levels of anti-U.S. sentiment in the world — fueled by the perception that America’s war against terrorism is just that, America’s war and not Pakistan’s, even though they see their country bearing the brunt of that conflict.
Pakistan is also armed with a growing arsenal of nuclear weapons (which a large number of Pakistanis fear the United States ultimately wants to seize, one of the many conspiracy theories that drives the anti-American fervor). And it has served as a staging ground for al-Qaeda, the Afghan Taliban and other extremist groups accused of crossing into Afghanistan to carry out attacks against U.S. and allied troops.
Meanwhile, it has consistently teetered on the edge of war with archrival India, which the Pakistani military still views as its most fundamental threat, not the terrorist groups Americans want them to target. The country has also struggled to shake its history of military dictatorship, with a weak civilian government and a moribund economy reliant on development assistance. High levels of poverty and low levels of education are rampant.
For all these reasons, many U.S. policymakers think Pakistan is the most important country in the region for American interests — not Afghanistan.
“Pakistan is widely acknowledged to be more important than Afghanistan given its population, its arsenal of nuclear weapons, the presence of large numbers of terrorists on its territory, and the reality that developments in Pakistan can have a profound impact on the trajectory of India, sure to be one of the most important countries in the world,” Haass said in his testimony.
“A stable Afghanistan is not essential; a stable Pakistan is essential,” the late envoy Richard Holbrooke wrote in the musings he left behind to his wife, as reported by Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times.
“As for Pakistan, Holbrooke told me and others that because of its size and nuclear weaponry, it was center stage; Afghanistan was a sideshow,” Kristof wrote. “Holbrooke was frustrated by Islamabad’s duplicity. But he also realized that Pakistan sheltered the Afghan Taliban because it distrusted the United States, particularly after the United States walked away in 1989 after the Soviet pullout from Afghanistan. And renewed threats of abandonment won’t build trust.”
Yet this scenario poses various problems for the Obama administration’s desire to eventually pare down the U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan. It doesn’t want to leave the country vulnerable to Pakistani-based extremist groups, and has to assure Pakistani officials that the withdrawal will not leave Afghanistan vulnerable to an India power grab that would leave Islamabad encircled by rivals. Moreover, keeping troops in Afghanistan hinges in large part on the enormous supply train running through Pakistan that requires the country’s daily cooperation.
In his book “Descent Into Chaos,” Ahmed Rashid argues that the presence of al-Qaeda and other groups in Pakistan is symptomatic of broader problems — “an acute sense of insecurity” and “continuing identity crises” that have plagued the nation since its birth in 1947.
“As a result, it has developed into a national security state in which the army has monopolized power and defined the national interest as keeping archenemy India at bay, developing nuclear weapons, and trying to create a friendly government in Afghanistan,” Rashid said. “The development of political institutions, a constitution, democracy and prosperous economy — the true indicators of national security — have been considered secondary. Two relationships have dominated the politics of the country: that between military power and civil society and the one between Islam and the state.”
Interestingly, Haqqani, before he became ambassador in Washington, also mused on his country’s conflicted relationship with military power in his book “Pakistan: Between Mosque and Military” — in which he admitted that “although listed among the U.S. allies in the war on terrorism, Pakistan cannot be easily characterized as either friend or foe.”
“Some of its security concerns, such as the need for a credible deterrent against India, are real, but the Pakistani military’s desire for institutional supremacy within the country has created psychological and political layers to the Pakistani nation’s sense of insecurity,” he wrote. “The alliance between mosque and military in Pakistan maintains, and sometimes exaggerates, these psycho-political fears and helps both the Islamists and the generals in their exercise of political power.”
According to Michael Hirsh, chief correspondent for the National Journal, “Haqqani argued that Pakistani leaders going back to the nation’s founder, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, and Pakistani generals have constantly used the unifying principle of Islam and the perceived threat from Hindu India to build a national identity,” he wrote. “This helps explain everything from the military’s decades-old effort to build up an Islamist insurgency in disputed Kashmir to Islamabad’s successful strategy of aiding and building up the Taliban in neighboring Afghanistan during the 1990s.
“But it has proved to be something of a Faustian bargain,” Hirsh added. “Many jihadists the Pakistanis once considered ‘theirs’ have since aligned themselves with the Taliban or al-Qaida, and even launched plots against … other Pakistani officials.”
As Haqqani himself wrote at the time, because the military’s strategic focus remains consumed with building counterweights to India, only democracy “can gradually wean the country from Islamic extremism.”
This is easier said than done, however, and requires a shift in U.S. strategy, using its financial leverage over the Pakistani military while bolstering the weak civilian government.
