The Vexing U.S.-Pakistani Relationship Heads South, Post-bin Laden

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Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, and Pakistani Army chief of staff Gen. Ashfaq Kayani flying over Pakistan last year / DoD photo by Chad McNeeley

Pakistan is a recipe with all the ingredients for disaster: start with an engineer who steals blueprints for nuclear weapons, and succeeds in constructing the Islamic world’s first atomic bomb. Then he peddles those schematics to pretty much anyone will to pay. The country, a fragile democracy, is actually run by the army, part of which coddles the world’s most notorious terrorist groups, including al Qaeda. There is nothing al Qaeda wants more than some of Pakistan’s nuclear bombs. It’s ripe for ruin, which is why U.S. policy toward Islamabad has become increasingly dicey.

Sure it would feel good in Washington to severe ties with Pakistan and save the more than $2 billion in annual aid, but the real threat posed by terrorists in the tribal areas of northwest Pakistan keeps Washington in the game.

The twin humiliations — having the U.S. military sneak into Pakistan, undetected, and kill the world’s most wanted terrorist as he lived amid Pakistan’s past, present and future military elite — have made relations between the two nations even more rocky than usual.

The easiest way, from the U.S. perspective, to think of Pakistan is to think of it as two countries, run by two separate governments — one military (with most of the power) and one civilian (which most likely is telling the truth when it says it knew nothing of OBL’s whereabouts in Abbottabad).

Ridding Pakistan of terrorists is a stiff challenge. For decades, after all, the Pakistan government nurtured militias to harass Indian troops in Kashmir. As those forces grew and mutated following the Soviets’ 1979 invasion of Afghanistan, some elements metastasized in the mujahadeen and the Taliban who now represent a grave threat to the U.S. and other western states and their interests around the world.

“Pakistan is passing through one of the most dangerous periods of instability in its history,” Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies warned May 4. “A net assessment of the patterns of violence and stability indicate that Pakistan is approaching a perfect storm of threats, including rising extremism, a failing economy, chronic underdevelopment, and an intensifying war, resulting in unprecedented political, economic and social turmoil.”

Pakistan’s woes are deeply-rooted, Cordesman maintains. “Entrenched organizational interests including those of political, and security elites, as well as religious radicals, resist effective reform,” he wrote. “Successful reform efforts require a far better planned and managed stabilization strategy that addresses all of the various causes of extremism and violence and actually executes such plans in ways that implement real, large-scale reforms.”

But Washington is nearly unanimous that U.S. aid to Pakistan will have to continue, albeit with tighter rules and oversight.

The U.S., in this military-centric relationship, has never pushed Pakistan hard enough to deliver, according to a 2010 Rand Corp. study — Pakistan Can the United States Secure an Insecure State — authored by Pakistan expert Christine Fair and others. “Regrettably, the United States has not seriously held Pakistan accountable for its activities and policies that undermine U.S. policy objectives in Afghanistan and elsewhere,” it said, “fearing that reproof will cause Pakistan to cease cooperating with the United States even on the limited basis that it currently does.”

Fair explained Pakistan’s dual nature Monday. “The Pakistan military and the ISI set all major foreign policy, whether it is going to be engagement with Afghanistan, India or the United States,” she said. “The way Pakistan came into being, there was no civil bureaucracy to speak of — all of the institutions had to be created from scratch, and the army was the most coherent organization of all the incoherent organizations that Pakistan inherited.”

Shuja Nawaz, director of the South Asia Center at the Atlantic Council, argues that U.S. policy toward Pakistan has been too military-centric. “In supporting an autocratic military regime in the past, we ignored the needs of the people of Pakistan and led to their disenfranchisement by a civil and military elite,” Nawaz told the House Homeland Security Committee’s counter-terrorism subcommittee May 3. “Both the Soviet- Afghan war and after we had exited the scene, Pakistan took on a deeper regional role focusing on its historical rival, India, and fomenting uprisings across the eastern border in Kashmir. These chickens came home to roost in later years as the armed warriors of this jihad outgrew their controllers’ grasp and widened the scope of their activities beyond Kashmir to India proper and now perhaps to Europe and North America.”

The mood on Capitol Hill has turned bitterly anti-Pakistan. “The compound was just a stone’s throw away from the West Point of Pakistan,” complained Rep. Ted Poe, R-Texas, in a common refrain. “It would be like John Dillinger living across the street from the FBI building down the street and the FBI not knowing about it.” Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., said the relationship must change. “We know of fertilizer plants that aren’t being used to make fertilizer. They’re being used to kill our soldiers. We know they know that. We know that probably some of our resources are helping build their nuclear arsenal,” he said. “This gives us an opportunity now to sort of rearrange that relationship.”

Seasoned hands on the Hill are urging calm. “Distancing ourselves from Pakistan would be unwise and extremely dangerous,” Sen. Richard Lugar of Indiana, the senior Republican on the foreign relations committee, said at a May 5 hearing. “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.”

“The real conflict is not between the United States and Pakistan but within Pakistan itself,” Senator John Kerry, D-Mass., chairman of the committee, said as he opened that hearing into the vexing issue. “The battle is over what sort of nation Pakistan will become.”

Defense Secretary Robert Gates tried to put the best spin on the relationship. “If you had told me two and a half years ago that Pakistan would have 140,000 troops in the west, pulled from the Indian border, that they would have suffered thousands of casualties in the war in the FATA and elsewhere, that they would have driven the Taliban and al Qaeda out of South Waziristan and Swat, I’d have said that’s not going to happen. But it has.”

Gates, speaking to airmen in North Carolina, tried to explain Pakistan’s leeriness. “There’s no question that they hedge their bets,” he said. “Their view is that we have abandoned them four times in the last 45 years. And they’re still not sure we’re going to stay in the region. They saw us leave after the Soviets were thrown out of Afghanistan in 1989, 1988. And they’re not confident we won’t leave again when we’ve accomplished our mission in Afghanistan.”

Much of the past week in Washington has been spent debating the U.S.-Pakistan relationship. “It’s an open secret that since 9/11, the military has continued to crack down much more vociferously on some groups, such as being helpful to the U.S. in terms of hunting al Qaeda in the earlier part of the decade and also cracking down on groups like Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan than it has on other groups, like the Afghan Taliban, the Haqqani network, Lashkar-e-Taiba,” Stephen Tankel of the Carnegie Endowment for National Peace said May 3. “This is the infamous double game. And I think there’s no secret that some militants in Pakistan are treated much better than others.

“The U.S. is going to need to stay engaged with Pakistan,” Tankel said. “But the nature of that relationship is going to have to change — there’s going to have to be a lot more transparency…the U.S. is going to have to use this incident to try to find whatever leverage it can to really try to force a change in Pakistani behavior.”

For too long, the U.S. has been content to deal largely with Pakistani military officials. “Clearly, from an operational perspective, the fact that the U.S. executed this raid unilaterally suggests that there’s not a lot of faith in that relationship anymore,” Tankel said. “So this seems to me an opportunity to hit the reset button, if you will, and try to engage with a longer-term view towards promoting civilian governance in Pakistan.”

“Pakistan will be our long-term strategic challenge in the region,” Daniel Markey, a senior South Asia fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, said May 4. “It will be that because it’s growing rapidly in terms of its population, and because its nuclear program is large, and because if left to current trends and trajectories, this will be a country by mid-century of over 300 million people, many of whom are poorly educated and incapable of being productive citizens within the global marketplace. They will have few opportunities but to be disruptive unless things change.”

Killing bin Laden while Pakistan slept is the exclamation point on a deteriorating relationship. “We were already spiraling downward, particularly with respect to the military-to-military and intelligence relationship, for a variety of reasons, including the Raymond Davis affair, Pakistani concerns about the use of U.S. drones along the Afghanistan border, and so on,” Markey said.

“If we don’t handle this current situation smartly, there is very much a possibility that we will continue to spiral downward,” Markey said. “Not so much because it’s in our interests or even in Pakistan’s national interest to see a rift open up between the United States and Pakistan, but because they are human beings.” The Pakistani military is “probably deeply embarrassed” over what happened, Markey said, and this could lead to a war of words inside Pakistan. That, in turn, could inflame U.S. tensions on Capitol Hill, “where the level of skepticism, anger, frustration and concern about our relationship with Pakistan have probably never been higher.”