“Pakistan’s relations with the United States have been part of the Pakistani military’s policy tripod that emphasizes Islam as a national unifier, rivalry with India as the principal objective of the state’s foreign policy, and an alliance with the United States as a means to defray the costs of Pakistan’s massive military expenditures,” the ambassador wrote.
“Washington should no longer condone the Pakistani military’s support for Islamic militants, its use of its intelligence apparatus for controlling domestic politics, and its refusal to cede power to a constitutional democratic government,” he added, suggesting the very conditions on aid now being proposed on Capitol Hill.
Stop-and-Go Revenue Stream
But it’s still the military that runs the show in Pakistan, along with the country’s all-powerful Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) spy agency, which has been a source of friction with the U.S. government for years.
The ISI openly supported the Taliban until Sept. 11, 2001. Since then, it has publicly distanced itself from the group, although many analysts believe that at least elements within the spy service maintain links to the Taliban and other groups such as the Haqqani network as a “strategic hedge,” as U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates put it, to preserve Pakistani influence in Afghanistan once U.S. troops pull out.
Another concern is that Pakistan is simply playing both sides, publicly keeping the Taliban at bay, while privately funneling financial assistance to them, part of which comes from the U.S. Congress.
That’s why lawmakers have considered scaling back or attaching strings to the funding. If they do, it would not be the first time the flow of financial assistance has been suspended or scaled back — a revenue stream that’s been going to Pakistan on and off since 1954.
Military aid slowed between 1965 and 1971 because of Pakistan’s two wars with India. In 1979, President Carter cut aid after it was discovered Pakistan had a uranium-enrichment facility.
Washington tried to renew financial ties after the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979, but Pakistani leader Gen. Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq balked at the initial offer of $400 million, calling it “peanuts.” A year later though, the revenue river swelled after President Reagan entered office, agreeing to a five-year deal worth $3.2 billion, including the sale of 40 F-16 fighters.
“Between 1982 and 1990 the CIA, working with the ISI and Saudi Arabia’s intelligence service, funded the training arrival and arming of some 35,000 Islamic militants from 43 Muslim countries around in Pakistan madrassas to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan,” Rashid, author of “Descent Into Chaos,” wrote. “This global jihad launched by Zia and Reagan was to sow the seeds of al-Qaeda and turn Pakistan into the world center of jihadism for the next two decades.”
After the fall of the Soviet Union, President George H.W. Bush cut off military funds and significantly pared back other assistance, partly because of concerns over the country’s nuclear weapons program and the simple fact that the United States lost interest in the country after the Soviets withdrew from Afghanistan — a move some Pakistanis still view as a slap in the face. The U.S. government again scaled back aid further in 1998 after the country tested nuclear weapons.
But following the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, Pakistan re-emerged as America’s biggest ally in the region practically overnight. Then President Pervez Musharraf, facing a stark ultimatum from the Bush administration, pledged allegiance to the U.S. fight against terrorism and ever since, the country has received more than $20 billion in assistance, with Congress approving a $7.5 billion civilian package for infrastructure and other projects as part of an attempt to convince Pakistan that U.S. interests extend beyond military cooperation.
Despite the recent uproar from many lawmakers, Congress has yet to signal that it will seriously pull the plug on aid to Pakistan.
“Distancing ourselves from Pakistan would be unwise and extremely dangerous,” said Sen. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.), the ranking Republican member on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “It would weaken our intelligence gathering, limit our ability to prevent conflict between India and Pakistan, further complicate military operations in Afghanistan, end cooperation on finding terrorists, and eliminate engagement with Islamabad on the security of its nuclear weapons.”
Sen. Kerry has driven home that point as well, saying there are “few countries as important to our national security right now as Pakistan.”
“A legitimate analysis concludes that it is undeniable that our relationship with Pakistan has helped us pursue our security goals,” Kerry told his colleagues in May, arguing that the United States has an important role to play in helping the more secular elements of Pakistani society trump extremism. “Will the forces of violent extremism grow more dominant, eventually overpowering the moderate majority?” he asked. “Or will Pakistanis recommit to the values espoused by the founder of their country, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, and come together to build a stable, moderate democracy, an economically vibrant and socially tolerant nation at peace with itself and its neighbors?”
He added: “No matter what we learn about these events that proceeded the killing of Osama bin Laden, we still have vital national security interests in this region and we have worked hard to build a partnership with Pakistan, fragile, and difficult and challenging as it may be at times, that allows us to pursue common threats and interests.”
Anna Gawel, managing editor of The Washington Diplomat, contributed to this report.
About the Author
Seth McLaughlin is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.