The bottom line stemming from the OBL mission is very clear, Markey suggested: “This is indeed a demonstration of our capability and our commitment, which has been doubted, very clearly, by the Pakistanis over the past few years and that they should be reminded and it should be clear to them that they’re dealing with a situation in which the United States most certainly means business and that similar tools, although not necessarily the same ones, can be used against their assets, whether they’re the Haqqani Network, whether they’re Lashkar-e-Taiba, and so on; and that eventually this will come to pass, that it is a matter of time; and that it’s better that we not have to do it, that they should do it instead.”

“The roll call of bad organizations, dangerous organizations in Pakistan is very long.” Fred Kagan of the American Enterprise Institute told a congressional committee May 3. “The bottom line is that Pakistan is home to probably the densest concentration of the most dangerous militant Islamist organizations in the world, and a number of those have been allowed to run fairly free within Pakistani territory for a variety of reasons.”

The double game must end, Kagan — a key architect of the 2007’s successful “surge” strategy in Iraq — believes. And it will require Islamabad to take three key steps. “Pakistan’s ruling elite will have to come to a consensus that supporting some militant Islamist groups as proxies, either in Afghanistan or in India, is a failing strategy,” Kagan said. “They will have to come to a consensus that all militant Islamists pose a threat to Pakistan and that none are, at the end of the day, able to be controlled by the state and used reliably and safely as proxies….And third, and this will probably be most difficult, they will have to come to a consensus about the need to conduct what will be long, very bloody, expensive, and difficult operations against a number of these organizations that are rather deeply rooted in Pakistani society and that go beyond the FATA into the Punjab, into Sindh, into the Pakistani heartland.”

“We don’t recognize that we talk separately with the civilian government and separately with the military authorities,” Nawaz said. “We’ve created or added to the dysfunctional quality of Pakistan by having these two parallel dialogues. I think it’s very critical for us to bring all of them together in the room…It’s very critical to talk to them together, have them understand the facts of life, have them understand that the United States is not prepared to pour money down a rat hole and that given the current situation in the United States of belt tightening that it’s not going to be possible to rely on money as the source.”

The Obama Administration, in trying to justify a continuing relationship with Islamabad, kept emphasizing the half-full strategy. “Our relationship with Pakistan, while it occasionally has its challenges, is a productive one,” Daniel Benjamin, the State Department’s counter-terror chief, told a House Foreign Affairs Committee subcommittee May 5. “More terrorists have been apprehended or killed in Pakistan than anywhere else, and that this collaboration between our countries has been absolutely vital to degrading the al Qaeda threat over quite a number of years.”

“The relations with Pakistan will never be good, but they are still necessary,” Moeed Yusuf, a South Asia expert at the U.S. Institute of Peace, said March 5. The ISI’s coddling of some terror groups “is a Frankenstein that has gotten out of hand.”

“When I visit Pakistan, I get the sense that the Pakistani business community, the political classes, get it that they have not future if they’re at constant war mentally with India,” Michael Krepon, a South Asia expert at the Henry L. Stimson Center, told the Kerry panel May 5. “I think a lot of people get it now. But the national security establishment, which is a rather important part of Pakistan, still doesn’t get it.” Even more surprisingly was the Pakistani president’s or prime minister’s lack of communication with the Pakistani people after the SEAL raid. “Neither one of these political leaders addressed the people directly after this momentous event,” he said. “It’s stunning to me.”

John McCreary was a long-time Defense Intelligence Agency analyst who now published the NightWatch blog. “Pakistani misinformation and misdirection programs remain at work,” he wrote Monday night. “The failure of Pakistani officials to mention the Intelligence Bureau as a target of investigation undermines the authenticity of their outrage and degrades the credibility of any Pakistani investigation. Bin Laden in Abbottabad would have been an Intelligence Bureau responsibility…The Intelligence Bureau is the rough equivalent of the US FBI. No investigation can be considered thorough that does not include the Intelligence Bureau.”

McCreary details why Pakistan is so leery of the U.S.:

“As for Pakistan, the US must decide about its relationship. The latest alliance with Pakistan, in a long and often broken line since World War II, is only eleven years old. It is based on coercion of a resisting General Musharraf to work with the inconstant Americans in late 2001, in the Pakistani view.

“Pakistani memories are long and mostly unfavorable. For example, older Readers will remember that Pakistan was an alliance partner in CENTO, between 1955 and 1979. Membership in CENTO, also known as The Baghdad Pact, did not benefit Pakistan during the 1965 war with India.

“Close ties to the US did not prevent Pakistan’s loss of East Pakistan and defeat by the Indian Army in 1971 or in the Kargil war in 1999. A virtual alliance with the US seems to have encouraged the US in making a surprise commando raid against bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad this month.

“The US relationship with Pakistan has shallow roots for another reason. An entire generation of Pakistani military officers have received no training in US military schools and courses because International Military Education and Training (IMET) was cut off in 1990. Chinese military authorities know more about the next generation of Pakistani military leaders than the US.

“Long after the US withdraws soldiers from Afghanistan, Pakistan will be important to the US because it has nuclear weapons that can be used against India and proliferated to Arab states. Secondly, it has close security relations with China that are not congruent with US interests in South Asia and the Middle East.

“The long term interests seem to outweigh the short term interests in doing more to control terrorists. Terrorists do damage, but nothing remotely comparable, yet, to the inescapable consequences of a potential nuclear war between Pakistan and India. Without exaggeration, millions of people would die in such a nuclear exchange, the first between two less developed nations.

“In the unavoidable tradeoffs between US tactical and strategic interests, one way out would be to tolerate Pakistani shortcomings on terrorism while focusing on maintaining the security of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons; on supporting a secular, elected government in Islamabad; on preventing nuclear war in South Asia, and on limiting the expansion of Chinese influence in the Indian Ocean region ‚Ķwith the proviso that whenever the US finds anti-US terrorists in Pakistan, it will kill them without permission, warning or apology. There is no need to turn up the heat on Pakistan; just continue doing what best serves the interests of a great power, going forward.”

Ever since 9/11, the U.S. and Pakistan have had what some call a “transactional” relationship — if Pakistan can been seen as working to reduce terrorism, the U.S. will keep the financial aid flowing. Washington has given Islamabad more than $20 billion since 9/11, but much of it appears to have been wasted or stolen. While much of the aid is supposed to be for only “incremental” costs incurred in fighting terrorists in western Pakistan, that hasn’t stopped Pakistan from submitting dubious bills — nor Washington from paying them.

The Pentagon paid Pakistan $200 million for radar expenses, for example, despite the fact that “terrorists in the FATA did not have air attack capability,” a 2008 report from the Government Accountability Office found. The U.S. also was paying Pakistan $800 a month to feed its sailors, while only $200 a month to feed its soldiers. It paid the Pakistani navy $5,700 per vehicle per month for damage to its “passenger cars and SUVs that were not involved in combat.” In contrast, U.S. taxpayers also paid $100 per month for damage done to Pakistani army vehicles that “were used to conduct military operations in the FATA and border region.”

In 2008, the U.S. approved shifting $116 million in anti-terrorism funding slated for Pakistan to be used to improve Islamabad’s fleet of F-16 jet fighters, a key weapon in its long-standing rivalry with India. “According to the Bush administration, providing F-16 fighter plane upgrades to Pakistan is critical counterterrorism assistance,” Rep. Brad Sherman, D-Calif., noted at a 2008 hearing of the House Foreign Affairs Committee’s subcommittee on terrorism, non-proliferation and trade. “The Taliban and al Qaeda do not have MiGs.”

But those F-16s sure came in handy the night the SEALs crossed Pakistan’s frontier and killed bin Laden: a pair of them scrambled after receiving word of the U.S. action. Fortunately, the SEALs had already left Pakistan with bin Laden’s body — and Pakistan’s national pride — before the F-16s ever left the ground.